Atlantic City High School boys basketball coach Gene Allen, center, celebrates with his players after the Vikings beat East Brunswick in a state Group IV semifinal game last week in Egg Harbor Township. The Vikings play Linden for the championship today in Piscataway.

Edward Lea

The Atlantic City High School boys basketball team once experienced nothing but postseason frustration.

Vikings fans waited for things to go wrong in big games and watched in exasperation as they often did.

Now, they wait for things to go right and watch in joy as they almost always do.

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Atlantic City (28-1) will play for its second straight state Group IV title today when it meets Linden (22-7) at 5 p.m. at the Rutgers University Athletic Center.

"Is this the most talented Atlantic City team ever?" Vikings coach Gene Allen said. "No. It's not even arguable. But as far as rising to the occasion, I think it is. They have the ability to make plays, and I haven't seen this in any other Atlantic City team."

The perception around the Vikings' program has changed in the past 10 seasons and Allen deserves much of the credit.

Atlantic City was 0-4 in state finals before Allen took over in 2003-04. The Vikings won just three South Jersey titles from 1974-2003.

But the Vikings have won five South Jersey titles and two state championships under Allen.

Atlantic City's lack of playoff success was puzzling because the Vikings often featured some of the state's top players.

The Los Angeles Lakers drafted Atlantic City graduates Willie Glass and Ralph Tally in the third and fourth rounds of the 1987 NBA draft.

Tally and Glass never played in a state final.

Atlantic City forward Bobby Martin played in the 1987 McDonald's All-American game but he didn't play in a state final.

Lou Roe, a 1991 Atlantic City graduate, was the Atlantic 10 Player of the Year in 1995 for the University of Massachusetts. The Detroit Pistons drafted him in the second of the round of the 1995 NBA draft.

Roe never played in a state final.

"We had some tremendous players and tremendous coaches to don the blue and white, but at the end of the day a lot of us fell short," said Marty Small, a 1993 graduate, former Vikings player and current Atlantic City councilman.

It wasn't just that the Vikings lost, it was how they lost. In some cases, underdog teams upset them. The games were almost always close. Between 1985 and 1992, Atlantic City lost eight playoff games by a total of 13 points.

The Vikings made it to the 1997 state final, but squandered a 10-point, fourth-quarter lead and lost to Union 61-50 in Boardwalk Hall.

In fairness to previous Vikings teams, Atlantic City had to beat some of the state's - and in some years the nation's - best teams to reach a state final.

The Vikings often ran up against Camden, which featured future NBA players such as Billy Thompson and Milt Wagner. Camden has won a state-best nine Group IV titles.

And if it wasn't Camden. It was Trenton Central or Shawnee.

Atlantic City finished 29-1 in 1992 but lost to Shawnee 82-80 at home in overtime in the South Jersey Group IV title game. Shawnee went on to become the first South Jersey team to win the Tournament of Champions.

But the past few seasons have exorcised Atlantic City's past playoff failures from the program's soul.

The 2005 team dominated the competition en route to the program's first state title.

The Vikings won on the road at Lenape, Eastern and Cherry Hill East on the way to last season's title.

This season's team owns gutsy comeback wins against Lenape (51-40) in the South Jersey final and East Brunswick (51-49) in the state semifinal. The Vikings trailed Lenape by 10 in the first quarter and East Brunswick by 14 late in the second quarter.

These Vikings play defense maybe like no other team in school history. Senior guard Dayshawn Reynolds harasses opposing ball handlers and routinely sinks clutch shots. Junior guard Isiah Graves is another tenacious defender. He scored 10 points in the fourth quarter to spark Atlantic City to the East Brunswick win.

Center Jahleem Montague is a force inside and seems to play his best in big games. Forward Ga-briel Chandler is an excellent interior passer, a smart player and a clutch rebounder. Forward Dennis White also excels defensively and can wow the crowd with acrobatic dunks.

"We come in with the attitude that we can win," Allen said. "And when you carry that you can sometimes psych yourself to do things that are outside of your capabilities."

Fans have rallied around this team.

"These kids are clutch, and they're doing it for everyone who ever wore the blue and white," Small said. "They are showing the character of our city."

After each of the recent playoff wins, long-time Atlantic City fans who remember of the frustration of the 1980s and 1990s look at each other and shake their heads.

"You almost felt in the past as if there was some kind of spell cast upon you that you weren't going to win these type of games," said Frank Campo, who is in his 25th year as the Vikings' athletic director. "But the whole momentum has switched our way."

Atlantic City was once to high school basketball what the Chicago Cubs are to baseball. A team seemingly cursed by the fates.

Now, the Vikings are the New York Yankees.

"The teams before us may have had more talent," Montague said. "But we're a family. We play as a family. We play for each other."

Contact Michael McGarry:


State Group IV boys title game

Who: Atlantic City (28-1) vs. Linden (22-7)

Where/when: 5 p.m. today at Rutgers

Tickets: $5 adults and $3 students and senior citizens. $10 parking

Radio: 97.3 FM

Online: Updates at www.HSLive.me

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