Basketball – Manasquan, TR North and Alex Blackwell Highlight WOBM Tip-Off Event
TOMS RIVER - Prior to last December, Toms River North junior Mike Nyisztor's athletic reputation was mostly that he was the younger brother of a former basketball and baseball standout.
Then, the younger Nyisztor put on a shooting and scoring display in the WOBM Christmas Classic last winter and kicked off a breakout season for himself and a resurgent year for his team.
In winning tournament MVP in 2014 - a feat his brother, Steve, also accomplished for Toms River North - Nyisztor helped his Mariners win the Classic before they ultimately went on to capture the Class A South division title and reach the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals for the second time in three years.
"Doing what we did last year, I think we know what it takes," Nyisztor said at the Tip-Off Brunch, a gathering of the 32 boys and girls teams at the Clarion Hotel in Toms River ahead of the 32nd annual WOBM Classic. "I think we have an even better team than last year and one of our goals is always to win this tournament. It's really good competition and we know if we do well here, we have a chance to do well during the rest of the season."
Fifth-year Toms River North coach Rory Caswell has guided the Mariners to two Christmas Classic championships and in each season, Toms River North has gone on to the A South title and the SCT semifinals. That makes Caswell's sales pitch to his team - the No. 2 seed in this year's Classic - heading into Saturday's tournament opener against 15th-seeded Middletown South an easy one.
"This is a huge tournament for our guys and they look forward to it every year," Caswell said. "Guys they know from other teams are playing in it and there are also some good teams from outside our division who give us great competition.
"We tell the guys that this is the start of the season and how you start here propels you the rest of the way. Like last year, when we did well in the tournament, it carried over into the regular season and we're hoping for the same thing this year."
Toms River North returns two other starters in addition to Nyisztor - senior Pat Marinaccio and junior Darrion Carrington. The Mariners have a more guard-heavy roster than they did a year ago, but with those three accomplished varsity players and the addition of Central Regional transfer and six-foot junior guard Jaden Rhoden, they still have a roster that gives them a chance to start the season on the right foot once again.
"We don't have as many players that you consider 'big guys' but we have players with good size to go along with their athleticism," Caswell said. "Darrion is up to six-(foot)-three now, which gives us size at the point and we have a bunch of other perimeter guys who go six-two who are going to be able to do some of the things we like to see on the defensive end and the glass. We'll be a little more spread out with all of the guards we have, but I still think we have enough size and athleticism to do what we want to do."
The Mariners are seeded behind only Manasquan, which drew the No. 1 seed in the tournament for the second straight year. The Warriors lost to eighth-seeded Toms River South in the Classic quarterfinals a year ago, but went on to capture a share of the Class A Central division title before winning the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group II title.
While Toms River North is the quintessential example of a team that has used the WOBM Classic as a launch pad, the Warriors are the example of a team who took a loss on the Holiday Tournament scene and rebounded in a big way. Despite last year's script, Manasquan would not mind starting its season off with a tournament title to go with an eventual second-straight state sectional championship.
"One of our guys was reading a paper at our table and pointed out that Raritan was 7-5 and won a state championship in football," Manasquan coach Andrew Bilodeau said. "The Giants won two Super Bowls winning nine or 10 games. Championships are won at the end of the season and you want to make sure you are playing your best at the end.
"At the send time, everything you do matters. When you're seeding the Shore Conference Tournament, every game counts and a tournament like this one is a chance to see some of the competition from around the Shore and see how you match up."
Red Bank Catholic is the No. 5 seed in this year's boys tournament after finishing runner-up to Toms River North last year and return Eddie Hahn and all-tournament performer Evan Madigan as seniors this year. Toms River South and Freehold Township were the other two semifinalists from a year ago and drew the No. 10 and No. 6 seeds, respectively. Both lost key scorers from a year ago but will look to the WOBM Tournament to find out what its roster can do in the early going.
Manchester and its lineup full of experienced varsity talent is the No. 3 seed on the boys side and Donovan Catholic - another senior-laded squad - drew the No. 4 seed. No. 7 Marlboro and an improved Toms River East team round out the top-eight boys seeds.
Lady Warriors Begin Title Defense
Not only is Manasquan the returning champion in the Girls WOBM Christmas Classic, but the Warriors also return as the defending NJSIAA Tournament of Champions victor, not to mention the Shore Conference Tournament champions.
The Lady Warriors will begin their title defenses Friday at rival Rumson-Fair Haven before taking the trip to Toms River to open up the WOBM Christmas Classic as the No. 1 seed against No. 16 Jackson Memorial.
Manasquan will be a much different squad this season without 2015 All-American and current Notre Dame freshman Marina Mabrey, but the Warriors do return three key contributors from last year in sophomore Dara Mabrey, junior Stella Clark and junior Addie Masonius.
"We have a lot of girls who are ready to step into some of the roles that we left by the seniors who graduated and with some of the injuries we've had," fourth-year Manasquan coach Lisa Kukoda said. "We have a young group but I think that they are ready for the challenge"
The loss of both returning starting center Victoria Galvan and guard Gillian Black to torn ACL's presents a season-long challenge, but the Warriors expect a long list of new contributors to step in and fill the void, including impact freshman Faith Masonius.
"We lost that leadership and that strong presence on the court and now, these younger girls have to step into that," Kukoda said. "I think they've definitely shown they can play at the level that we established last year, but there is still a learning process that they are going to have to go through."
Manasquan will have plenty of competition in a girls WOBM field that is loaded, as usual. Middletown South returns four starters - Stephanie Karcz, Alexandra Balsamo, Haley Dalonzo and Julia Valkos - from its Group III championship team and is the No. 2 seed this year after losing to Manasquan in the Classic championship game last year.
After featuring a young lineup with three freshmen in the rotation a year ago, Red Bank Catholic enters the 2015-16 season with a deep, more experienced roster that will look to open its season as a No. 3 seed that wins a WOBM title. A seemingly improved Colts Neck squad comes into the tournament as the No. 4 seed and Sayreville - the lone team in either bracket from outside the Shore Conference - is the No. 5 seed on the girls side.
No. 6 Manchester, No. 7 Donovan Catholic and No. 8 Toms River East round out the top-eight seeds in the Girls WOBM bracket.
Alex Blackwell Returns to His Roots
Nyisztor and his Toms River North peers had all heard the stories of Alex Blackwell and his exploits on the basketball court, and for the first time Tuesday, they could put a face to the name.
"You hear all these cool stories about him and then he shows up here - it's like seeing a legend," Nyisztor said.
Blackwell - one of the most accomplished Shore Conference basketball players ever and among Monmouth University's greatest basketball products - was the guest speaker at the WOBM Christmas Classic Tip-Off Brunch at the Clarion Hotel in Toms River and delivered a short and simple message to the gathering of boys and girls players.
"My message to you today is that with a lot of hard work, anything is possible," Blackwell said. "You've got to believe in yourself, you've got to believe in your team and you've got to believe in what your coaches are telling you."
Despite being one of the top basketball talents to ever come out of the area, Blackwell has been an elusive figure to those who knew him in his high school and college playing days. He currently lives in Chile with his wife and daughter and coaches travel basketball.
Blackwell is back where it all began to attend a ceremony at Monmouth University in which the school will officially induct him into its athletic hall of fame. Blackwell starred for the Hawks as a center in the late 1980s and early 1990s before catching on with the Los Angeles Lakers after he went undrafted in 1992. He went on to spend 17 seasons as a professional in different parts of the world.
"There were times in my career that I thought I wasn't good enough," Blackwell said. "There were times I wanted to quit basketball. There were times thought I didn't have the skills that it takes to be part of something special.
"But with a lot of help from my coaches and a lot of my friends, I decided to stick with it and I think that was a great decision on my part. It has allowed me to do other things other than basketball. Basketball has opened up a lot of doors for me and opened up a lot of doors for my family."