Updated: Aug 10, 2022
The Woodrow Wilson High School boys basketball team turned heads and opened eyes when it had then-No. 3 Egg Harbor Township on the ropes in its season opener last December.
The short-handed Tigers rallied from a 25-5 deficit to take a 47-42 lead over the Eagles going into the fourth quarter. Woodrow Wilson eventually fell short, 64-60, and dropped to 0-1 on the season.
The outcome was undesired, but the relentless fight by the Tigers was an indication of things to come.
However, most people didn’t realize that the season opener against Egg Harbor Township marked the first time Woodrow Wilson engaged in a live, five-on-five scenario since practices and scrimmages began in November.
“That game against Egg Harbor Township was the first we went up and down, five-on-five against anybody,” Woodrow Wilson coach Kenny Avent said. “We didn’t have any scrimmages. We only had seven kids in the gym so we couldn’t go five-on-five.”
The Tigers didn’t participate in any fall leagues, preseason showcases or workouts. Avent wasn’t officially named the boys basketball head coach until early November. Players also remained ineligible as a result of not submitting physicals in a timely manner.
“I wasn’t officially named the coach until November 8 which is a week and a half before tryouts started,” Avent said. “No preseason conditioning, no fall ball, none of that. For my guys to be able to persevere and for myself and my coaching staff to get these kids to believe in themselves was just incredible.”
Avent has been named the 2022 South Jersey Sports Zone Boys Basketball Coach of the Year. In his first season on Federal Street in East Camden, Avent navigated the Tigers to their first NJSIAA state championship since 1985. Woodrow Wilson defeated Ramapo, 43-42, to secure the Group 3 title at Rutgers University on March 13 and also secured its first sectional crown since 2004 with a 47-40 win over Burlington Township on March 8.
“I told them from Day One — we want to win Group 3,” Avent said. “A lot of people probably didn’t believe me and had good reason not to believe me. But I knew if we could put it together we had enough talent to be successful.”
After losing its first game of the campaign to Egg Harbor Township, Wilson rattled off seven consecutive victories with quality wins against Clearview, Camden Catholic, Paul VI, Eastern and Bishop Eustace.
It marked the first time since 1991 Woodrow Wilson defeated the Irish, per athletic director Will Hickson.
The Tigers also won 12 out of their last 14 games including victories over No. 3 Lenape, Dover (DE), No. 12 Paul VI, Deptford, No. 5 Moorestown and Shore Conference Tournament finalist Manasquan before bowing out to perennial parochial power Bergen Catholic, 69-52, in the Tournament of Champions quarterfinals.
“It was a magical season,” Avent said. “I told the kids, ‘they’re gonna write a movie about this one year.’ This is going to be a movie one day. But the biggest thing that I saw throughout the season, which I find even more incredible than us winning basketball games, is that us turning the basketball program around and being successful united the city. I would see Camden fans coming to our games and supporting us. For these kids to be a part of that and be a part of that legacy is incredible.”
Following the conclusion of Camden’s 93-52 win over Newark Central in the Group 2 state final, a sea of purple and gold continued to engulf the seats of Jersey Mike’s Arena in Piscataway in support of the orange and black. The Panthers’ band and cheerleading team remained in alignment to support neighboring rival Woodrow Wilson in their Group 3 state title bid against Ramapo.
It was a basketball coalition like no other in the city of Camden.
“Camden and Wilson have a rich tradition in history and rivalry,” Avent said. “I’ve been in (New) Jersey since 2005 and I’ve never seen the support and the unity of Camden and Wilson that I saw this year. The band was playing. Our cheerleaders weren’t able to be there, so (Camden’s) cheerleaders stayed to cheer for us. When we were presented the trophy, Camden cheerleaders ran out and jumped in our pictures. It’s something that no one could have ever foreseen. I think the city of Camden saw it in a light that I don’t think anybody has seen before.”
Going into the 2021-22 campaign, the Tigers’ struggling basketball program had totaled 28 wins combined over the past nine seasons. In their last 100 games going into the season, they had only accumulated 10 victories.
Despite winning back-to-back South Jersey Group 1 titles at Woodbury in 2009 and 2010, the former Thundering Herd coach was unaware of the South Jersey basketball landscape and Wilson’s recent shortcomings after relocating to the First State. Avent coached at Delcastle Tech in Wilmington, Delaware for the past six seasons before arriving in East Camden.
“I just wanted to change the culture,” Avent said. “When I first took the job, to be honest with you, I’ve been coaching in Delaware for the last six years and hadn’t really been following South Jersey basketball. So I had no idea how bad the state of the program (was).”
“It wasn’t until we won a couple games and I saw a couple of articles (that said) ‘they won 10 out of their last 100 games,’” Avent added. “I said, ‘huh? This gotta be a joke, right?’ And then we won a couple more games and another article came out and they said 28 wins in the last nine years. I said, ‘this can’t be real.’”
It was real.
Avent was able to redirect the ship by molding the mentality of his players and teaching them to carry themselves with a purpose no matter if they were in the classroom, on the hardwood, or in their community.
“The thing is I told my players from Day One, ‘I need a mind shift,’” Avent said. “‘It’s mental. Before we can turn things around you guys have to change the way you think. You have to change the way you approach practice, the way you approach games, the way you approach the classroom.’”
The process has since paid off.
Avent accumulated a 22-7 record in his first season on Route 537 and ended a 37-year state title drought in a span of only four months. The Tigers stocked their trophy case with two new trophies and finished as the second-ranked team in the South Jersey Sports Zone Final Top 30.
“I literally wake up in the middle of the night and look up in the sky and just thank God for the opportunity,” Avent said. “I know as a coach I wear many hats — I’m a father figure, I’m a big brother, I’m an uncle. My number one job as their coach is to make sure that they can be productive citizens in society. I think because that’s the approach I take and my guys know I care, that’s the reason why they play so hard for me. I love coaching and I love being able to use basketball as a vehicle to have a positive impact on the lives of the young adults that I come in contact with.”
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, Twitter, and Instagram.