By Bobby Klatt - Shore Sports Network contributor 

TOMS RIVER - The depth and experience of Toms River North's boys basketball team are the keys for the Mariners in their quest to return to the Shore Conference's elite.

After a Shore Conference Tournament semifinal appearance two years ago, the Mariners had a year of uncertainty after heavy graduation losses. They lost all but one player from the year before and a new crop of players were about to get their chance at the varsity level. Even with the inexperience, the Mariners still finished four games over .500 and in the middle of the pack in a tough Class A South division.

Toms River North senior center Jordan Craig is part of a Mariners team that returns nearly its entire lineup after throwing a large group of young players into the fire last season. (Photo by Cliff Lavelle)

Expectations are high for this year’s squad as everyone returns with a year of varsity experience under their belt, as they entered the season ranked No. 10 in the Shore Sports Network preseason Top 10.

With a 66-26 rout 13th-seeded Middletown South in the WOBM Christmas Classic first round at Pine Belt Arena on Sunday, the Mariners (2-0) turned in their second double-digit win in two games so far this season. On Friday, they defeated Lacey 60-38 to kick off the season.

Defense has been the key to both of those wins and will play a big role as the season develops.

“We try to put teams in uncomfortable situations,” Toms River North head coach Rory Caswell said. “We try and get into good habits and good things come from good habits.”

“Defense is key right now for us,” said Mariners senior guard Evan Martin. “We are an athletic team, and we like to get after the ball. Right now it just comes down to hustle plays and defensive plays.”

That suffocating defense was on full display on Sunday as they held the Eagles to only 11 first-half points, racing out to a 32-8 lead and never looking back. Forcing turnovers led to 11 different players getting on the scoresheet for fourth-seeded Toms River North, which will take on defending WOBM champion Manchester in the quarterfinals at 6 p.m. on Saturday at Pine Belt Arena.

“Since we have everyone returning, the kids know what is expected of them on the defensive end,” Caswell said. “I believe the experience we have means our defense is ahead of a lot of teams at this part of the season. Everything comes off our defense. We are aggressive and have a lot of interchanging parts, and we look to get steals off of that.”

Jordan Craig, a 6-foot-6 senior center who has multiple FBS offers as a tight end/H-back in football, leads the way down low on both sides of the ball. Last year, Craig was a rebound per game away from averaging a double-double.

“We use our depth to our advantage, and we all know each other so everyone works well together,” said Craig. “We have to continue to be aggressive and get steals. Every loose ball needs be ours. We don’t like to set up in a half court offense. We like to get like get deflections and push the ball up the floor.”

Even with eight seniors, there are strong contributions coming from the younger players, including sophomore guards Mike Nyisztor and Darrion Carrington and junior guard Pat Marinaccio. Nyisztor led all scorers in the game against the Eagles with 16 points.

“We have Evan Martin who is a great senior leader, and we also have a sophomore point guard Darrion Carrington, who is also a great leader,” Caswell said. “I 100 percent agree that there is no one set leader on the floor. They all communicate and work well with each other.”

“The key is going to be staying calm and making the plays,” Craig said. “We are all very excited for this season. The sky is the limit."