It was a signature season for the Cherry Hill East boys' basketball team.
Actually, it was more like three seasons.
Dave Allen coached one team. But he guided the Cougars through three distinct phases, remaining steadfast and consistent through the kinds of ups and downs that probably would have shattered a squad with lesser leadership.
Allen is The Inquirer's coach of the year for South Jersey boys' basketball, not simply because Cherry Hill East captured its first South Jersey title and tied the school record for victories as well as home winning percentage.
Allen earned the honor because he never wavered in his approach or lost confidence in his players. And also because his faith was rewarded with a tournament run that galvanized the school, the community, and the program's vast and loyal alumni network.
"I've never had a coach who connected with his players better than Coach Allen," Cherry Hill East senior guard Austin Wetzler said. "He knows how to treat every kid. He treats every kid the way they need to be treated to get the best out of him."
Allen is one of South Jersey's hardest-working coaches. He's immersed in the sport, spending nearly as much time with the game in the spring, summer, and fall as he does during his seven-day-a-week devotion during the season.
"He's 365" days a year, current Camden and former Cherry Hill East coach John Valore said.
Allen played under Valore at Cherry Hill East and served as an assistant under the man he considers a father figure during Valore's final season in 2011. Allen also has been a head coach at Eastern and Cherry Hill West.
Taking over for Valore, who had coached Cherry Hill East for 35 seasons, was tricky for Allen. He wanted to maintain continuity and respect the legacy of the man he regards as his mentor, but he also wanted to put his own stamp on the program.
In three seasons under Allen, Cherry Hill East has been to two South Jersey Group 4 finals. In the program's 42 seasons before 2012, the Cougars never reached the sectional-title game.
This season, Cherry Hill East broke through and captured its first South Jersey title in boys' basketball with a 52-41 victory over Cherokee before a near-capacity crowd in DiBart Gymnasium.
"This is for all the players who ever played for East," Allen said that day.
Winning a sectional title was quite the accomplishment for Allen and the Cougars.
But what made the championship even more special was the winding, undulating road the team took to the top of the mountain.
With just two returning players with significant varsity experience - Wetzler and junior guard Jake Silpe - Cherry Hill East was regarded by many observers in the preseason as a team likely to hover around the .500 mark, perhaps slightly better.
But the Cougars opened the season with a 15-1 record, earning the No. 1 seed in the sectional tournament - a key to their later success given the team's fanatical student cheering section and knack for shooting well from distance on its home court.
But what followed that great start was the most significant stretch of the season, mainly because of the way Allen and his players reacted to it.
The Cougars lost six of seven, including four in a row, from Feb. 4 to 20 - a slide that appeared to signal a short stay in the state tournament.
Allen's best move during the slump was his display of patience. He didn't panic. He didn't change schemes. He didn't bench a bunch of guys.
"Coach is completely committed to his players on the court and off the court," Silpe said. "He's a guy you know you can trust."
Said Wetzler: "He made it clear to us that this was a partnership, that we were going to work together to figure things out."
Allen's faith in his players brought the team through that late-season slide with a few dents on its won-lost record, but hardly a scratch on its confidence.
"I really didn't change anything," Allen said. "I kept stressing the same things: shot selection, rebounding, foul shooting, defense, and turnovers. The players were more attentive because we were losing.
"They became more aware of how important those facets of the game were and increased their focus in those areas. And I believe that's what contributed to the run."
After losing, 54-47, to Eastern in what was in effect the Olympic Conference American Division title game on Feb. 20, Cherry Hill East won its next seven. The Cougars finished 23-8, including an 18-1 mark at home.
Four of those late victories were in the state tournament, including a rematch with Eastern in the sectional semifinals and the landmark win over Cherokee in the South Jersey Group 4 title game.
"Life is obstacles," Allen said. "You have to work your way through them. We went through a tough, tough stretch but we hung in there, and we got ourselves out of it."