Seniors step on the bus this time of the year, and they never know for sure: Is this the last ride?
Things were different for the Camden Catholic boys’ basketball team last March. The Irish featured just one senior in the starting lineup, so almost everybody on the roster knew his career wasn’t on the line.
“Last year, we were just happy to be there,” guard Patrick Corbett said of the team’s appearance in the 2018 state final. “This year, we have one goal, and that’s to win it.”
Corbett is a senior and two-year starter at point guard. Baba Aijke is a senior swingman and three-year starter. Uche Okafor is a senior center and four-year varsity player.
Camden Catholic will take the floor Saturday for the Non-Public A state championship game against Bergen Catholic at Toms River North with a pair of underclassmen in the starting lineup in sophomores Zach Hicks and Lucas Dunn.
But this is a senior-heavy team with experience and a deep sense of urgency.
“There’s a different feeling in this room,” Camden Catholic coach Matt Crawford said after his team’s victory over Paul VI in the South A title game Tuesday at Jackson Liberty. “Last year, we were just happy to make it to the state championship. This year, we’re going up to win. That’s the goal."
Dominic Dunn, Lucas’ older bother, was the Irish’s lone senior starter in last year’s 61-54 loss to Don Bosco Prep in the state final.
Dominic Dunn scored 18 and led a furious fourth-quarter rally, but there was a sense after the game that the Irish would be back, that the best was yet to come for the program with then-juniors such as Ajike, Okafor and Corbett set to return for their final season.
This year is drastically different for those three as well as for sixth man Valen Tejada, also a senior. There’s no tomorrow for those guys. There are no more bus trips if the ride back from Toms River late Saturday afternoon doesn’t include the state championship trophy.
“I’ve been thinking about that game since last year,” Ajike said. “We lost but we’re going back, and we’re going to play as hard as we can to get that championship.”
Saturday’s game will mark a clash of hot teams with contrasting styles.
Bergen Catholic has won 15 in a row, thanks in large part to a fast-paced, high-powered offense. The Crusaders are averaging 73.3 points in the winning streak and have topped the century mark twice in the state tournament, including a 100-63 win over St. Joseph of Montvale in the North A final.
Camden Catholic has won 16 in a row, thanks in large part to a sturdy, match-up zone defense that has frustrated opponents. The Irish have held teams to an average of 45.1 points in the winning streak and stymied high-flying Paul VI in a 40-34 victory in the South A final.
With consecutive titles in the ultra-competitive South A tournament, Ajike — the program’s all-time leading rebounder — Okafor and Corbett have fashioned careers that rank among the more accomplished in the rich history of the Camden Catholic program.
But all three are acutely aware that their legacy would be cemented by a victory in the state final, which also will earn them another lengthy bus ride or two to the Tournament of Champions.
“Honestly, I think this season will mean nothing to us if we don’t go out and get a state championship,” Corbett said. “We’re so determined. We’re so focused on winning a state championship.”
Saturday, 2 p.m. at Toms River North High School
Road to final: Beat Christian Brothers, 52-49; St. Augustine, 74-51; Paul VI, 40-34.
Coach: Matt Crawford.
Previous state titles: 5 (1941, 1942, 2001, 2003, 2010).
Players to watch: Baba Ajike, 6-6 senior; Uche Okafor, 6-6 senior; Pat Corbett, 5-10, senior; Zach Hicks, 6-7 sophomore; Lucas Dunn, 6-3 sophomore.
Fast fact: Camden Catholic has won 16 in a row.
Road to the final: Beat Delbarton, 102-53; Don Bosco Prep, 69-52; St. Joseph Montvale, 100-63.
Coach: Bill Armstrong.
Previous state titles: 3 (1978, 1994, 2002).
Players to watch: Matt Zona, 6-9 junior; Zach Freemantle, 6-8 senior; Jayson Earle, 6-3 senior; Doug Edert, 6-2 senior.
Fast fact: Bergen Catholic has won 15 in a row.