Not only has the Toms River North boys basketball team emerged as one of the Shore’s top public school programs over the past six seasons under coach Rory Caswell, but the Mariners have also carried the flag for all of Class A South. A division that is scarcely represented in the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals throughout the history of the tournament has had a representative in each of the past three seasons and in four of the last five thanks to the Mariners.

While it is nice that Toms River North has boosted the reputation of the division, the rest of the field would like to get in on the action. The Mariners are one of five teams in the division to lose at least three starters and Southern lost three players who started at one point to make it six. That gives the division an entirely new look, which means this could be the year that somebody snatches the title away from Toms River North. On the flip side, it could also be a chance for the Mariners to show that the cupboard is fully stocked and they don’t plan on going anywhere.

In predicted order of finish

Toms River North

Head Coach: Rory Caswell, seventh season
2016-17 Record: 28-3 (14-0, first in A South)
Key Returnees: Travis Holland (Sr., 6-6, Guard), Holden Petrick (Sr., 5-10, Guard), Mark Mogarte (Sr., 5-10, Guard), Elliot Dak (Sr., 6-7, Forward)
Key Losses: Jaden Rhoden (6-3, Guard/Forward), Darrion Carrington (6-2, Guard), Mike Nyisztor (6-2, Guard), Mike Husni (5-11, Guard), Sean O’Donnell (6-0, Guard)
Key Newcomers: Nick Dunzack (Jr., 6-5, Forward), Najea Hallenback (So., 6-5, Forward), Colin Baker (So., 6-2, Guard), Michael Centeno (Sr., 6-7, Forward), Nick Perna (Sr., 6-3, Guard), Allen Schlanger (Sr., 6-4, Forward), Jakari Spence (So., 5-10, Guard) – Transfer from Manchester; Markese Davis (Jr., 6-0, Guard) – Transfer from Manchester

Toms River North senior Travis Holland. (Photo by Ray Richardson)

Not only does Toms River North enter the 2017-18 season a three-time defending A South champion, but does so on a 32-game winning streak against A South teams. That includes back-to-back undefeated seasons in the division behind a core of players that included Jaden Rhoden, Mike Nyisztor and Darrion Carrington. All three graduated following last year, as did key contributors Sean O’Donnell and Mike Husni, which means if Toms River North is to keep its streak alive this year, the Mariners will have to do so behind only a few experienced players and wave of new talent.

Seniors Travis Holland and Holden Petrick return as starters from a year ago, although their roles will be different now that the trio of Rhoden, Nyisztor and Carrington has moved on. Holland served as a center and forward because of his size and the abundance of guards last year, but a more balanced roster will allow the 6-6 wing to play his natural position. Holland got better and better stepping out and shooting the ball as the year went on so he has already proven he can handle the offensive demands of the position change. Petrick, meanwhile, is set to reprise his role as shooting guard, but will have the ball in his hands more this season after putting up just under 11 points per game as a junior. Senior Mark Mogarte also started in the beginning of the season and this year, he will start at point guard.

The Mariners will have two more traditional front court players in their starting lineup in that both are big. At 6-7, senior Elliot Daks returns with varsity experience off the bench, while 6-6 sophomore Najea Hallenback – a Division I offensive line recruit with an offer in hand from Rutgers - jumps into the lineup. On the bench, Toms River North will have plenty of perimeter options, highlighted by Manchester transfers Jakari Spence and Markese Davis. Spence is a sophomore who was second on the Hawks in scoring as a freshman, while Davis is an experienced varsity guard. Sophomore Colin Baker will also play in his second high school season, while junior Nick Dunzack (6-5) seniors Mike Centeno (6-7) and Allen Schlanger (6-4) provide plenty of size in Toms River North’s front court depth. It’s a different look from last year’s 28-win team, but with so many A South teams rebuilding or trying to make a jump from down in the standings, it’s a look that’s good enough to keep Toms River North winning this year.

 

Brick

Head Coach: Mike Gawronski, sixth season
2016-17 Record: 15-11 (7-7, third in A South)
Key Returnees: Shane Williams (Jr., 6-4, Guard/Forward), Dan Venezia (Sr., 6-0, Guard), Mike Melitto (Sr., 5-9, Guard)
Key Losses: Noah Buono (6-5, Guard), Brandon Williams (5-10, Guard), Joe DeStefano (6-3, Guard), Anthony DeStefano (6-5, Forward), Ja’Sir Taylor (6-2, Guard), Doug Boor (Sr., 6-1, Guard)
Key Newcomers: Jalen Jackson (Jr., 6-2, Guard) – Transfer from St. Anthony; Cole Groschel (Jr., 6-2, Forward), Sergio DeLuca (Sr., 5-7, Guard), Kyle Sullivan (Sr., 5-8, Guard), Nick D’Eufmia (Sr., 6-5, Forward), Dan Meyers (Sr., 6-3, Guard), Zach Scheiss (Sr., 5-11, Guard)

Brick has made a steady trek up the standings under sixth-year coach Mike Gawronski and with an impact guard returning to the fold and a pair of promising newcomers from the same junior class joining him, the Green Dragons hope this season will be the start of a big two-year stretch for the program. Junior Shane Williams returns to the starting five after putting up 14.4 points per game as a sophomore, not to mention 8.6 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 2.4 steals and 2.5 blocks. He’s joined in the starting lineup by senior guard Dan Venezia, who also earned time as a starter last year and can space the floor as a shooter.

Juniors Jalen Jackson and Cole Groeschel will bring some athleticism to the lineup in their first varsity seasons. Jackson is a 6-1 guard who transferred in from the now-closed St. Anthony in Jersey City, where he played on the sub-varsity level. Groeschel, meanwhile, is coming off a breakout season on the football field and will put his athleticism to use in Brick’s front court as a tireless rebounder and defender. Senior guard Mike Melitto will also be a key contributor as a varsity returnee who will see more time with some holes open in the starting lineup.

In each of the past two seasons, Brick showed significant progress by jumping to a record above .500 two years ago and then finishing with 15 wins in 2016-17. The next step is to make a serious run at a division title and if the Green Dragons can do that with a team led by a junior trio, then the climb should continue over the next two years.

 

Brick Memorial

Head Coach: Mike Pelkey, first season
2016-17 Record: 8-17 (6-8, tied fourth in A South)
Key Returnees: Anthony Argondizza (Sr., 6-4, Forward), Vinny Vecchione (Sr., 6-0, Guard), Vin Hernandez (Sr., 6-2, Forward), Dan Lahey (Sr., 5-11, Guard), Kevin Starrett (Sr., 6-1, Guard), Jake Sliazis (Sr., 6-3, Forward), Matt Bernstein (Jr., 6-2, Forward), Kyle McMahon (Jr., 6-2, Forward), Nick Manso (Jr., 5-10, Guard)
Key Losses: Gianni Linfante (Sr., 6-3, Guard/Forward), Dominic Scardilli (Sr., 6-0, Forward), Rob Manso (Sr., 5-8, Guard),
Key Newcomers: Nick Dominguez (Jr., 6-3, Forward), Tyler Sindel (Jr., 5-10, Guard)

In some ways, last year was a success for Brick Memorial. The Mustangs improved significantly on the previous season and finished tied for fourth place in Class A South with a team heavy on juniors. On the other hand, Brick Memorial lost more than twice as many games as it won and despite finishing in the top half of the standings, the Mustangs still had a sub-.500 divisional record. Now with a new head coach in alumnus and former Matawan assistant Mike Pelkey, Brick Memorial will try to take another big step behind a roster that has a lot more varsity experience than it came in with a year ago.

Seniors Anthony Argondizza, Vin Hernandez and Vinny Vecchione lead the host of returning players, with Argondizza leading the team in scoring (9.8 points), Hernandez in rebounding (5.4) and Vecchione in assists (2.1) a year ago, with the trio also representing the top three scorers on the team as well. Seniors Dan Lahey, Kevin Starrett and Jake Sliazis are all back as well, with Lahey and Starrett joining Vecchione in the back court and the 6-3 Sliazis playing forward along with Argondizza and Hernandez.

Pelkey will also have a chance to work in some depth from the incoming junior class. Matt Bernstein was fourth on the team in scoring last year, while Nick Manso and Kyle McMahon each got a dose of playing time as sophomores. With so many players back in the fold, Brick Memorial has a chance to ride its depth and varsity experience to A South contention, which would mark a successful climb back to contention after a very rough, 2-20 season just two years ago.

 

Toms River East

Head Coach: Jim Dempsey, fifth season
2016-17 Record: 8-15 (3-11, eighth in A South)
Key Returnees: Zyaire Dorn (Sr., 5-9, Guard), Trevor Zabilowicz (Sr., 6-2, Guard/Forward), Jack Goodall (Sr., 5-9, Guard), Nick Silvia (Sr., 6-1, Forward), Nick Shortino (Sr., 5-11, Guard), Ryan Goodall (So., 5-10, Guard)
Key Losses: Brad Brush (6-3, Forward)
Key Newcomers: Josh Nicol (Jr., 6-1, Guard), Mike Goodall (So., 5-8, Guard)

Toms River East’s 16-win season and trip to the South Jersey Group III semifinals in 2015-16 appeared to be a breakthrough year for the program under coach Jim Dempsey, but a knee injury to standout returning guard Phil Lingat in the summer of 2016 doomed an otherwise inexperienced Raiders team in 2016-17. They got off to a 2-9 start and could not recover in time to climb out of the Class A South cellar.

Toms River East did, however, go 6-6 over its final 12 games with a team full of players who have returned this season. The positive finish last year could be a precursor to a return to winning, which Toms River East showed it could do just two short years ago. There may not be a figure like Lingat on the team, but the Raiders do have a leader in senior point guard Zyaire Dorn, who led the Raiders in scoring at more than 13 points per game as a sophomore. Dorn is also the only player on this team who played regular minutes two years ago, when he was the team’s sixth man as a sophomore.

Last year, particularly down the stretch, Trevor Zabilowicz, Jack Goodall and Nick Silvia came on strong as juniors and will be key parts of the senior core this year. Nick Shortino will also be an impact senior, while sophomores Ryan Goodall and Mike Goodall helping out in the back court along with junior Josh Nicol. Only Brick Memorial compares to Toms River East in the sheer volume of returning players and if the Raiders can pick up and play the same way they did at the end of last season, they could potentially challenge for one of the first two spots in the standings.

 

Southern

Head Coach: Eric Fierro, eighth season
2016-17 Record: 11-15 (5-9, sixth in A South)
Key Returnees: Jake DuBois (Sr., 5-10, Guard), Thomas Foster (Sr., 6-5, Guard), August Gugliemini (Sr., 6-2, Forward), Johnny Tilton (Jr., 6-3, Forward), Cole Markley (Jr., 6-2, Guard)
Key Losses: Mark Valeriani (Sr., 5-8, Guard), Matt Mershon (Sr., 6-4, Forward), Billy Howard (Sr., 6-4, Forward), Connor Ciliberto (Sr., 5-11, Guard), Anthony Cipriani (Sr., 5-11, Guard)
Key Newcomers: Vinnie Deck (Jr., 6-0, Guard), Joe Guglielmo (Jr., 6-0, Forward), Joe Infurna (Jr., 5-10, Guard), Will DeVane (So., 5-5, Guard), Alex Manno (Jr., 6-2, Guard), Cole Robinson (So., 6-1, Forward), Alex Tcheveev (Sr., 6-5, Forward), Noah Wasacz (So., 6-3, Forward)

During Eric Fierro’s tenure as Southern’s head coach, the Rams have done an especially good job of blending talent in from one year to the next. There are always either sophomore or junior players who make significant contributions and return the following year as the top player or players on the roster. While the Rams had a couple of those types last year, they were not of the same impact as in recent years prior and the result was an underwhelming season by their standards.

The silver lining is that this year, the Rams have their returning standout and he is 5-10 senior Jake DuBois. Although DuBois was a starter as a sophomore and a capable scorer on that 2015-16 team, he was asked to carry a lot of the load as one of the few returning regulars. He managed to average nearly 15 points per game and this year, he should have a little more balance in the returning team around him. Senior Thomas Foster emerged last year as a reliable player on the block to both rebound and defend while picking up some points as well. Junior forward Johnny Tilton is also back with some starts on his resume, while senior forward August Gugliemini and junior guard Cole Markley both return with varsity experience as well.

Vinnie Deck, Joe Guglielmo, Joe Infurna and Alex Manno are four more juniors looking to make an impact this year, while sopohomores Will DeVane and Cole Robinson, as well as 6-5 senior Alex Tcheveev will also have a chance to earn time. DuBois is more proven than any player Southern brought back a year ago and if the new group can help form a solid supporting cast around him and Foster, the Rams should have what it takes to be in the A South title hunt into February.

 

Central

Head Coach: Mike Clemente Jr., third season
2016-17 Record: 22-6 (11-3, second in A South)
Key Returnees: Xavier Jackson (Sr., 6-0, Guard), Tom Ruscitti (Sr., 6-2, Forward), Darius Martorano (So., 6-1, Guard)
Key Losses: Maks Gruszecki (5-11, Guard), Denis Corbin (6-4, Center), Anthony Petit-Clair (6-3, Forward), Anthony Holloway (5-10, Guard), Zion Hardy (5-9, Guard), Andrew Kelly (6-3, Forward)
Key Newcomers: Kavon Chambers (So., 6-1, Guard), Marvin Goodwine (Fr., 5-10, Guard), Eli Allen (Sr., 6-4, Guard), Walter Maldonado (Jr., 5-10, Guard), Nick Altieri (Jr., 6-1, Guard), Josh Clyburn (Sr., 5-10, Guard), Jared Peters (Sr., 6-3, Forward), Nasir Dillard (Jr., 5-9, Guard), Nick Firetto (So., 6-1, Forward), Reece Chevalier (So., 6-0, Forward)

Central had long been looking forward to the 2016-17 season and the Golden Eagles delivered the best season in the history of the program, at least by using wins as a measurement. The 22 victories marked a program record, as Central finished second in the division behind Toms River North and won a game in both the Shore Conference and South Jersey Group III Tournaments. The Golden Eagles did all of that with a senior-packed roster so the version of Central that takes the court this year will look much different than the one that made school history last year.

Senior Xavier Jackson, senior Tom Ruscitti and sophomore Darius Martorano are the only three players to return with varsity experience and all three came off the bench last year. Jackson played the most of the three and is the best bet to step up as a primary contributor for the Golden Eagles this year. The rest of the lineup and rotation will feature a mix of underclassmen and upperclassmen, highlighted by a pair of promising young guards in sophomore Kavon Chambers and freshman Marvin Goodwine. Chambers was a standout running back for the football team, while Goodwine has impressed coach Mike Clemente and his staff in the early going.

Senior Eli Allen, junior Walter Maldonado and senior Josh Clyburn will also pitch in to give Central an athletic rotation that will look to pressure opponents and push the tempo. There are plenty of question marks for the Golden Eagles heading into the season given how many key players they lost from a year ago, but Clemente’s success in his first two years coupled with the presence of some prominent athletes in a potentially deep lineup should have Central thinking about another chance to make a run in the postseason.

 

Jackson Memorial

Head Coach: Kevin McQuade, fourth season
2016-17 Record: 11-12 (6-8, tied fourth in A South)
Key Returnees: Alex Cabrera (Sr., 6-2, Forward), A.J. Tomachewich (Sr., 5-10, Guard), Nick Kinzler (Jr., 6-5, Forward/Center)
Key Losses: 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 Newcomers: Chris Mitchell (Sr., 6-2, Guard/Forward), Gerard Panella (Sr., 5-8, Guard), Jayson Lee (Jr., 5-11, Guard), Joe Maffei (Jr., 6-4, Forward), Tommy Mitchell (Jr., 6-3, Forward), Ronny Bantang (So., 6-3, Forward), Nick Colon (So., 5-10, Guard)

Jackson Memorial is another A South team looking to replace an entire starting lineup after the Jaguars rode their all-senior starting five to a record just under .500 last year. Like Central, Jackson brings back a trio of players with varsity experience that will help ease the transition to a new group. Senior Alex Cabrera came off the bench as a junior last year, as did senior guard A.J. Tomachewich. Junior Nick Kinzler – an All-Shore goalkeeper for the Jaguars soccer team – also got a taste of the varsity game and has the size and athleticism to make a difference for the Jaguars in the starting lineup this year.

Kinzler heads a solid group of juniors that will help fill in the missing pieces from a year ago. Forwards Joe Maffei (6-4) and Tommy Mitchell (6-3) will give Jackson some more size up front, while Jayson Lee will slot in at guard when he is on the couart. Sophomores Ronny Bantang and Nick Colon are also getting the varsity call and could help lay the foundation for a competitive team once everyone gets settled into their new roles. It might take some time, but in a division in transition, Jackson Memorial has a chance to stay in contention for postseason berths despite losing an entire starting five.

 

Toms River South

Head Coach: Curt DeFillippo, fourth season
2016-17 Record: 7-16 (4-10, tied sixth in A South)
Key Returnees: Jalen Folsom (So., 6-0, Guard)
Key Losses: Nykie Lofton (6-1, Guard), Denzel Wilson (5-11, Guard), Matt Shiffer (6-1, Guard), Justin Fall (6-5, Forward), Troy Peterson (Sr., 6-3, Forward), Matt Fitzpatrick (Sr., 6-2, Forward), Jason Porter (6-3, Forward), Jake Regan (6-1, Guard), Drew Laing (Forward)
Key Newcomers: David Wilson (Sr., 5-11, Guard), Dillon Hope (Sr., 6-3, Forward), Armani Vasquez (Sr., 6-1, Guard), Rob Marro (So., 6-1, Guard)

The theme at the bottom of the projected Class A South standings is the loss of a lot of seniors and in the case of Toms River South, all but one varsity player from a seven-win team that finished sixth in A South returns. It could prove beneficial for the Indians in the long run to have to give its younger players the chance to take their positions in the program now and take their lumps in hopes to building toward contention next year and beyond.

Sophomore Jalen Folsom leads a sophomore class that has coach Curt DeFillippo optimistic that Toms River South won’t be down for long. Folsom, who is also an All-Shore goalkeeper for the Indians soccer team, is the lone returning varsity player from a year ago, when he showed an ability to score as a freshman. Classmate Rob Marro is the other standout sophomore who will look to help the Indians build its new young nucleus in a division filled with them. Meanwhile, seniors David Wilson, Dillon Hope and Armani Vasquez will do their best to make Toms River South relevant in the division race this season. It’s a long climb for the Indians to make it back to the top half of the standings, but there are enough unknowns in the division for Toms River South to be optimistic that it can be done.

 

Players to Watch

Shane Williams, Brick – Put up 14.4 points, 8.6 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 2.4 steals and 2.5 blocks as a sophomore for the Green Dragons in 2016-17 and could find himself putting up even bigger numbers this year.

Travis Holland, Toms River North – With a guard-heavy lineup last year, Holland was needed as a center and performed admirably. This year, he will shift to the wing and at 6-6 with athleticism and shooting ability, he has a chance to thrive.

Zyaire Dorn, Toms River East – The only regular contributor on Toms River East’s 16-win team two years ago who is still in the program, Dorn shouldered a lot of the load last year, but should have more help this season now that the rest of the team has some experience.

Holden Petrick, Toms River North – The leading scorer returning for Toms River North, Holden will handle the ball a little bit more this season, but that shouldn’t take away from his impact as a knock-down shooter.

Jake DuBois, Southern – The Rams had a rare sub-.500 season, but DuBois put up a solid 14.7 points and laid the foundation for a strong senior campaign that should help the Rams get back to winning.

 

Breakout Players to Watch

Jalen Jackson, Brick – After spending time in the St. Anthony program, Jackson will provide the Green Dragons with a capable scorer and defender in the back court to offset the loss of Brandon Williams and Noah Buono to graduation.

Anthony Argondizza, Brick Memorial – Argondizza was Brick Memorial’s best player last year, but has a chance to be one of the best in A South if the rest of the team grows around him to take some of the pressure and focus off of him.

Jalen Folsom, Toms River South – The only returning regular from last year, Folsom showed some promise and will headline a solid group of sophomores that will begin work on getting the Indians back into contention.

Elliot Daks, Toms River North – A part-time player a year ago, Daks is poised for a breakout season as a starter thanks to his 6-7 frame and toughness that will likely be representative of Toms River North this season.

Xavier Jackson, Central – While the Golden Eagles will have some young players making an impact, Jackson is ready to lead the way as a senior after contributing eight points per game in the senior-heavy rotation last year.

 

Burning Questions

Will Toms River North continue its dominance in A South without the returning star power?

Although the Mariners lost three impact starters from last year’s 28-win team, most of the playoff teams in A South last year lost a lot, which should make Toms River North the de facto favorite. As the favorite, the Mariners put their 32-game winning streak against A South competition on the line against a field that has not been able to keep up with the three-time defending divisional champions over the last two seasons. It’s a tall order for a team with some question marks, but Toms River North could very well push this streak into the 40’s.

Could this be the beginning of a two-year run for Brick?

If there is a team that can steal the A South title from Toms River North, the logical choice is Brick. The Green Dragons have arguably the top all-around returning player in the division in junior swingman Shane Williams and the varsity additions of Jalen Jackson and Cole Groeschel will add to the supporting cast and challenge Toms River North’s depth. If it does not click in time to take down Toms River North this year, next year should be even better for the Dragons, when Williams, Jackson and Groeschel are all due back as seniors.

After graduating nearly its entire rotation, can Central reload enough to make another run at the division title?

A senior-loaded team ignited a historic 22-win season for the Golden Eagles in 2016-17, which means that some growing pains could be in order for Central and its young roster this year. On the bright side, Central has a promising group of young newcomers to join with seniors Xavier Jackson and Tom Ruscitti. Sophomores Kavon Chambers and Darius Martorano already proved themselves on the football field and freshman Marvin Goodwine has impressed the coaching staff early on.

After a drain of senior talent from the division, can restocked Brick Memorial capitalize?

The Mustangs made a significant jump in the standings last year following a couple rebuilding years in A South and an exodus of senior talent from a year ago coinciding with the return of most of Brick Memorial’s talent leaves them in prime position to get back into the postseason this year. First-year coach Mike Pelkey has a good senior and junior mix to work with and the results should come relatively quickly after a strong finish to 2016-17.

Can Toms River East go from worst-to-first?

The Raiders proved two years ago they could win with a senior-laden team, which is what they will be this year. Losing Phil Lingat to a torn ACL last year derailed any plans to contend, but by the end of the season, Toms River East started to play like a team that could compete for Shore Conference and NJSIAA Tournament berths. Now that the group is senior-heavy and A South is lighter on returning talent, the Raiders – much like the two Brick teams – are in position to benefit as much as any A South team.

 

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