TOMS RIVER – Two years ago, in Jim Dempsey’s first season as the head boys basketball coach at Toms River East after serving as an assistant in the program for 13 years, his Raiders jumped out to a 2-0 start to the season that included a first-round win at the WOBM Christmas Classic.

Now in Dempsey’s third year, the Raiders are once again 2-0 after Saturday’s 71-57 WOBM Classic opening-round win over Point Pleasant Borough at the Pine Belt Arena, but the level of excitement among the Raiders players has less to do with the two wins themselves and more to do with what those two wins could mean for the rest of their season.

While the fast start to 2013-14 by a Toms River East team with just two seniors, a new coach and a string of four straight losing seasons was an accomplishment, this year’s 2-0 start feels more like a step toward something bigger to the Raiders players.

“The first year (under Dempsey) was actually really surprising when we won the first two games,” senior Ryan West said. “I was really surprised, but this year it’s not as big of a surprise, at least not for us. We have bigger goals and much bigger expectations.”

Toms River East junior Phil Lingat scored 26 points in a Raiders win over Point Boro on Saturday. (Photo by Ray Richardson)


The Raiders actually took a step back in year two under Dempsey according to overall record, but that measure is deceiving. They followed up a 10-13 season in 2013-14 with an 8-13 campaign in 2014-15, but improved their Class A South division record from 2-12 to 6-8, qualified for the NJSIAA Tournament after falling short a year earlier and had a chance to reach the Shore Conference Tournament until they lost to Toms River South in their final game before the cutoff.

Anyway you choose to dissect the last two years, one fact remains: the string of consecutive losing seasons is now up to six and ending that streak is foremost on the minds of the Toms River East players.

“I’m hoping we do big things this year,” West said. “We should, now that we have the chemistry going like we do. This is it. This is a ‘now’ year for us.”

West and junior Phil Lingat have been at the center of Toms River East’s resurgence over the past year-and-two-games. West led the Raiders in scoring last season at 15.6 points per game and both players averaged eight points in Dempsey’s first season – West as a sophomore and Lingat as a freshman.

Lingat averaged better than 12 a game as a sophomore last year and is off to a fast start heading into 2016. He is averaging 22 points over the first two games of his junior year, including 26 in the WOBM Classic win over Point Boro on Saturday. West scored 14 points in both Toms River East wins.

“It feels awesome,” Lingat said of the feeling around the team. “The team chemistry this year has been amazing. It’s great having teammates who know how to pass and how to cut, and it goes really well from there.”

One similarity between the fast start two years ago and this year is the margin of victory by which Toms River East has won. The 2013-14 won the first two games by an average of 31.5 points while this year’s team comes in at 27. The Raiders beat a Brick Memorial team on that is completely different from last year’s roster by 40 points on opening night and handled a Point Boro team is coming off a 7-17 year and whose two top scorers through two games – John Venturi and John Duda – are a junior and a sophomore, respectively.

The 2013-14 got a huge lift from a very young group of varsity newcomers that included Lingat and West, and a handful of newcomers have helped out this year as well. While seniors Bailey Engelhard, Pat Saunders and Lingat’s older brother, Carlos, have all continued to progress in the program, the Raiders have also had solid contributions from their less experience sect. Sophomore guard Zyaire Dorn poured in 13 points on Saturday, while varsity newcomers Connor Robbins and Tim Cook also gave Dempsey quality minutes off the bench.

“We have a lot of weapons: we’ve got shooters, we’ve got big men, we’ve got everybody contributing on the offensive end,” West said. “Even on the defensive end, our defense is leading to turnovers, leading to fast-break points. Everything is clicking right now.”

The schedule intensity will change dramatically over the last 10 days of 2015, beginning with Tuesday night’s trip back to the Pine Belt Arena to take on Toms River North – the No. 8 team in the Shore Sports Network Preseason Top 10 and defending Class A South champion. The Mariners have been the Shore’s most dominant team through two games with an average margin of victory of 37.5 points, although they will also see a major increase in competition when they face the crosstown rival Raiders after beating Lacey and Middletown South to open the year.

Regardless of Tuesday’s outcome and Saturday’s WOBM Classic quarterfinals on Saturday, Toms River East is in for at least two more challenging games heading in the New Year. The Raiders will take on top-seed Manasquan – the No. 3 team at the Shore – in the quarterfinals and will play either Red Bank Catholic or Donovan Catholic two days later in either the tournament semifinals or a consolation game. Toms River East beat Donovan Catholic (then called Monsignor Donovan), 64-63, in the WOBM consolation bracket two years ago after upsetting second-seeded Wall in the first round and losing to Manchester in the quarterfinals.

“We just need to rest up and get back at it at practice,” Lingat said. “We need to work at it to beat these good teams that we’re about to play.

“We’re just trying to act like a team because the last couple of years, we’ve been breaking down here and there. We’ve been really inconsistent for the past couple of years. This year, we’re trying to start something different here. We’re trying to start a new culture and this is the year for it.”