This was supposed to be a dream season for the Shawnee boys' basketball team. The Renegades had all five starters back from a 29-3 team that won the South Jersey Group 4 title and advanced to the state final before falling to Linden.
The Renegades were No. 1 in The Inquirer's South Jersey preseason rankings and entered the year with an extremely high state profile.
There was talk of running the table against South Jersey competition.
And then the injury bug hit.
Two starters from last year, senior Sean Heine and junior Patrick Kernan, are out for the season with injuries. Heine played three games and Kernan didn't appear in any.
The lack of depth has caused the Renegades to be in several nail-biters. They have already been eliminated from their division race, with Timber Creek clinching the Olympic Patriot Division.
Three of Shawnee's losses have been by a total of 10 points.
The Renegades have already lost more games this season than all of last year.
Yet there are several other teams in South Jersey who would trade in their problems for the Renegades' in a heartbeat.
Despite the injuries, the Renegades entered Saturday 16-4, ranked No. 2 in South Jersey and will be the No. 1 seed in the South Jersey Group 4 tournament that begins Feb. 27.
Also in Shawnee's favor is that coach Joe Kessler knows how to navigate his way through the postseason.
Kessler has guided the Renegades to five state titles and 11 South Jersey championships.
"Nobody is going to feel sorry for us and we are making no excuses," Kessler said.
In other words, even a depleted Shawnee team expects to compete, and rightly so.
The Renegades have been carried by their big three: seniors Dylan Deveney, Dean Noll and Daevon Robinson.
"We have asked so much from those three," Kessler said.
And they have responded.
The 6-foot-6 Deveney can score in the blocks, but he is also among Shawnee's best perimeter threats, with serious range. He is averaging 16.9 points.
Noll, a 6-1 point guard, is averaging 22.8 points after scoring 33 in Thursday's 67-65 overtime win over Bishop Eustace.
The 6-4 Robinson is a Rutgers football recruit.
"He loves basketball and is so unselfish," Kessler said of Robinson.
He also leads the team in assists, averaging 4.7 per game in addition to 10 rebounds and seven points.
Kessler says the three have played heavy minutes and that has made him change his practice routine, not going as hard sometimes the day after a game. The players shrug it off.
"I have gotten used to the extended minutes and I love being out there," Noll said.
The Renegades, despite the injuries, won't relinquish last year's title very easily.
"We fight every day and there are no excuses," Deveney said.
Making matters even more difficult is how treacherous the Group 4 field is.
Last year Shawnee needed three overtimes before defeating Toms River North, 76-72, in the sectional final.
This year T.R. North is seeded second and considered dangerous. So are No. 3 Atlantic City, No. 4 Eastern, No. 5 Rancocas Valley and probably a few more who could emerge as contenders.
There is so much parity, that whoever wins Group 4 will surely earn it.
Shawnee will spend the next few weeks looking for more consistency. This is a team that beat current No. 1 Camden and lost to unranked Seneca.