Cherokee High School's boys basketball coach Eric Cassidy reacts during a tri-scrimmage against Delsea Regional High School and Mainland Regional High School in Marlton, New Jersey on Monday, December 12, 2022. Ryan Fuhs/D2 Sports Network
EVESHAM (N.J.) - Cherokee High School boys basketball coach Eric Cassidy dealt with the heart-rending tragedy of losing his mother to breast cancer.
Deborah Sheehan was only 48 years old.
Cassidy's grandmother and grandfather also passed away from cancer.
In one of his final conversations with his mother, Cassidy vowed to "do whatever it takes" to increase breast cancer awareness and help fund research to find a cure for the disease.
"We've had a lot of family members pass away," Cassidy said. "People say it gets easier. It doesn't. I just look at my sister, I got a younger brother, I got kids now - it's hard.
My mother passed in October of 2011. She was in hospice, we're talking, and I'm like, 'I'm going to do whatever it takes so no other families go through what we went through.' I'm trying to live up to that word."
Sheehan's passing prompted her son to inaugurate a showcase through The V Foundation for Cancer Research while coaching at Arthur P. Schalick High School in Pittsgrove. Athletic director Mike Clark supported Cassidy's idea and the Cougars hosted the first annual event in 2012. The showcase featured five games and laid the foundation for what has become one of South Jersey's most anticipated days of high school basketball.
In 2015, Cassidy accepted a head coaching position at Cherokee. There was no hesitation when the new coach proposed to bring the showcase with him in conversation with the Chiefs' administration.
The 10th annual Jimmy V Tournament will take place on Saturday, December 17 and feature 13 games throughout two gymnasiums at the campus on Tomlinson Mill Road in Marlton.
"It's grown to be one of the best (showcases) in the area," Cassidy said. "I got teams on a waiting list. I wish our third gym was available."
"It's for a great cause," he added. "Everybody's got a story. Cancer affects everybody. I've seen it firsthand and it's just heartbreaking. I will do anything I can do to try to raise awareness and also raise funds to try to find a cure for this disease."
Cancer has also been a dreadful theme for the Cherry Hill East boys basketball program in 2022. Student Hayden Laufgraben and assistant coach Dave Quinn were diagnosed with cancer during the fall and will miss the season. Coach Dave Allen also noted that two of the parents of players in the program were diagnosed with cancer in the spring and summer.
Allen can prepare his players for an opponent's menacing full court press or a methodical one-three-one zone without hesitation. But dealing with an abrupt storm of cancer throughout the program presented an unprecedented challenge.
Managing the intensities of the sport is difficult in its own right, and having to uplift the program and control the emotion can make the concept even more challenging.
But Allen believes the basketball aspect hasn't become more difficult. The team has grown closer in the process and has used basketball as a coping strategy.
"It’s been very difficult for the players and their families," Allen said. "Our coaching staff has told our players to cherish the moments they have with their families. Nothing is guaranteed to any of us."
The Cougars will show their support of their players, coaches and parents by participating in the event on Saturday. Cherry Hill East will play Clearview at 11 am.
"The V Foundation has always been about comforting and uniting people," Allen said. "That’s how it got started. Cancer has touched everyone. And it has really struck our program this last year.
We have always been a part of Eric Cassidy’s outstanding Jimmy V Tournament. It is not just about basketball. The tournament brings us all together in an attempt to raise money for cancer research. And it’s comforting for the families in our program and all the families that are battling this dreaded disease."
Family ties and fellowship are also staples of the Jimmy V Tournament.
Kingsway coach Aaron Crispin will compete against his cousin Jason Shivers on Saturday. Shivers is a varsity assistant coach and junior varsity head coach at Sterling.
"We're both really supportive of each other's teams, but from 1 to 2:30 pm on Saturday we'll set all that aside and it will be very competitive," Crispin said. "Jason and I played in high school together, went to college together where we played ball every day and officiated Rowan's intramural leagues.
I know there will be a lot of our family members there on Saturday, some in red and some in blue, but having a family that's so supportive and that loves the game as much as we do is awesome."
Crispin is appreciative of the early-season opportunity to challenge his players and provide a platform for them to showcase their skills on a neutral court. He's also thankful to be a part of the tradition because him and his wife are close to the Cassidy family.
"I'm fortunate enough to not just have a relationship with Eric, but also with his younger brother, Sean," Crispin said. "Our wives are best friends. Hearing Eric and Sean talk about the impact that their mom had on them and using this event as a way to honor her memory and raise awareness is very cool. It's something I look forward to every year."
Cassidy has stayed true to his promise by donating to The V Foundation for Cancer Research each year, in addition to participating in Susan G. Komen walks with his wife and twin children.
He is proud to unite the South Jersey basketball community with his annual event and cherishes the hours spent with fellow players, coaches, officials and family members, among others, on that special day.
"My favorite part about this is having all the coaches together," Cassidy said. "It just brings joy. Basketball wise there's a lot of great matchups, but the best part about this day is seeing the coaches, seeing their families. My twins will be up here. And at the end of the day, we all want to win, but there's more important things than the game of basketball that we're doing that day.
"I tear up every time just talking about it," he added. "I can't do it without Cherokee, the parents here, and the teams. A lot of the coaches have gone through cancer. It's one of those days I circle every year. It's not only a basketball thing. I know she's here watching as well."
Hightstown vs Timber Creek, 10 am
Haddon Heights vs Pemberton, 11:30 am
Sterling vs Kingsway, 1 pm
Mainland vs Eastern, 2:30 pm
Overbrook vs Camden Catholic, 4 pm
Moorestown vs Toms River North, 5:30 pm
Cherokee vs Williamstown, 7 pm
Rancocas Valley vs Delsea, 9:30 am
Cherry Hill East vs Clearview, 11 am
Collingswood vs Washington Township, 12:30 pm
Haddon Township vs Wildwood, 2 pm
Haddonfield vs Westampton Tech, 3:30 pm
Lenape vs Burlington Township, 5 pm