The Atlantic City boys basketball team finished strong after a turbulent 2018-2019 year, making the state playoffs and beating Egg Harbor Township in the opening round. There was a lot of hope and excitement surrounding the Vikings coming into this past season, but when the calendar flipped to Jan. 1, 2020, Atlantic City was just 1-3 and had lost three straight after a solid season-opening win over St. Joseph.

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But once head coach Gene Allen and his staff got things right, and began to lean more on senior forward Stephen Byard, the season turned around in a hurry. Starting with a 72-56 blowout win over Bridgeton on Jan. 2, the Vikings ripped off 12 straight wins and nearly finished out an unbeaten January before a loss to St. Augustine Prep on Jan. 31. Atlantic City was just as good down the stretch, going 8-2 to finish the year with a 21-6 record. The Vikings also went 4-0 in the state playoffs, capturing the South Jersey Group 4 championship, and may have won a state championship had the season not been halted due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“My expectation this year was to make it to the state championship. I felt like we had a lot of talent coming in this year, we just had to find our experience as a team, and learn how to play as a team. I feel like we had every piece we needed to win a state championship. We just had to figure out a way to play together,” said Byard, who built on a very good junior year to become one of the best players in the Cape-Atlantic League as a senior. “I felt like leadership was something big that I had to overcome. Last year I was the only junior starting around a bunch of seniors, so it was tough to be a leader then. As a junior, I was ready (to start on varsity) because I knew what was expected, but it’s still a challenge playing under coach Allen because he has such a high standard for you. He wants perfection and the best for us. He’s a tough coach, but he’s also a funny coach. He understands us a lot more than people think.”

Allen is known for his ‘tough love’ approach and believes it is a necessary tactic to take in order to get the best out of his Atlantic City teams. Some players simply can’t handle it, but the ones who can stick it out and respond to his style of coaching often find themselves achieving their dream of playing basketball and furthering their education at the collegiate level. That’s where Byard is now, as he said he plans to play junior college basketball this winter.

“I was very impressed with him. He’s only been playing with us since the second half of his sophomore year. He played some JV, then played varsity last year, but he really blossomed this year into one of the better players in our league. I think the best part of his game is still ahead of him. He’s just going to get better and better,” Allen said. “The way he played during our playoff run was really something special. He averaged about 26 points and 14 rebounds per game. He basically said, ‘hop on my back.’ Give our kids credit, too, because they realized he was going good so they made it their business to get him the ball. To see him grow like that as a basketball player was really special.”

While Byard was good throughout the regular season, he turned it up a notch once the state playoffs rolled around, and was sensational. In the opening round, he scored a game-high 26 points as Atlantic City dispatched Kingsway, 77-52. He then scored 18 points in a win over Cherokee and followed that up with perhaps the best game of his career, pouring in 38 of Atlantic City’s 61 points in a 61-58 win over Lenape in the sectional semifinals. In the South Jersey Group 4 championship game, Byard led his team back from a halftime deficit, finishing with 23 points, 12 rebounds, four blocks and two steals as the Vikings rallied for a 61-44 victory over Cherry Hill East.

“I definitely felt like I had to take over; my alter ego took over in the playoffs. That was ‘playoff Stephen.’ I feel like I play a lot better under pressure. It’s just the way I play, I feel like I’m much more aggressive, and I play smarter, when I’m under pressure,” Byard said. “We knew what we had to do and coach Allen was a hundred percent correct with the game plan (against East). He knew they were going to try to take me away and make other people score, so we knew what we had to do. During the season, we were a lot better in the second half of games. In the first half of that game we knew what they were going to do — and they shot the ball great — so we had find a way to stop that. Coach Allen is really big on defense, so we made a lot of defensive adjustments in the locker room (at halftime). I feel like Sharon Watson brought a lot of energy. We all knew our roles and what we had to do to win. We all had the same goal, we wanted to win a state championship.”

Byard and his teammates never got the chance to see if they were good enough to win a state title, and that was gut-wrenching, he said.

“It was kind of unreal at first. I couldn’t believe it because we worked for three years to be in that position, and to have that taken away sucked,” he said. “But I loved my time at Atlantic City High School, especially playing basketball under coach Allen. He was a great mentor and he helped me a lot along the way.”

“Anytime you get an opportunity like that to see a kid grow — and I’ve been fortunate enough to see a lot of kids grow the past several years — but to see a kid put a team on his back like that. The expectations of this team probably weren’t what they normally are for an Atlantic City team, but he put (his teammates) on his back and we reached some really lofty goals. It was special to see that,” Allen said. “We went as he went. If you look at our losses, he didn’t play well in the games we lost. But come playoff time, we really relied on him, and he came through for us. He’s a really good kid on and off the court, and I think he’s just starting to realize that he can be pretty good at this sport. To see and be a part of his development is definitely something special.”

Byard said he doesn’t yet know what his future might hold in terms of a career. Who knows, perhaps he can make a career out of playing the game he loves. That’s certainly high up on his wish list.

“I just want to be the best basketball player I can be,” he said. “Obviously, everyone’s dream is to go to the NBA. It would be great to be able to make money doing the thing that I love. I feel like I need to work on everything — getting stronger, faster, my dribbling. I don’t really know what to expect at the next level, but I know everyone else is good, so I have to bring my best every game.”

Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sully@acglorydays.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays