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MUST WIN

In down year, Atlantic City's boys basketball coach takes it 'one day at a time': Must Win

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Atlantic City Cherry Hill basketball championship (copy)

Atlantic City coach Gene Allen huddles with his team during the South Jersey Group IV boys basketball championship in 2020. This year's team is struggling and is 2-6.

Gene Allen laughed when he heard the question.

How is the Atlantic City High School boys basketball coach doing? That’s what many in the South Jersey basketball community want to know.

The Vikings are 2-7 and in the midst of a rare rebuilding season.

“The kids are working hard,” Allen said. “There are no excuses. We got beat by better teams. For me, this has been something I’m not accustomed to, but it’s made me work harder as well.”

Atlantic City has long been a basketball power. Allen took the Vikings to another level. He is the winningest coach in the program’s history with a 375-130 record since he took over the program in 2003. Allen has led the Vikings to three state and seven South Jersey titles.

Atlantic City under Allen is renowned for its stingy man-to-man defense and unselfish offense. The Vikings could outrun teams and then more importantly when the state tournament rolled around go on the road and beat a higher-seeded home team 46-44.

With Allen, Atlantic City has remained a consistent power, while some other urban Group IV schools, such as Trenton Central and Elizabeth, experienced multiple down seasons.

“I think it was inevitable (that Atlantic City would hit a lull),” Allen said. “I also think the pandemic pushed it up a little bit. For the last 20 years, we’ve had a tremendous run. I think all public schools that are perennial powers are starting to feel it.”

Atlantic City finished 10-15 in 2018-19. The Vikings then won the South Jersey Group IV title in 2020 and went 6-1 in last year’s pandemic-shortened season with a senior-dominated team.

The Vikings are simply inexperienced this season. The pandemic also prevented Allen from getting to know the program’s young players. Call that one of the many consequences of virtual learning. Allen knew before it even began that this season would be a tough one.

“These kids haven’t been around me to learn what Atlantic City basketball is about,” he said. “Everybody on varsity now did not play varsity (last season), except for one.”

Allen says the current Vikings are pressing to live up to the program’s lofty standards.

“I’m trying to tell them to just take it one day at a time,” he said, “one practice at a time, one game at a time. I think some of them feel the pressure of putting that Atlantic City uniform on. I’m just trying to keep it as even keel as possible.”

But Allen is a demanding coach, and the Vikings are improving. They beat Ocean City 57-49 Tuesday and have won two of their last four games, heading into Friday’s home contest against Cape May Tech. Dylan Culmone scored 15 in the win over Ocean City. Jai Pridgen Hill scored 18 as the Vikings beat Glassboro 46-38 at the MLK Classic at Rowan University last Saturday.

“To see their faces light up over a win tells me that they care,” Allen said of the Vikings. “That’s important to me. It’s clear that they care.”

The current Vikings should be lauded for the effort they are giving on a daily basis. It’s no different than the work Atlantic City put in when it was winning state championships.

“The kids have been spectacular,” Allen said. “They continue to work hard. Our motto has been try to get 1% better every day. I take my hat off to them.”

Allen said there are better days ahead for the Vikings. The current freshmen are a talented group. Allen noted that in basketball you can rebuild quickly with a few talented athletes surrounded by solid role players.

Allen said the current freshmen have size and talent.

“They just have to learn the Atlantic City way,” Allen said, “(Atlantic City) should be back. I think it’s going to take some time, but I think it will definitely get back. After all, this is Atlantic City.”

So, all in all, what’s the answer to the original question? How is Allen doing?

“I don’t know,” he said with a laugh. “Just tell everyone I’m taking it one day at a time.”

Contact: 609-272-7185. MMcGarry@PressofAC.com. Twitter @ACPressMcGarry

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