For the last three years, the Class A South championship has been all but a foregone conclusion. Toms River North enters this season a four-time defending division champion and has won the last three division crowns without losing a division game. Three years ago, Manchester ended Lakewood’s 43-game winning streak in Class B South and that opened the door for another dominant Ocean County program to surpass that mark.

Last year, the field was nowhere near Toms River North, even as the Mariners probably were not as good as they were in 2016-17. It’s fair, then, to conclude that last year was a down season for A South as a whole, but that narrative should shift in 2018-19. While the Mariners remain the favorite and a candidate to play deep into the postseason, every team in A South has a chance to be improved to some degree. That should put the pressure on Toms River North to be on its game more often and could – perhaps even likely – lead to the end of the streak at some point this season.

 

In predicted order of finish

Toms River North

Head Coach: Rory Caswell, eighth season
2017-18 Record: 25-5 (14-0, first in A South)
Key Returners: Nick Duncsack (Sr., 6-5, Forward), Najae Hallenbeck (Jr., 6-6, Forward), Jakari Spence (Jr., 5-10, Guard), Colin Baker (Jr., 6-2, Guard)
Key Losses: Travis Holland (6-6, Guard), Holden Petrick (5-10, Guard), Mark Mogarte (5-10, Guard), Elliot Dak (6-7, Forward), Nick Perna (6-3, Guard), Michael Centeno (6-7, Forward)
Newcomers: Mike Vansprang (Jr., 6-5, Guard), Ryan Schlosser (Jr., 6-2, Guard), Jarrod Pruitt (Jr., 5-10, Guard), Aaron Craig (Sr., 6-3, Guard), Will Marsh (Sr., 6-3, Forward), Jake Kazanowsky (So., 6-2, Guard), Zack Browne (So., 6-2, Guard)

Toms River North junior Jakari Spence handles against Ranney senior Ahmadu Sarnor during last year's Shore Conference Tournament. (Photo Ray Richardson)

No Shore Conference program has dominated its division over the past four years more than Toms River North has – while Manasquan and Lakewood have had long runs on the top of their respective divisions that include division co-titles, Toms River North has run away with four straight outright division titles. The Mariners are 54-2 during that stretch and have won 46 consecutive division games dating back to February of 2015, when Toms River North lost at Southern. The dominance has only increased over time, with Toms River North winning all 14 division games last year by at least 10 points on the way to a 25-win season – which was all-the-more impressive considering Toms River North was replacing three accomplished starters from a season earlier.

This year’s team will, in all likelihood, not dismantle the rest of the division to the same degree this year, but the Mariners will have a shot to get through another unbeaten division season if everything falls into place. Toms River North coach Rory Caswell used a few different starting lineups last year, at times going with five seniors and others mixing in underclassmen Najea Hallenbeck, Nick Duncsak and Jakari Spence. Duncsak will be the lone senior starter this year after delivering some shooting and rebounding off the bench for most of last year, while juniors Hallenbeck and Spence will be an inside-outside combo for the next two years. Junior Colin Baker also played meaningful minutes this season and will be one of the Mariners’ new starters at guard.

Junior and 6-5 wing Mike Vansprang is projected to be the fifth Toms River North starter, giving the Mariners three starters 6-5 or taller to go with Spence and Baker in the back court. Guards Ryan Schlosser and Jarrod Pruitt round out the junior group that will lead the program over the next two seasons, while 6-3 seniors Aaron Craig and Will Marsh providing a mix of size and athleticism off the bench. Depth was a major source of Toms River North’s success last year and it appears as though the Mariners – eying a fifth straight division championship – will be one of the Shore’s deeper rosters again.

 

Central

Head Coach: Mike Clemente Jr., fourth season
2017-18 Record: 8-18 (4-10, sixth in A South)
Key Returners: Darius Martorano (Sr., 6-2, Guard), Marvin Goodwine Jr. (So., 5-9, Guard), Walter Maldonado (Sr., 5-8, Guard), Nick Altieri (Sr., 6-2, Guard), Nasir Dillard (Sr., 5-8, Guard), Nick Firetto (Jr., 6-3, Forward), Eugene Brown (Sr., 6-4, Forward)
Key Losses: Xavier Jackson (6-0, Guard), Tom Ruscitti (6-2, Forward)
Newcomers: Kyle Rhoden (So., 6-9, Forward), Justin Soranno (Fr., 6-5, Forward), I-Meer Johnson (So., 6-3, Forward) – transfer from Neptune; Shirod Perkins (Sr., 6-4, Forward), Cody Blocker (Jr., 6-2, Guard), Jeremy Bruner (So., 6-5, Forward), Conor Shepard (So., 6-3, Forward)

At the beginning of last season, Central faced an uphill climb that no team in the state faced. Not only were the Golden Eagles replacing an entire starting lineup from a senior-laden, 22-win team from the season prior, but their head coach, Mike Clemente Jr., was engaged in a fight against cancer that kept him away from the team for most of the summer and a lot of the preseason. One year later, the outlook has completely changed. Clemente Jr. is cancer-free, the Golden Eagles found some quality young players and improved over the course of the season and will have an even deeper stable of young talent on hand this year.

Senior guard Darius Martorano is the senior leader of the group after averaging 12.9 points, five rebounds and two assists as a junior, with classmates Walter Maldonado and Nick Altieri also returning to lead the senior core. Maldonado came up with the play of the year in 2017-18 when he picked off a pass in the final seconds and laid-up the winning score to beat ranked Point Pleasant Beach. Altieri came on at the end of the season as a marksman from the outside and will be a source of perimeter scoring again. Sophomore Marvin Goodwine Jr. had a solid showing as a freshman last year and is a significant part of the picture at Central over the next three seasons.

The returning core of Martorano, Maldonado, Altieri and Goodwine would be enough for Central to jump closer to the top of the A South heap, but it is a pair of underclassmen who could push them over the top. Sophomore Kyle Rhoden – whose older brother, Jaden, starred at Toms River North and graduated in 2017 – transferred from Rutgers Prep in January and made one appearance at the end of the season. The 6-9 Rhoden will be joined in the front court by 6-5 freshman Justin Soranno, who will make an immediate impact as a freshman. If the youth movement catches on at complements the solid returning core, Central could become the team to beat in A South virtually overnight.

 

Brick

Head Coach: Mike Gawronski, seventh season
2017-18 Record: 15-9 (9-5, tied second in A South)
Key Returners: Shane Williams (Sr., 6-3, Guard/Forward), Jalen Jackson (Sr., 5-10, Guard), Cole Groschel (Sr., 6-2, Forward)
Key Losses: Dan Venezia (6-0, Guard), Mike Melitto (5-9, Guard), Kyle Sullivan (Guard), Sergio DeLuca (Guard)
Newcomers: Val Grigorian (Jr., 5-9, Guard), Brandon Bautista (Jr., 5-8, Guard), Anthony Maniscalo (Jr., 6-0, Guard), Aziz Osman (Jr., 6-1, Forward), Rob Guerra (Sr., 5-7, Guard), Jack Melone (Sr., 6-4, Center), Jack Dougard (Sr., 6-2, Forward), C.J. Lavarin (Jr., 5-7, Guard), Joaquin Ragland (So., 6-1, Guard), Ryan Duffy (So., 6-2, Forward)

Mike Gawronski enters his seventh season as head coach at Brick and in each of his last five seasons, the Green Dragons have won more games than in the prior year. Last year even included a big road win in the Shore Conference Tournament – a 42-31 win at Matawan in the opening round. With the duo of Shane Williams and Jalen Jackson returning as a seniors, Brick has a good shot to keep that run going and might even have an opportunity to win an A South title if the supporting case around its dynamic duo can deliver on its end of the bargain.

Williams has been one of the Shore’s better all-around players for two years now and is coming off a junior season in which he averaged 17.1 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game for the Green Dragons. Jackson, meanwhile, transferred to Brick from St. Anthony after his old Jersey City school closed following the 2016-17 season. In his first year with the hometown team, Jackson turned in a standout statistical season, averaging 11.7 points, 4.5 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 3.2 steals per game.

For Brick to continue to climb up the Class A South standings, the Green Dragons will need some of its new varsity players to step into some key supporting roles around the two scorers and there will be plenty of those new varsity players. Junior Cole Groschel is the Brick only player outside of Williams and Jackson to play significant minutes last year and the football standout will have to be a reliable source of rebounding and energy on both ends of the floor. Brandon Bautista leads a group of juniors that should contribute to the cause, Rob Guerra, Jack Melone and Jack Dougard join the varsity mix as seniors, and Jaoquin Ragland and Ryan Duffy look to make some noise as sophomores. On most nights, Brick will go as Williams and Jackson go but if they can build some depth to help out the two all-division guards, the Green Dragons will be a player for the A South title.

 

Toms River East

Head Coach: Jim Dempsey, sixth season
2017-18 Record: 13-11 (9-5, tied second in A South)
Key Returners: Mike Goodall (Jr., 6-0, Guard), Ryan Goodall (Jr., 6-1, Guard), Josh Nicol (Sr., 6-1, Guard), Matt Santos (Jr., 6-3, Forward)
Key Losses: Nick Silvia (6-2, Forward), Zyaire Dorn (5-9, Guard), Nick Shortino (5-11, Guard), Jack Goodall (5-9, Guard)
Newcomers: Aidan Meola (So., 6-1, Guard/Forward), Nasceem Davis (Jr., 6-1, Guard), Riley Engelhard (Jr., 6-3, Forward)

Toms River East has put together a nice three-year run heading into this season that would have been even better had its best player, Phil Lingat, not torn his ACL and missed the 2016-17 season. With some better fortune, the Raiders might be gunning for a fourth straight winning season this year and instead will try to make it two in a row and three in four years after a prolonged stretch of losing campaigns from the mid-2000’s until 2015-16.

Cousins Mike Goodall and Ryan Goodall headline a short list of returning players, with Mike Goodall coming off a sophomore season in which he finished second on the team with 12.6 points per game. Ryan Goodall was also a solid contributor with averages of 8.6 points and 4.2 rebounds, as was fellow junior Matt Santos and Josh Nicol – the lone returning senior in the bunch. Santos will be a physical presence down low and Nicol will join the Goodalls in the backcourt.

Sophomore Aidan Meola – the son of former U.S. Soccer goalkeeper Tony Meola and a baseball standout – headlines the list of newcomers and will aid Santos as an all-around athlete who can handle the rigors of the paint for a Toms River East team looking to offset a slight deficiency in size. Junior Riley Engelhard will help down low as well, with fellow junior Nasceem Davis looking to make an impact at guard in their first varsity seasons. If the Raiders can get some secondary scoring to complement Mike Goodall and Santos, Meola and Engelhard can give the team some toughness on the interior on both ends, Toms River East could be looking at its first set of back-to-back winning seasons in more than a decade.

 

Jackson Memorial

Head Coach: Kevin McQuade, fifth season
2017-18 Record: 3-19 (2-12, tied seventh in A South)
Key Returners: Nick Kinzler (Sr., 6-3, Forward), Jayson Lee (Sr., 5-11, Guard), Tommy Mitchell (Sr., 6-3, Guard), Joe Schlageter (Sr., 6-3, Forward)
Key Losses: Alex Cabrera (6-2, Forward), A.J. Tomachewich (5-10, Guard), Chris Mitchell (6-2, Guard/Forward), Gerard Panella (5-8, Guard)
Newcomers: Joe Maffei (Sr., 6-4, Forward), Ronny Bantang (Jr., 6-3, Forward), Nick Colon (Jr., 5-10, Guard), Jacob Williams (Sr., Forward), John Hurt (Sr., Guard), Micah Wallace (Sr., 6-0, Guard) – transfer from Coventry (Oh.); Ryan Mahala (Jr., Guard) – transfer from CBA; Matt Mahala (Jr., Guard) – transfer from CBA

As one of two A South teams to finish 3-19, Jackson Memorial has a long climb just to get back to a .500 mark and the middle of the division pack. The Jaguars may be the better-positioned of the two teams (Toms River South being the other) based, not only on the experienced coming back but also on the quality of players joining the roster. Seniors Nick Kinzler, Jayson Lee, Tommy Mitchell and Joe Schlageter were regular contributors a year ago and will again be key parts of this year’s version of the Jaguars. Kinzler and Schlageter will provide some size and athleticism down low, with Lee and Mitchell on the perimeter.

Jackson Memorial welcomes in a trio of transfers who should make an immediate impact. Senior guard Micah Wallace was a standout at Coventry High School in Akron, Ohio last year and will plug into the back court with Lee and Mitchell, while juniors Ryan and Matt Mahala will play on the wing after spending two years at Christian Brothers Academy. Older brother Rob Mahala was an all-division selection as a senior at CBA last year and the Jaguars should benefit from the Mahala’s joining them this year.

Senior Joe Maffei and juniors Ron Bantang and Nick Colon also lettered for Jackson last season and Jacob Williams and John Hurt join the mix as seniors. The Jaguars figured to be an improved team just on the development of its returning core of Kinzler, Lee and Mitchell but the addition of Wallace and the Micah and Ryan Mahala push the ceiling even higher and give the Jaguars a chance to push into the division’s top three or four, if all goes well.

 

Brick Memorial

Head Coach: Mike Pelkey, second season
2017-18 Record: 12-14 (9-5, tied second in A South)
Key Returners: Matt Bernstein (Sr., 6-3, Forward), Kyle McMahon (Sr., 6-2, Guard/Forward), Nick Manso (Sr., 5-10, Guard)
Key Losses: Anthony Argondizza (6-4, Forward), Vinny Vecchione (6-0, Guard), Vin Hernandez (6-2, Forward), Kevin Starrett (6-1, Guard), Jake Sliazis (6-3, Forward), Dan Lahey (5-11, Guard)
Newcomers: Nick Dominguez (Sr., 6-4, Forward), Brandon Thomas (Jr., 6-0, Guard), Tristan Serrano (Jr., 5-9, Guard), T.J. McArthur (So., 6-0, Guard), Blake Zammit (So., 5-11, Guard)

Although Brick Memorial came up short of a winning season during head coach Mike Pelkey’s first year on the job, the Mustangs still had a strong 9-5 showing in Class A South play and finished tied with Brick and Toms River East for the No. 2 position in the standings. Brick Memorial loses four starters from that group, including all-division forward Anthony Argondizza, but returns a good mix of physicality and skill both at the guard and forward spots.

Senior Matt Bernstein emerged last season as a second option alongside Argondizza and his work on the glass and the defensive interior should make him one of the more well-rounded players returning in A South this season. Senior guards Kyle McMahon and Nick Manso also played key roles on a deep Mustangs roster last year and figure to be integral pieces within this year’s group, as will senior newcomer and 6-4 forward Nick Dominguez.

Brick Memorial will be guard-heavy around Bernstein and Dominguez, with four of its top five newcomers projected to help in the back court. Brandon Thomas and Tristan Serrano are the juniors in the group while T.J. McArthur and Blake Zammit give the Mustangs a sophomore duo to watch break in this year and develop over the next several. Losing Argondizza and a handful of other key seniors from last year will challenge the depth of Brick Memorial’s program but there is enough left over and coming in to give the Mustangs a shot at once again finishing in the top-half of the A South standings.

 

Southern

Head Coach: Eric Fierro, ninth season
2017-18 Record: 14-13 (7-7, fifth in A South)
Key Returners: Vinnie Deck (Sr., 6-1, Guard), Johnny Tilton (Sr., 6-4, Forward), Cole Markley (Sr., 6-2, Guard), Joe Infurna (Sr., 5-10, Guard), Will DeVane (Jr., 5-5, Guard), Cole Robinson (Jr., 6-2, Forward)
Key Losses: Jake DuBois (5-10, Guard), Thomas Foster (6-5, Guard), August Gugliemini (6-2, Forward), Alex Tcheveev (6-5, Forward)
Newcomers: Jay Silva (So., 6-6, Forward), Luke Infurna (So., 6-0, Guard), Alex Manno (Sr., 6-3, Forward), Matt Godfrey (Jr., 5-9, Guard), Ben Ridgeway (Jr., 6-4, Guard), J.P. Ricciardi (So., 5-9, Guard)

An early-season injury to top scorer Jake DuBois derailed Southern’s hopes for a high finish in Class A South but it did prepare an otherwise-junior-heavy roster for what 2018-19 will be like. Beyond losing DuBois to graduation, Southern also bid farewell to Thomas Foster, who was the team’s leading scorer (13.6 points per game) with DuBois sidelined and also its leading rebounder (7.9) and shot-blocker (1.5). Replacing and all-around player like Foster will be Southern’s greatest challenge, but it is not unlike what Toms River North (Travis Holland), Brick Memorial (Argondizza) and Toms River East (Nick Silvia) are up against.

Southern will lean on a crop of returning varsity players led by a senior trio of Vinnie Deck, Cole Markely and Johnny Tilton. Deck averaged better than 10 points per game as a junior and will serve as a shooter and all-around scorer for the Rams. Markley showed some proficiency in several areas – scoring, rebounding, passing and defense – and Tilton was a solid rebounder and shot-blocker in his first season as a varsity regular. Factor in senior Joe Infurna and juniors Will DeVane and Cole Robinson – all of whom who saw some varsity time last year – and Southern has a deep stable of returning talent to to serve as the foundation.

The Rams ceiling this season likely lies with the incoming group of sophomores, which include 6-6 Jay Silva and guard Luke Infurna. If those two and fellow sophomore J.P. Ricciardi can help provide some help right away, Southern will be back in the middle of the South pack at the very least, with a chance to climb up another rung behind big years from Deck, Markley and/or Tilton.

 

Toms River South

Head Coach: Curt DeFillippo, fifth season
2017-18 Record: 3-19 (2-12, tied seventh in A South)
Key Returners: Jalen Folsom (Jr., 6-0, Guard), Rob Marro (Jr., 6-2, Guard/Forward), Jack Huber (So., 6-4, Forward)
Key Losses: Dillon Hope (6-3, Forward), Armani Vasquez (6-1, Guard), David Wilson (5-11, Guard), Travis Foerst (Guard), Mason Augustino (Forward)
Newcomers: Nick Luongo (Jr., 6-1, Guard), Jordan Covin (Sr., 5-10, Guard), Neil Kwincinski (So., 5-10, Guard), Steve Beaton (Jr., 6-2, Guard), Phil Fried (Jr., 6-3, Forward)

While Jackson Memorial hopes to turn around a 3-19 record behind some key transfers, Toms River South will try to do it the old-fashioned way: with experience and elbow grease. The Indians graduated some senior talent but have designed their recent rebuild around a group of players that are heading into their junior seasons. Jalen Folsom and Rob Marro lead that group after starting last year and serving as reliable scorers, particularly Folsom. That pair represents two of the five juniors that will serve in the rotation.

Sophomore Jack Huber showed flashes of a bright future during a solid showing as a freshman, which saw him land a spot in the starting lineup. At 6-4, he will play a key role in the front court despite his youth and if Huber is ready to take a big step forward, so too should Toms River South.

Juniors Nick Luongo, Steve Beaton and Phil Fried will step into key roles as newcomers this season, with Fried joining Huber in the front court. Guard Jordan Covin is the lone senior who is projected to contribute this season while sophomore Neil Kwincinski joins Huber in the youth movement. Toms River South doesn’t have the quick fix to a three-win season and that will make a significant leap in the standings a difficult task. Either way, Toms River South is sure to be an improved team and with juniors and sophomores making up the core of the team, the Indians will be building toward a breakout that should materialize sometime in the next two years.

 

Players to Watch

Shane Williams, Brick – One of the Shore’s most versatile talents and best all-around players, Williams enters his fourth varsity season after posting 17.1 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.4 blocks during an all-division season as a junior.

Mike Goodall, Toms River East – After emerging as a crafty, go-to scorer as a sophomore, Goodall is primed to join the ranks of the Shore’s top scorers after pouring in 12.6 points per game last season.

Najae Hallenbeck, Toms River North – In his first varsity season, Hallenbcek scored 7.6 points to go with 6.6 rebounds per game and returns stronger and quicker at 6-6, 280 pounds. He has the size to dominate the paint and the touch to knock down the three, which should make him a big producer in 2018-19.

Jalen Jackson, Brick – The other half of Brick’s all-division one-two punch, Jackson posted 11.7 points, 4.5 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 3.4 steals in his first year with the Green Dragons after playing at the lower levels of St. Anthony’s storied program.

Darius Martorano, Central – The Golden Eagles are generating a lot of buzz with their underclassmen, but Martorano returns as both a senior leader and a proven producer after putting up 12.9 points, five rebounds and two assists during a breakout junior season.

 

Breakout Players to Watch

Kyle Rhoden, Central – Rhoden played one game with Central (11 points, five rebounds, five assists and six blocks vs. Holmdel) last year after a mid-season transfer from Rutgers Prep and gave the Shore a small glimpse of what to expect from the 6-9 sophomore wing over the next three seasons.

Micah Wallace, Jackson Memorial – Wallace in an experienced varsity player who moved to N.J. from the Akron (Oh.) area and brings a combination of scoring and facilitating abilities that should help make the Jaguars a more dynamic team this season.

Jakari Spence, Toms River North – Spence’s early production last year came in Toms River North’s many blowouts but he quickly established himself as a reliable player in big games. The junior point guard is sure to build on his 7.5 points, 3.1 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 2.1 steals per game.

Justin Soranno, Central – One of the many freshmen around the Shore who will make an immediate impact, Soranno comes in as a 6-5 interior player with advanced post moves and enough size to battle with players two and three years his senior.

Matt Bernstein, Brick Memorial – With Anthony Argondizza to lead the scoring effort, Bernstein took on a secondary role last year and is a prime candidate to carry a bigger share of the load as a senior this year for a Brick Memorial team looking to build on a solid 2017-18.

 

Burning Questions

How long can Toms River North carry its unbeaten streak?

Toms River North enters the season with a 46-game winning streak in A South divisional play and will once again be the favorite to win the division championship. That doesn’t mean the Mariners cannot be beaten during the season, especially with most of the division’s teams looking at a realistic opportunity to improve. This might be the most vulnerable the Mariners have been in several years, but then again, no A South team came within 10 points of beating them last year.

Is Central ready to arrive?

With some impressive young talent on hand – namely 6-9 sophomore Kyle Rhoden, 6-5 freshman Justin Soranno and sophomore guard Marvin Goodwine Jr. – Central has the look of a team that can do damage in 2020 and 2021, but don’t sleep on the Golden Eagles in 2019. They also have a senior trio in Darius Martorano, Walter Maldonado and Nick Altieri that helped the team improve over the course of last year and will provide some stability as Rhoden and Soranno get comfortable.

With a senior dynamic duo, does Brick have one last stand in store?

The Green Dragons have steadily improved every year under seventh-year coach Mike Gawronski and they have a chance to build on a 15-win season a year ago. With Shane Williams and Jalen Jackson entering their senior seasons, however, this might be Brick’s last chance to make a run at a Class A South title and maximize their potential with two of the division’s best players. The supporting cast and a depth are unknowns because of the inexperience but they don’t have to hit a home run with the next five in the rotation considering Williams and Jackson are in the fold.

Can Jackson’s transfer trio turn the Jags into an A South contender?

Four returning contributors from last year’s team would likely have made Jackson Memorial an improved roster. With Micah Wallace, plus Matt and Ryan Mahala transferring into the program, the Jaguars look like a markedly-improved squad on paper and the challenge for coach Kevin McQuade and his team will be to find the right mix and learn how to turn an influx in talent into wins.

Will Toms River East and/or Toms River South emerge as junior-heavy contenders?

Toms River North and Central are positioned to be A South power-players in each of the next two seasons, but flying under the radar will be Toms River East and Toms River South. Both rosters are short on seniors and filled with juniors and sophomores who have already seen the floor at the varsity level. The goal for both teams this year will be to show they can contend with the top teams in the division and even if the wins don’t come this year, contention in 2019-20 will be a realistic proposition.

 

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