Coach Gene Allen of the Atlantic City High School boys basketball team celebrated when the Vikings won the state Group IV championship Sunday.

But there was also another feeling - exhaustion.

Allen blamed it on this year's grueling playoff run. Atlantic City played three road games en route to winning the South Jersey title last week and then beat Elizabeth 53-47 to win the state championship Sunday at Rutgers University in Piscataway.

The fourth-seeded Vikings (25-5) meet fifth-seeded and state Group II champion Ewing (26-6) in a Tournament of Champions quarterfinal at 6 p.m. today at Pine Belt Arena in Toms River.

Not only has this year's schedule been demanding, but it's been an arduous two years for Allen.

The state championship comes after the coach confronted life-altering events - the birth of his son and the death of two friends.

The state title also comes after Allen faced his biggest challenge as coach. Atlantic City finished 14-12 last season - its most losses since the 1970s.

"I felt a lot of pressure," Allen said. "Some it self-imposed. I knew this was an important year for me as a coach. "

* * *

Many high school boys basketball fans think it's easy to coach Atlantic City.

"Everybody thinks they can do the job, and I was one of them," Allen said with a laugh.

Talent abounds. The Vikings, fans think, should beat 99 percent of their opponents just by showing up. Joe Fussner, who coached the Vikings from 1988-94, compared coaching Atlantic City boys basketball to being the college football coach at Notre Dame.

"It's a tough place to coach," Allen said. "A lot of it comes from people having a passion for the program. There are times when people don't have realistic expectations. They don't see it takes time for a team to come together."

Allen jokes now that he doesn't know why he wanted to become the Atlantic City coach.

"Be careful what you ask for," he said with a laugh.

Allen was a controversial choice when the Atlantic City Board of Education hired him to take over the program in 2003-04. Allen, 51, grew up in Philadelphia but moved to Atlantic City as a teenager.

Allen was an assistant under Fussner, who led Atlantic City to a 144-24 record from 1988-1995. Allen also was involved in city recreation basketball programs. But he had no head high school coaching experience.

"I knew Gene would be a great motivator," said Atlantic City councilman and former Vikings basketball standout Marty Small, who was on the board when it hired Allen. "I knew he would be passionate. He might not have had the experience, but I knew he would learn and become better. More importantly, I knew Gene would take this as a 12-month job."

Allen, who teaches math at the high school, was an immediate success. The Vikings won the state Group IV title in 2005 - his second season. Atlantic City also reached the state final in 2006, losing to Linden.

But at Atlantic City, the team is supposed to contend for a state final every season.

Allen has learned how to deal with the pressure. Events off the court forced him to.

He and his wife, Tracy, had their first child - Jackson – two years ago.

"The fact that I'm married and have a family definitely changed me," Allen said. "I'm more understanding with the kids now. I think I'm a lot more patient because I have a child of my own."

Then there were the tragedies.

Allen was a friend and mentor to Kevin Wilkins, who as a senior led the Vikings to the 1996 Cape-Atlantic League championship. Wilkins went on to play at Seton Hall University and became an Atlantic City police officer.

He died on Feb. 18, 2010 at the age of 31 when he accidentally discharged his gun in his patrol car.

A year later, Allen and the Vikings would again deal with tragedy.

Atlantic City assistant coach Chaune Jennings died on April 17, 2011. He was 28. The Vikings have talked about Jennings several times after playoff wins.

"He had a headache and he went to sleep and he never woke up," Allen said. "We've dedicated the season to him."

The deaths of Wilkins and Jennings gave Allen a new perspective.

"At the end of the day, it's only a game," Allen said. "You need to understand that. Kids are not going to be perfect. You can be demanding, but sometimes you have to know when to back off. It is just a game. I really stress family now because you never know when this might come to an end."

Allen would need that attitude to deal with the aftermath of last season.

* * *

Fans and city leaders weren't happy when the Vikings finished 14-12 last season. There was grumbling behind the scenes that maybe it was time to get a new coach.

"It hurt last year seeing us lose to teams in games we would have won by halftime in years past," Small said. "It was tough on Gene, but he's a fighter and motivator."

The Vikings started slowly this season. They were 5-4 but have won 20 of their last 21 games. The Vikings have committed to defense. They execute in the half court on offense.

Allen has achieved more than any other boys basketball coach in school history.

Before Allen, Atlantic City won zero state titles and four South Jersey championships. The Vikings have won four more South Jersey titles and two state championships under Allen. His career record is 193-67.

Allen consistently gives the players and his assistant coaches the credit for the turnaround.

After the state championship, Allen said the reason the Vikings played so well in the fourth quarter is the conditioning program began by assistant and former Vikings head football coach Bobby Weiss.

Allen joked that all he does is yell and scream on the sidelines. He is demonstrative during games and not shy about shouting instructions.

"He criticizes you," Atlantic City senior point guard Martel Johnson said, "but it's only because he wants you to be better. It's something you have to adjust to, but it's not hard. He just wants us to get prepared for the next level."

But Allen is also involved in his players' lives off the court. Allen is from Atlantic City, still lives there and knows the challenges his players face every day. Johnson said the Vikings can talk to Allen about anything.

"There's a soft side to Gene that really talks to the kids of Atlantic City," Middle Township boys coach Tom Feraco said. 'The kids are a reflection of him."

Feraco said Allen is a tireless worker overseeing the program 12 months a year.

"They do it in the weight room, summer leagues. He takes his kids all over the state," Feraco said. "It's his work ethic that gets it done."

Now with the second state championship, Atlantic City has become the program local fans always thought it should be. Only three local boys basketball coaches - former Pleasantville coach Ken Leary and Feraco with three and St. Augustine Prep coach Paul Rodio with four - have won more state titles than Allen.

Allen knows better than anyone at Atlantic City neither he nor the team can rest on past accomplishments. Already there is talk of how good Atlantic City will next year with several top players returning.

"As a coach," Allen said, "you're always looking for more."

Especially when you're the coach of the Vikings, where success only raises expectations.

Contact Michael McGarry:

609-272-7185

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