Times have changed for Pitman

TOMS RIVER, N.J. - Pitman is far from the first team to blend a group of athletes from different towns into a cohesive, championship-caliber unit.

But the Panthers are probably the first team from their school to do it.

Coach Kevin Crawford took responsibility for Pitman's having six men on the court in the final 10 seconds.

What Pitman pulled off this season is typical for non-public teams and also for teams that represent larger public high schools.

That's how it works at those programs. Athletes come from different grammar schools and middle schools - and sometimes from different high schools as transfer students - and the trick is to define roles and build chemistry and create a team greater than the sum of its parts.

That's what Pitman coach Kevin Crawford, his assistants, and all those athletes in those orange-and-black uniforms were able to accomplish this season.

That's how they won the Group 1 state title and how they pushed Group 4 champion Linden to the limit before losing, 64-60, in a bizarre ending Tuesday night.

But it wasn't easy.

Perhaps the best thing about Pitman's winning those state titles in boys' basketball in 1997 and 1998 was how the Panthers were a true "town" team - with brothers Joe and Jon Crispin and Ron Myers and Dan McMaster and a bunch of guys who grew up together.

That's what was so galvanizing to the people in Pitman - those were the same kids they used to see riding their bikes with their baseball gloves stuck in the handle bars on their way to the Little League field.

When Pitman won a baseball title in 2010, the vibe was the same. Star pitcher Steve Schuler and third baseman Dylan Colgate talked about riding to the state title game on the bus and comparing themselves to local heroes Joe and Jon Crispin.

It was the same story when the 2011 boys' basketball team led by Colgate and Luke Griffin won the South Jersey title.

Pitman always seems to epitomize the most wonderful thing about Group 1 sports, how the rosters are filled with kids who went to kindergarten together and played in youth leagues together and swam in the pools in each other's backyards.

That shared history and familiarity adds to the small-town atmosphere. Pitman senior Eric Stafford talked after the state-title win over Bloomfield Tech about how special it was to "know everybody in the stands."

This Pitman team was different.

Not worse. Not inferior.

Just different.

This team had 60 percent of its starting lineup - junior forward Tim Delaney, senior guard Darnell Foreman, and senior forward Tyler Wisniewski - with no real ties to the town.

Delaney and Foreman are tuition students. Wisniewski played his first three years of high school at Deptford.

"It actually was an obstacle for us," Stafford said. "It's hard to play with kids that you just met. You have to learn to play with each other, to get along with each other."

In a way, Pitman was more like a non-public team or one of those big regional high school teams - where the key is to get players from different towns and middle schools to accept roles and merge together into a cohesive unit.

Pitman became a great basketball team in March, digging on defense, battling on the backboards, sharing the ball.

They were at their best as underdogs - winning at top-seeded Schalick in the sectional final, stunning defending state champion Point Pleasant Beach in the state semifinals, outplaying North Jersey representative Bloomfield Tech in the state final.

They were sensational Tuesday night, rallying from a 13-point deficit to push Linden to the brink.

In the end, the Panthers were everything small-town Pitman wants its teams to be - unselfish, determined, responsible, resilient.

This might not have been a typical Pitman team.

But it sure was a team of which Pitman could be proud.