The NJSIAA boys' basketball playoffs started in earnest last night, but before we say goodbye to the regular season, we'd be remiss if we didn't single out a team that won't be playing in the postseason, Haddon Township.
The Hawks fell far short of qualifying for the tourney and could have just packed it in during the season's final week.
Instead, they registered one of the season's biggest upsets and ended a 12-game conference losing streak Thursday.
Haddon Township 37, Sterling 32.
Using a 3-2 zone that Haddon Township coach Ron Wister learned from his playing days at Temple under head coach Don Casey and assistant Jim Maloney, Haddon Township held host Sterling to its lowest output of the season.
As it turned out, the loss cost Sterling a share of the Colonial Conference title with Haddonfield.
It's easy to overlook the teams that don't qualify for the playoffs, but the truth of the matter is, those teams work just as hard - sometimes harder - than the ones that reach the postseason.
For Haddon Township, the upset over Sterling validated its dedication and made its 7-18 season - three more wins than last year - more rewarding.
"The guys worked hard in practice and kept going, even though they knew we wouldn't be in the tournament," Wister said yesterday. "You don't always get that with teams, but they put out. And when I go to our banquet, I'll be able to tell them how proud I was that they played hard until the last game."
Wister saluted his seniors - Dan Fleming, Kevin Howey, P.J. Mulroy, Kyle Ranshaw and Ken Wise - for their leadership, and said he was optimistic about next year. Haddon Township will return three starters and will have reinforcements from an 18-1 freshman team. In addition, the Hawks will be bolstered by the return of Frank Trautz, a 6-foot-1 sophomore varsity starter who tore his anterior cruciate ligament and missed most of this season.
"It was a great feeling for the kids," Wister said of the conquest of Sterling, "and is something we can take into next year."
And build on.
Since becoming academically eligible Feb. 1, Camden's 6-foot-4 Aaron Walton has looked like one of South Jersey's best sophomores. "He gives us points, speed and defense," Camden coach Clarence Turner said.
Should Camden reach the South Jersey Group 3 final - it figures to have a major roadblock if it faces Middle Township in the semifinals - it would likely meet top-seeded Shawnee, a team that trounced the host Panthers, 82-53, in a Jan. 9 regular-season game.
Since then, Walton and 6-6 Chris Hand have become eligible and have triggered a 7-1 Camden record.
"If we get that far, it would be a lot different," Turner said of a rematch with Shawnee. "We match up better. But Shawnee shoots the threes well."
Shawnee shot a staggering 13 for 17 (76.5 percent) from three-point range in last month's win at Camden.
If the teams meet again, Walton would guard Shawnee's high-scoring Julian Sanders, Turner said. The young star vs. the established star. That's a matchup we'd pay to see.
After Pemberton started the season at 1-7, not many people expected it to be playing in the South Jersey Group 3 tournament.
But to the Hornets' credit, they won seven straight and had a .500 record at the cutoff date to sneak into the tourney. Tonight, they will be a loose - and dangerous - 10th seed when they play at seventh-seeded West Deptford in a Group 3 opener.
"We've been playing much better as a team," coach Roy Heck said. "The majority of our players didn't play varsity last year, and it's taken them a while to mature. We're not there yet, but we're getting better."
Point guard Anthony Curtis has missed most of the year because of a separated shoulder, but Thorn Felder has done an admirable job in his place. Curtis recently returned to the lineup in a reserve role.
Marco Morcos is undecided about returning to coach at LEAP Academy, which the NJSIAA banned from participating in the tournament this year and next season because of recruiting violations.
LEAP went 16-7 this year, but it was denied a stay by the New Jersey commissioner of education that would have allowed it to be eligible for this season's Group 1 tourney.
"I love my kids, and I have to talk to them about it before I decide whether I'm staying," Morcos said. "It's something I have to think about. I want to give it about a month."