Matt Cotton waited a long time to reunite with his former Voorhees travel teammates.
He waited the first three years of his high school career. He waited the first 30 days of this season. And then he waited some more, sitting out three-plus games after a brief debut as a senior guard for Eastern.
Cotton finally is healthy again and back on the court with old friends such as fellow seniors Jesse Barbera, Troy Edwards, and Onye Okoro, among others.
The addition of the 6-foot-5 Cotton, a Yale recruit and one of South Jersey’s most talented players, has the Vikings dreaming of a repeat of their eighth-grade days in the form of another championship.
“I was away from home for a long time,” Cotton said. “I wanted to come back home and play with my friends.”
Cotton, Barbera, Edwards, and Okoro were members of Voorhees’ eighth-grade travel team, which went 18-0 and won the league title. That team also included Mason Williams, a star senior guard at Penn Charter, and Jalen Collins, a standout senior swingman for Triton.
Eastern is 14-7 and ranked No. 9 in the Inquirer Top 25. The Vikings have played one of South Jersey’s most challenging schedules and have impressive wins over highly ranked squads such as Wildwood Catholic, St. Augustine, Atlantic City, and Bishop Eustace.
Cotton, a smooth lefthander who can shoot from distance and get to the rim, has been on the court for just one of those wins, scoring 17 in a 63-53 victory over then-No. 3 St. Augustine.
But Cotton’s return to health after a brief return to the sideline with a back injury has the Vikings thinking big in preparation for the South Jersey Group 4 tournament.
“He’s a great teammate and a great player,” Barbera said. “We all played together from fourth to eighth grade. It’s great to be together again.”
Said Edwards: “It’s great to be united. He can take us to a whole another level.”
Cotton attended Academy of the New Church in Bryn Athyn as a freshman and sophomore, and St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark, N.J., as a junior. Both schools are basketball powerhouses.
“I wanted to get my name out there,” Cotton said.
Cotton said he wanted to come home and play with his old friends as a senior, especially since he had made his college decision to attend Yale.
“My teammates are great people,” Cotton said. “They welcomed me back.”
Cotton, who enrolled at Eastern in September, sat out the first 30 days of the season under NJSIAA transfer rules. He made his debut Jan. 16 vs. Cherokee, scoring 26 in a 65-60 loss.
“I think our guys spent too much time just watching him,” Eastern coach Kevin Crawford said.
Cotton played in two more games, injuring his back in a 58-57 loss to Shore Conference power Christian Brothers Academy on Jan. 20. He had 21 that game before landing hard while attempting to block a shot.
“That was scary,” Cotton said.
Cotton sat out three games. He has been back for three. Cotton has averaged 18.1 points and scored in double figures in all six of his games.
“We’re still working through this,” Crawford said of integrating Cotton into the Vikings’ lineup. “He’s a great kid. He grew up with all these guys, so that makes it a lot easier.
“But we’re still working on figuring out how to make him our alpha male and make sure our guys aren’t just turning into spectators and making sure he works to make everybody around him better.”
Cotton believes the Vikings have time over the next couple of weeks to recapture the chemistry that marked that magical eighth-grade travel season.
“It means a lot to me,” Cotton said. “These are the guys I started with. I think it’s only right that I finish my high school career with them and try to make a run in the state playoffs.”