Tom Feraco, Tom Catanoso and Jacob Cowan met in kindergarten. Darrell Shelton joined the group in third grade.
Dayshawn Reynolds and Jahleem Montague are cousins. They have known each other so long they can't remember when they first met.
Feraco, Cowan, Shelton and Catanoso are now seniors on the Middle Township High School boys basketball team. Feraco's father, also named Tom, is the coach. Reynolds and Montague are seniors for Atlantic City.
Middle (19-5) and Atlantic City (22-1) meet for the Cape-Atlantic League championship 2 p.m. Saturday at Richard Stockton College in Galloway Township.
Nearly all of the Atlantic City and Middle Township juniors and seniors grew up with their respective teammates. The bond from knowing one another since grade school is a big reason for both teams' success. Their only concern seems to be making each other better players.
"You're not going to be your best every day," Reynolds said. "We know how to get each other back on track."
One would think that players on high school teams - especially at public schools - all grow up knowing each other. But that is rarely the case.
Towns are so big that players can grow up in different neighborhoods and not know each other until high school.
Some players transfer to another school during their high school career. Many public schools are now "choice schools," meaning residents of other towns can apply to attend them.
"It's special," coach Feraco said of the friendships between the players on his team. "That's not what you see normally. I just like the way they can sit after practice and shoot (the you know what)."
The relationships between the Middle and Atlantic City players can be seen in the way both teams play. Both are unselfish. They help each other on defense. One player doesn't dominate the scoring.
Feraco leads Middle with a 13.5 scoring average. Ga-briel Chandler, a senior forward who met Montague and Reynolds in the sixth grade, averages 12.4 points to lead the Vikings.
"The pitfalls of a lot of teams are jealousies," coach Feraco said. "These kids give up individual accolades for the benefit of the team. I don't think you have one kid on either team who averages 10 shots per game."
Middle and Atlantic City often have a different leading scorer every game. Reynolds scored as many as 19 points in a game this season but he made just one foul shot in Tuesday's 47-35 semifinal win over Holy Spirit.
"Scoring one point is the same as scoring 30, as long as we win," Reynolds said.
The Atlantic City players hang out with each other after practice. They go to each other's houses and watch college and pro games or play video games.
"All we talk about is basketball, basketball, basketball," Montague said.
The Middle Township players do the same.
"When we go over each other's houses, it's like we're walking into our aunt's or uncle's house," the younger Feraco said. "There's nothing awkward about it. It's a great experience to have my best friends as my teammates."
Sometimes the Panthers get to enjoy a meal cooked by Feraco's mother Janine.
"She cooks some good food," Shelton said. "All the Italian food with the cheeses and stuff."
Players on both teams are quick to say that they hit rough spots. Over the course of a long season, people get mad. They can get down if they're not playing well or scoring points.
But the relationships the players have built over time can help them deal more effectively with problems that can disrupt other teams.
Montague felt down at times this season. He has struggled because of a knee injury. Several of his teammates spoke to the 6-foot-8 center. They reminded him how valuable a defensive player he can be. They reminded him how he helped the Vikings win the state Group IV title last season.
The pep talk worked. Montague, who averages 7.1 points for the season, is averaging 15.3 points in the last three games - all big wins for the Vikings.
"It's a real family," Montague said. "Every player on the team is like a brother to me. Every coach is like a father figure."
But as close as the players are, time is finally staring to catch up with them.
Saturday marks the beginning of the end of their high school careers. The state tournament starts Monday and one loss will end their season.
The Middle and Atlantic City players will inevitably go their separate ways.
"It's so clich� to say the end of your high school career is bittersweet," the younger Feraco said. "But it hurts to think about it. This is where we're supposed to be. It seems like we're supposed to be here forever."
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