‘We knew exactly what we needed to do’: Cherokee Exceeding Expectations

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The Cherokee High School boys basketball team continues to win meaningful games in convincing fashion.

The program appears to be surpassing expectations.

But don’t tell the Chiefs that.

They’re just doing what they knew they were capable of all along.

“We got kids that play hard,” coach Eric Cassidy said. “We might not be the most talented on the floor, but the one thing that I can always say about our team is that the kids are going to compete, they’re going to play hard and they’re going to defend. That’s the recipe right now. Our defense is pretty good right now.”

Cassidy’s statement was illustrated in the Chiefs’ 32-16 win over Bishop Eustace on January 26. Cherokee held the Crusaders to 4, 5, 2 and 5 points, respectively, in each quarter.

The defensive statement generated momentum as the Chiefs knocked off Olympic Conference rival Eastern, 55-38, to improve to 2-0, before holding off Washington Township, 51-43, to extend their winning streak to three games.

“It starts with leadership,” Cassidy said. “These seniors are setting examples for the freshmen. That’s what sets the tone for a program. You see what is working, you see how they handle themselves on and off the court. That’s what they’re doing right now — they’re doing a great job of leading by example. They’re working their tails off and I’m just proud of them. I know that as a coach, for 32 minutes, they’re going to give me everything they have.”

The ultimate statement was made when Cherokee upset then-No. 2 Paul VI, 40-33, on February 4. The Chiefs improved their record to 4-0 as Ethan Stith and Drew Wixted led the way with 10 points apiece.

More importantly, Cherokee’s stingy defense was able to contain NJIT commit Wisler Sanon to 9 points and held Paul VI’s flashy offense to only 33 points in four quarters.

“Outsiders had a lot of doubts, but we knew exactly what we needed to do,” Wixted said. “A team like Paul VI, they expect to come out and just wipe teams down — get whatever they want, go down in-transition. We were really playing hard defense, locking in. If we’re all just locked in, it’s amazing what a team can do.”

Cherokee improved its record to 5-0 with a 49-35 win over then-No. 11 Overbrook on February 6. Wixted put together another quality performance as he tallied a team-high 13 points in the victory to help the Chiefs ascend in this week’s South Jersey Sports Zone Top 15 boys basketball rankings.

Cherokee moved from 10th to 5th in this week’s poll.

“It’s huge,” Wixted said. “This is something me and my boys have been looking forward to (since) this coronavirus shut us all down in the summer. We were just itching to get back. 5-0 is a good accomplishment, but we just gotta flush this and move on to the next one.”

The Chiefs held Overbrook’s top scoring threat, Damian Rawls, scoreless until 2:41 left in the fourth quarter. Rawls scored all nine of his points in the final 2 minutes and 41 seconds of the contest.

“We knew he was a good player along with (number) zero (Jaylan Hornsby) and a couple other guys they have,” Cassidy said. “We put Ethan (Stith) on him (and) Ethan did a good job on him. I told the kids we got to know where he’s at on the court. We give them the scouting report on the court and you see they’re paying attention.”

Wixted has paced Cherokee’s offense, averaging 12.8 points per game through five games.

Superb defense has translated to efficient offense en route to a perfect record thus far.

“It all starts in practice,” Wixted added. “My coach harps a lot on defense and defense has been implemented into our brains ever since we were freshmen in this organization. We just play really hard. Defense wins games, defense travels.”

Cherokee has also benefited from the arrival of Ty Bartrum. The junior was named a 2020 South Jersey Sports Zone All-South Jersey honorable mention in football and currently holds a scholarship offer from Toledo. Bartrum is a skilled defensive back/wide receiver for the Chiefs’ football program.

The junior’s physicality and fearlessness has been a welcome addition to the Chiefs’ undefeated basketball squad.

Bartrum scored six of his 10 points in the fourth quarter against Overbrook to help seal the victory.

“I really wasn’t sure if I was gonna play basketball,” Bartrum said. “I just love the guys, I love the coach. I didn’t play last year because football ran a little late. I played (basketball) my freshman year, but I transferred in, so my sophomore year was my first year here (at Cherokee). I love everyone — the guys, they’re just my brothers.”

Cherokee will get right back to work on February 9 when it hosts Cherry Hill West at 6:00pm. The Chiefs are scheduled to conclude their busy week with games against Woodrow Wilson and Haddon Township.

For right now, the Chiefs are just thankful to be playing.

This year means more than just championship banners and trophies.

“I set goals at the beginning of the year,” Cassidy said. “This is a time where no coach has ever experienced this. The number one goal for me was giving them the best experience possible. Right now, seeing these guys at practice smiling, laughing — that’s what it’s about. Obviously we all want to win, we’re having a good start. As a coach, the most rewarding thing right now, especially this season, is just being with the guys. They’re winning, they’re having fun, playoffs or no playoffs, we’re playing — that’s the most important thing. The seniors deserve this. They deserve to have a senior year and they’re doing a good job with it.”

South Jersey Sports Zone (SJSZ) was co-founded by Kevin Emmons in 2017. The brand covers high school sports and promotes South Jersey pride. If you’d like to keep up with SJSZ, find them on Facebook and Twitter.

(Photo Credit: Kevin Emmons)

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