CHATHAM, NJ - Chatham coach Todd Ervin readily acknowledges what everyone already knows: Chatham has one of the most talented collection of basketball players in Morris County on its roster.
In fact, Ervin, who has 403 career victories entering his 25th season as the Cougar coach, says it's "definitely up there" when compared to the most talented teams he's coached at Chatham.
"We have a lot of kids who are talented," Ervin said. "What does that mean? It doesn't mean anything. You hope that it turns out good, but who knows?"
Chatham has the majority of its team returning from a 20-9 season in which it was the runnerup to Mendham for the Morris County Tournament title and was defeated by Colonia, 45-43, in the Section 2, Group 3 state final.
The slate will be clean 7 p.m. Friday when Chatham tips off its season at Hillside.
Right now, sophomore Jack Rooney steps into the starting lineup to join seniors Colin McKenna, Stefan Goles, Jake Bevich and Tristan LeMon.
Last season, Rooney played a key role in Chatham's run to the sectional final, scoring 9.3 points per game and hitting 42 3-pointers. His 18 points in the sectional semifinal victory over Orange complemented the game-high 22 points scored by McKenna.
McKenna, who led the team with 310 points and a 12.4 scoring average, carried the Cougar offense with 19 points against Colonia.
The key may be blending in the rest of the talent with the outside shooting of Rooney and the inside power of McKenna. Co-captains, the 6-7 Goles and the 6-4 LeMon, might be two of the most under appreciated players on the team. Both were consistent contributors to Chatham's success last season. Bevich, in his third season on the varsity, has grown into his guard position.
Still, there is a sense that this veteran contingent will have to absorb the loss of last year's captain, Graham DeLaney, before it can peak as a team. Delaney took care of the ball handling, was the team's top 3-point shooter and one of the top defenders on the team. But his biggest asset may have been his mental toughness.
"Graham DeLaney is not with us anymore and he did so many good things for us," Ervin said. "We'll see how we replace him. That's going to be a huge thing. Mentally, he was very good. How well we do will be based on how well someone fills in that role or a bunch of people fill that role."
Right now, LeMon (28 3-pointers last year) may have to do most of the ball handling since it will free up Rooney to do more scoring from a wing position. According to Ervin, the only "true point guard" on the team is 5-5 sophomore Mac Bredahl, who will play an important role off the bench.
"Last year means nothing at this point," Goles said. "Nothing is going to come easy for us because we definitely have a target on our back. We have to make sure we go out and play our game, do what we can and not focus on what people are predicting us to be.
"I think definitely throughout town and throughout the county in general, there are expectations for us. But that's more our fans and others to think about. We're trying not to think about any pressure people are putting on us because that's going to keep us from preparing the way we need to. We're just focusing on being the best we can be."
Chatham also has a deep bench with 6-6 junior Graham LeMon, who missed last season with an injury; 6-5 junior John Burkard, an intense rebounder; senior guard Matt Gentile, and 6-3 sophomore guard Johnny Maurer. Maurer, who returned taller and stronger, was a 3-point threat last season before a wrist injury put him on the shelf.
"We have to focus on playing well as a team," Goles said. "Last year, we wanted to win more than individual success and that's so important. We have so many players who can excel individually, but if we all, as a team, are succeeding we're going to be a lot better off."
Ervin's teams have averaged 17 victories per season by stressing a relentless man-to-man defense and pushing the ball up court for easy baskets in transition. Ervin believes there is still more work to be done on the defensive end.
"If we focus on the expectations, nothing good is going to happen," McKenna said. "We have so many guys who can score and make plays that the other team is not going to know who to guard. If we give it our all every day, we should be good to go."
The Cougars also can turn to other potential scorers off the bench in junior Harrison Cote, junior Donnie McAuliffe and sophomore Kurt Sacco.
"We have to know that each team in the county is going to bring their best every time they play us," Tristan LeMon said. "We have four really good big men, we have plenty of guards to sub in, too. With our fast-break offense, we're going to need fresh legs. Having Mac Bredahl, Johnny Maurer and Jake Bevich, it's going to help me and Jack (Rooney) stay fresh."