The Class A South race was a race in name only last year, as Toms River North won its third division title in four years by sweeping through the regular season at 14-0. The Mariners have established themselves as a perennial contender for the division crown ever since Rory Caswell took over six years ago and the returning group at Toms River North suggests the top of the standings could very well look the same as they did a year ago.

On the other hand, the teams that will challenge the Mariners for the top spot have a good chance to look a lot different, with a potential resurgence at Jackson Memorial, a Brick team with very high expectations and a deep, senior-laden Central team that just moved into A South from B South this year. There is a clear favorite that fits the profile of a “usual suspect” but there is a good chance some different uniforms and new faces will have a major impact during the season and into late February.

 

Toms River North

Head Coach: Rory Caswell, sixth season
2015-16 Record: 23-5 (14-0, first in A South)
Key Returners: Darrion Carrington (Sr., 6-2, Guard), Mike Nyisztor (Sr., 6-2, Guard), Jaden Rhoden (Sr., 6-2, Guard/Forward), Mike Husni (Sr., 5-11, Guard)
Key Losses: Pat Marinaccio (6-2, Guard/Forward), Hunter Petrick (6-2, Guard), Anthony Storino (6-1, Forward)
Key Newcomers: Travis Holland (Jr., 6-5, Forward), Holden Petrick (Jr., 5-10, Guard), Mark Mogate (Jr., 5-10, Guard), Elliot Dak (Jr., 6-7, Forward), Nick Perna (Jr., 6-2, Guard), Allen Schlanger (Jr., 6-4, Forward), Sean O’Donnell (Sr., Guard), Nick Dunzack (So., 6-5, Forward), Najea Hallenback (Fr., 6-5, Forward)

With a trio of experienced seniors, Toms River North has an opportunity to cement itself as one of the most consistent public school programs in the Shore Conference over the last five years. Four-year letter-winners Darrion Carrington and Mike Nyisztor have already two championship teams - which are part of a run that includes three Class A South titles and three trips to the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals. Jaden Rhoden joined the team last year after beginning his career at Central and Mike Husni – the record-setting quarterback on the Mariners football team – has been a part of the last three. Husni will move into the starting lineup this year with Carrington, Nyisztor and Rhoden.

The final starting spot is still up for grabs as the season approaches, but coach Rory Caswell has a number of options. Senior Sean O’Donnell led the junior varsity squad in scoring as a sophomore before missing last season, while juniors Travis Holland and Holden Petrick put in the time as sophomores last year. Holland would give the guard-heavy lineup some size to go with the quartet of guards that will be anchor the lineup. Another intriguing possibility is 6-5 freshman Najea Hallenback, if not as a starter than as a contributor and a candidate to help carry the torch forward after this group of seniors graduates.

Toms River North junior Mike Nyisztor scored 24 points to help the Mariners beat Peyton Wejnert (back) and Southern. (Photo by Ray Richardson)

Toms River North’s lineup faces some questions in the wake of a knee injury to Carrington in the South Jersey Group V football championship on Dec. 3, but Caswell said he expects his senior point guard to be ready for the opener on Dec. 18. With a healthy lineup and some young players successfully stepping into the depth roles, the Mariners should be on the short list of the Shore’s top public-school teams that will try to take down Mater Dei Prep and Ranney during the Shore Conference Tournament before embarking on a state championship quest.

 

Brick

Head Coach: Mike Gawronski, fifth season
2015-16 Record: 13-12 (8-6, fourth in A South)
Key Returners: Noah Buono (Sr., 6-5, Guard), Brandon Williams (Sr., 5-10, Guard), Shane Williams (So., 6-3, Guard/Forward), Joe DeStefano (Sr., 6-3, Guard), Anthony DeStefano (Sr., 6-5, Forward), Ja’Sir Taylor, (Sr., 6-2, Guard), Dan Venezia (Jr., 5-10, Guard), Mike Melitto (Jr., 5-9, Guard)
Key Losses: Kenny Buell (5-11, Guard)
Key Newcomers: Doug Boor (Sr., 6-1, Guard), Mark Streiter (Sr., 6-1, Guard), Brandon Dvorak (Sr., 6-2, Forward), Pete DeStefano (So., 6-2, Forward), Sergio DeLuca (Jr., 5-9, Guard), Tyler Roshala (Sr., 5-7, Guard), Fabio Silva (Sr., 5-10, Guard)

Last year was a major step forward for the Brick basketball program, which both reached the Shore Conference Tournament and secured a winning season for the first time since 2006-07. Not only did the Green Dragons plant their flag in the A South race once again, but they did so with a team heavy on juniors and underclass talent. Outside of leading scorer guard Kenny Buell, the entire rotation returns this season and that experience makes Brick a legitimate contender for the Class A South crown.

Six-foot-five sharp-shooter Noah Buono returns after averaging just north of 11 points and five rebounds as a junior and will likely be the team’s top option on offense. Fellow senior Joe DeStefano and junior Anthony Venezia also bring shooting touch to the lineup and sophomore Shane Williams will likely slide into the starting lineup on a permanent basis after a successful freshman season at the varsity level. Senior Brandon Williams brings athleticism to the perimeter, as does 6-5 Anthony DeStefano – who can also clean up around the glass with his leaping ability. Senior guard and Temple football recruit Ja’Sir Taylor is also a superior athlete and will join the rotation again this year after Brick’s run to the Central Jersey Group IV final.

While Toms River North has the look of a top-five team in the conference, Brick has the athleticism, shooting and experience to potentially present the Mariners with some problems in their two regular-season meetings. A South is always a slog for any team trying to win the division, but those two games will be huge, especially considering the division winner has lost no more than two games in any of the past six seasons.

 

Central

Head Coach: Mike Clemente Jr., second season
2015-16 Record: 11-15 (5-9, sixth in B South)
Key Returners: Maksymilian Gruszecki (Sr., 5-11, Guard), Denis Corbin (Sr., 6-4, Center), Anthony Petit-Clair (Sr., 6-3, Forward), Anthony Holloway (Sr., 5-10, Guard), Zion Hardy (Sr., 5-9, Guard), Andrew Kelly (Sr., 6-3, Forward), Xavier Jackson (Jr., 5-10, Guard), Walter Maldonado (So., 5-9, Guard), Darius Martorano (So., 6-1, Guard), Alvin Davis (Jr., 6-5, Forward)
Key Losses: Chris Downs (6-3, Guard), Nyheem Overton (5-10, Guard)
Key Newcomers: Tom Ruscitti (Jr., 6-1, Guard), Nick Alteiri (So., 6-0, Guard), Kavon Chambers (Fr., 6-0, Guard), Eli Allen (Jr., 6-4, Guard), Ishmael Jiminez (Jr., 6-2, Guard), Jared Peters (Jr., 6-3, Forward)

The new kids on the A South block, the Golden Eagles move from B South to the big-school division with nearly its entire team back from last year. After an extended stay as an assistant under Caswell at Toms River North, Mike Clemente Jr. took over Central last year, following in the footsteps of his father, who ran the program for 30 years. Clemente oversaw a developmental season in his first year after the Golden Eagles lost two eventual All-Shore players (Elijah Barnes and Jaden Rhoden) to transfers. Although Central had its ups and downs, it had them with a team full of players who not only played varsity ball for the first time but are back this year.

One of the few players on last year’s team that entered the year with experience was point guard Maks Gruszecki, who enjoyed an all-division junior campaign in B South. Grusziecki averaged a hair under 16 points, better than four assists and three steals last year and will look to build on that effort with a more experienced group around him. Seniors Denis Corbin and Anthony Petit-Clair will handle frontcourt duties, with Corbin returning as the team’s leading rebounder a year ago (11.4 per game). Senior guards Zion Hardy and Anthony Holloway are both quick guards who will make an impact on both ends after averaging multiple steals per game last year. Hardy can also handle the ball and allows Gruszecki to play off the ball when it benefits the Central offense.

Andrew Kelly and junior Tom Ruscitti will also play key roles in the front court as part of a deep varsity roster. The Golden Eagles have a lot of bodies on hand and there is a lot more experience to this group than there was last year. That should bode well for a senior-loaded team looking to make some noise in a new division.

 

Jackson Memorial

Head Coach: Kevin McQuade, third season
2015-16 Record: 11-12 (7-7, fifth in A South)
Key Returners: Andrew Trent (Sr., 6-6, Forward), Calvin Blue (Sr., 6-0, Guard), Ryan Lucas (Sr., 6-0, Guard/Forward), John Pitlak (Sr., 5-11, Guard), Nick Barba (Sr., 6-6, Forward/Center)
Key Losses: Chris Hawryluk (6-4, Forward)
Key Newcomers: Alex Cabrera (Jr., 6-3, Forward), Sean Klag (Jr., 6-1, Forward), A.J. Tomachewich (Jr., 5-10, Guard), Chris Mitchell (Jr., 6-2, Forward), Gerrad Panella (Jr., 5-8, Guard), Mike Dimino (Jr., 6-0, Guard)

While third-year coach Kevin McQuade took over a program that had established a winning culture during the previous five years, he did so just after a wave of talent graduated. The result was a rebuilding year in 2014-15 followed by a measureable step forward last year, when Jackson Memorial went .500 within the A South division and finished a game under .500 overall. This year has the Jaguars set up to take at least another incremental step forward, if not a more significant move up the standings.

Senior forward Andrew Trent returns off an all-division season as a junior last year and at 6-foot-6, is a threat from multiple spots on the floor. While his fellow frontcourt-mate from a year ago, Chris Hawryluk, moved on to play baseball at Monmouth University, the Jaguars will compensate for his graduation with three other returning senior starters in the back court. Calvin Blue and John Pitlak saw plenty of time last year and Ryan Lucas can play the two or the three for the Jaguars after starting most of last year. Senior 6-6 center Nick Barba also returns with some starting experience for Jackson Memorial and will round out the projected starting lineup to open the year.

Jackson Memorial will turn to an army of juniors to provide depth to its senior starting five, which should immediately put the Jaguars in the discussion for the top challenger to Toms River North. Considering Toms River East’s injury problems and Southern’s graduation losses, the Jaguars are set up to make a run this year, especially considering fellow contenders Brick and Central have not enjoyed the kind of recent success that Jackson Memorial has just three seasons ago. This is a big year and a golden opportunity to a quality, senior-heavy Jaguars roster after they showed some noteworthy progress last year.

 

Southern

Head Coach: Eric Fierro, seventh season
2015-16 Record: 18-9 (10-4, tied second in A South)
Key Returners: Jake DuBois (Jr., 5-10, Guard), Mark Valeriani (Sr., 5-8, Guard), Matt Mershon (Sr., 6-4, Forward), Billy Howard (Sr., 6-4, Forward)
Key Losses: Peyton Wejnert (6-6, Forward), Ethan DuBois (5-11, Guard), John Keizer (6-1, Forward), Sean Clayton (6-0, Guard)
Key Newcomers: Connor Ciliberto (Sr., 5-11, Guard), Anthony Cipriani (Sr., 5-11, Guard), August Gugliemini (Jr., 6-3, Guard/Forward), Thomas Foster (Jr., 6-4, Guard), Vinnie Deck (So., 6-0, Guard), John Tilton (So., 6-3, Forward), Joe Guglielmo (So., 6-0, Forward), Joe Infurna (So., 5-10, Guard)

Since Mike Gesicki’s sophomore season in 2011-12, Southern has always returned at least one of its top two players from the previous year, which is a major reason why the Rams have routinely been in the A South hunt during that time. That run ends this year after both Peyton Wejnert and Ethan DuBois graduated this past spring and now the Rams will have to deal with more uncertainty than they typically have under seventh-year coach Eric Fierro.

Senior Mark Valeriani and junior Jake DuBois were both capable role players on last year’s team and will now move into more prominent roles after most of the team’s offensive production was tied up in Wejnert and Ethan DuBois. Valeriani (8.9 points and 3.3 assists last year) remains a dangerous shooter and will have the ball in his hands more this year, while DuBois will look to build upon a strong all-around showing on both ends. DuBois averaged nine points and two assists as a sophomore and one of his best games came in the Shore Conference Tournament round of 16 at Manasquan, where he put up a 16 points and hit four three-pointers in the second quarter.

Seniors Matt Mershon and Bill Howard bring some varsity experience back to the front court and with some scoring potential on the perimeter, the two 6-4 forwards will be asked to excel on the glass and on the defensive interior. This year will be a good test for the Southern program as the Rams try to overcome the loss of scoring and remain a regular in the Class A South race.

 

Toms River East

Head Coach: Jim Dempsey, fourth season
2015-16 Record: 16-7 (10-4, tied second in A South)
Key Returners: Zyaire Dorn (Jr., 5-9, Guard), Ryan Allender (Jr., 5-11, Guard), Nick Silvia (Jr., 6-1, Forward), Phil Lingat (Sr., 6-1, Guard)
Key Losses: Ryan West (6-3, Forward), Bailey Engelhard (6-5, Forward), Carlos Lingat (5-8, Guard), Pat Saunders (6-2, Guard/Forward)
Key Newcomers: Jack Goodall (Jr., 5-9, Guard), Nick Shortino (Jr., 6-0, Guard), Brad Brush (Jr., 6-3, Forward), Alex Dunne (Jr., 6-2, Forward), Ahmir Cournier (So., 6-1, Forward), Ryan Goodall (Fr., 5-8, Guard), Trevor Zabilowicz (Jr., 6-2, Forward), Josh Nicol (So., 5-8, Guard)

Although Toms River East was slated to lose four starters to graduation, this year still had a rosy outlook with leading scorer and All-Shore guard Phil Lingat slated to return. That outlook drastically changed when Lingat suffered a torn ACL in June, which prompted subsequent surgery in August that will likely cause him to miss the season. While coach Jim Dempsey said he and Lingat have not ruled out a return for the senior standout at some point in early 2017, the Raiders will have to make do without him for a significant portion of the season – and more likely the whole thing.

With Lingat out, Toms River East will without any senior influence on the floor. The Raiders have a junior-loaded roster that could get some help from a few sophomores and a freshman as well. The group is headlined by the junior trio of Zyaire Dorn, Ryan Allender and Nick Silvia all of whom came off the bench last year. Dorn, in particular, was a significant contributor last year as the team’s sixth man and is the best bet to lead the Raiders in scoring this year. Allender is an improved player heading into his junior year and Siliva will provide front court help.

Junior Brad Brush – a standout pitcher for the baseball team – will provide some muscle and athleticism in his first year on the high school basketball team. Sophomore Ahmir Cournier and freshman Ryan Goodall will add some youth to the rotation, while Jack Goodall, Nick Shortino and 6-2 Alex Dunne are three more likely contributors from the junior class. Even without Lingat this year, Toms River East is capable of making some noise in A South, but without any seniors, the 2016-17 season will be as much about laying the foundation for 2018 as it will be about surprising some people this year.

 

Toms River South

Head Coach: Curt DeFillippo, third season
2015-16 Record: 9-14 (5-9, sixth in A South)
Key Returners: Nykie Lofton (Sr., 6-1, Guard), Denzel Wilson (Sr., 5-11, Guard), Matt Shiffer (Sr., 6-1, Guard)
Key Losses: R.J. Laing (6-4, Forward), Tyler Fall (6-3, Forward), Justin Fall (Sr., 6-3, Forward)
Key Newcomers: Jason Porter (Sr., 6-3, Forward), Jake Regain (Sr., 6-1, Guard), Matt Fitzpatrick (Sr., 6-2, Forward), Troy Peterson (Sr., 6-3, Forward), Tyler Rinkerman (Sr., 6-4, Forward), Armani Vasaques (Jr., 5-11, Guard) – Transfer from Brick Memorial

The 2015-16 season was a period of adjustment for the Toms River South program, which went from a high-scoring team dominated by one All-Shore guard in Tymere Berry to a more balanced, less-experienced team last year. The Indians spent the year grasping for a defensive identity with an unselfish mindset on offense and with a senior-heavy team this season, they are more likely to embody that identity.

With the return of Nykie Lofton (6-1), Denzel Wilson (5-11) and Matt Shiffer (5-11), Toms River South remains a guard-oriented team, particularly on the offensive end. Lofton and Wilson will likely combine for the primary source for offense, while Shiffer is a knock-down shooter with energy on the defensive end. Seniors Jason Porter, Matt Fitzpatrick, Troy Peterson and Tyler Rinkerman will all look to contribute in the front court as part of a senior-loaded rotation.

Last year was bound to bring about some trouble for the Indians because of what they lost from the previous year, but with a season to recover and rebuild, Toms River South – despite some unknowns and still-to-be-answered questions – could very well be a team flying under the radar while ready to strike for a top-three finish.

 

Brick Memorial

Head Coach: Jason Bloom, second season
2015-16 Record: 2-19 (1-13, tied seventh in A South)
Key Returners: Anthony Argondizza (Jr., 6-4, Forward), Vinny Vecchione (Jr., 6-0, Guard), Vin Hernandez (Jr., 6-1, Forward), Dominic Scardilli (Sr., 6-0, Forward), Rob Manso (Sr., 5-8, Guard),
Key Losses: Darius Richards (6-0, Guard), Elie Lavarin (6-0, Guard/Forward), Billy Porter (6-2, Forward), Dave Clark (6-0, Guard/Forward)
Key Newcomers: Colin McMahon (Sr., 6-3, Forward), Matt Panuska (Sr., 6-2, Forward), Dan Lahey (Jr., 5-11, Guard), Gianni Linfante (Sr., 6-3, Guard/Forward), Kyle McMahon (So., Guard), Kevin Starrett (Jr., 5-11, Guard), Joe Manso (Sr., 5-11, Guard), Augie Camacho (Sr., 6-1, Forward), Matt Bernstein (So., 6-1, Forward), Jake Sliazis (Jr., 6-3, Forward)

There is nowhere to go but up for Brick Memorial, which could not overcome a slew of graduation losses during a two-win season a year ago. Jason Bloom took over a rebuilding job in his first season as head coach last year and will look to guide a more experienced, junior-heavy group this season. Junior Anthony Argondizza emerged as a potential go-to scorer last year, while Vinny Vecchione and Vin Hernandez both broke in as sophomores at the varsity level. Dominic Scardelli and Rob Manso bring some senior leadership back to the varsity squad this year – Scardilli in the front court and Manso at one of the guard spots.

Sophomores Kyle McMahon and Matt Bernstein represent a new wave of young talent that will try to help the Mustangs better compete in A South this year – which will be even tougher considering that rebuilding Lacey moved to B South only to be replaced by a senior-laden, athletic Central squad. It’s a long climb back to the top for a program that was a perennial contender up until last year and just a handful of wins in A South this year would be a welcome ray of light for the Mustangs.

 

Players to Watch

Jaden Rhoden, Toms River North – Averaged 14.2 points, 8.8 rebounds and 3.6 steals in 2015-16, when he was a third-team All-Shore forward as a junior.

Mike Nyisztor, Toms River North – Led the Shore in three-point field goals (77) as a junior while averaging 13.7 points and 3.1 assists.

Darrion Carrington, Toms River North – Led the Shore with 7.5 assists per game last year after finishing second (6.9) as a sophomore.

Noah Buono, Brick – A 6-5 guard with length and shooting touch, Buono averaged 11.4 points and 5.7 boards as a junior and headlines a Brick team looking to make noise in 2017.

Maks Grusziecki, Central – After averaging a shade under 16 points, more than four assists and three steals, Gruszecki returns as a one of the Shore’s top all-around guards.

Andrew Trent, Jackson Memorial – A second team All-A-South selection by the coaches, the 6-6 Trent emerged as an all-around force for the Jaguars by the end of the year.

 

Breakout Players to Watch

Shane Williams, Brick – Made solid contributions as a freshman and is ready to take on a role as a primary source of offense.

Zyaire Dorn, Toms River East – Although forced into a bigger role because of the injury to Lingat, Dorn showed he can handle big games as a sophomore last year, when he averaged 7.8 points per game.

Jake DuBois, Southern – Speaking of big games, the Southern southpaw stepped up for the Rams when it counted and will be called upon to be one of the team’s leaders as a junior.

Anthony Argondizza, Brick Memorial – The Mustangs should see some progress this year thanks to a returning group led by the 6-4 Argondizza.

 

Burning Questions

Is Toms River North the best public school team in the Shore Conference?

The Mariners make a strong case as the No. 1 challenger to the Mater Dei and Ranney behemoths. Toms River North returns three four-year varsity players (Carrington, Nyisztor and Rhoden) – all of whom were first-team All-A-South selections by Shore Sports Network last year. If the depth can step up and fill in the roles around those three – particularly in the paint – the Mariners appear the clear-cut No. 3 team out of the gate.

Can Phil Lingat return to help Toms River East in the postseason?

The answer to this question should be “absolutely not” but Toms River East coach Jim Dempsey indicated that Lingat is way ahead of schedule and is already working on lateral reactions just four months after ACL surgery. If Lingat appears in a high school game in February or March – just six-to-seven months after surgery and eight-to-nine since the injury – it would be one of the stories of the year.

How will Southern look with Wejnert and DuBois gone?

Southern might be the ultimate wild card in the division because it’s been a while since they had to replace the kind of production that left when Peyton Wejnert and Ethan DuBois graduated. Even when Mike Gesicki left after 2013-14, Jake Logue returned and Wejnert transferred in. The best-case scenario is likely for Southern to develop into a balanced team on offense, a scrappy defensive unit, and hang around in the division race by knocking off the likes of Brick, Jackson Memorial and Central.

Can the Dragons fly in 2017?

While the rebuild at Brick has been deliberate, it appears to be on the cusp of a big payoff. While Brick managed to reach the Shore Conference Tournament and the .500 mark for the first time in nine years, that was likely only a precursor to an even bigger showing this year. Although 2015-16 leading scorer Kenny Buell graduated, the Dragons return the rest of the rotation that includes plenty of shooting and athleticism.

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