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TOMS RIVER- Jim Dempsey, the first-year head coach of the Toms River East boys basketball team, tried to be a realist about his young team’s chances heading into the season and is maintaining that only hard work and unselfishness will get the young Raiders through this season. In the here and now, however, he is having a hard time holding back his excitement.

In their first two games this season, the Raiders are 2-0 with an average margin of victory of 31 points per game after finishing last season 4-16. What’s more remarkable is they have accomplished the start with a new coaching staff and with a team that returns only two players from last year’s varsity roster whiel playing a fast-paced style and using 12 players during a given game.

Toms River East sophomore Pat Saunders drives against Wall junior Trent Mitchell. (Photo by Cliff Lavelle)

“I remember a long time ago watching Lakewood play and I remember seeing on their shorts ‘PMA,’” Dempsey said. “I never understood what it meant and then I came to understand what it meant: positive mental attitude. It’s amazing how far that approach can get you. From day one, we’ve been all about teaching, learning and buying into the team concept and to this point, every single player has had an impact in our success so far.

“It’s only the beginning, we still have a lot to learn, but the attitude and commitment from each one of these players makes a lot of things possible.”

Toms River East opened its season Monday with a 76-31 win over New Egypt, then won its first round game of the WOBM Christmas Classic as the No. 15 seed, topping No. 2 Wall 55-38.

Senior guard C.J. Hirschy – one of two payers, along with senior Jerry Caporale, who played on the varsity team last year – led a balanced Toms River East scoring attack with 12 points in Saturday’s win. Juniors Jon Meola and Justin Gant each added 10 points apiece for the Raiders.

“We came into the season believing we could beat anybody and none of that’s changed,” Hirschy said. “If anything, we’re going to be even hungrier now. We know it’s all about the team, and we all sacrifice to make sure we can help the team every night."

The surprising part of Toms River East’s start, according to Dempsey, is the way his team has defended. In two games, the Raiders are allowing an average of 34.5 points per game, with the second of those game coming against a Wall team seeded No. 2 in the preseason Christmas tournament that finished tied for second in the Class B North standings last year.

“The most surprising thing for me is, we’re playing defense,” Dempsey said. “When I took over in the summer, I needed people to be there above all else, and I told them, ‘I won’t talk about defense all summer.’ That’s almost impossible for me because defense is all I think about. Defense is the hardest thing to teach and to see them come together and play the way they have, especially considering that most of them haven’t played varsity basketball of any kind, is remarkable.”

Toms River East will play No. 7 Manchester in the WOBM Christmas Classic quarterfinals on Thursday.

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Griffin Pride

Monsignor Donovan senior Eamonn Kearney practically grew up on Monsignor Donovan basketball, understandable considering his father, Mike Kearney, took the head coaching job 15 years ago. During his upbringing, the Griffins have been one of the best Shore Conference programs on a year-to-year basis, won division titles and played in Shore Conference Tournament finals.

Monsignor Donovan guard Eamonn Kearney brings the ball up court against Brick Memorial. (Photo by Matt Manley)

While Eamonn Kearney had a full sense of history when it comes to the program, he did not have a sense of timing. His first season of playing time came as a junior last year, when the Griffins endured a rare losing campaign (10-14) after years of success under his father.

“I grew up watching guys like Randall Stallworth, and I was a freshman when Sean Grennan and Anthony Duszczak were here, so I have seen how great this program can be firsthand,” Kearney said. “Two years ago, I didn’t really play and we were decent, and then last year, I finally get to play and we have one of the worst seasons that I can remember.”

For Kearney and this particular group of Griffins, the 2013-14 season is one of redemption.  Although it has been only two games, the Griffins appear bent on restoring the winning tradition this season. After beating Point Pleasant Boro 62-44 on opening night Friday, Monsignor Donovan – seeded No. 11 in the WOBM Christmas Classic – opened the tournament by rolling past sixth-seeded Brick Memorial, 79-61.

Kearney scored 15 points to lead five Griffins players with at least nine points. Senior forward Tom Cerami scored 12 points, Jimmy Cleveland and James Fata each came off the bench to score 10 and Toms River North transfer Kyle Carrington chipped in nine.

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“The chemistry and togetherness of this team is what separates us right now,” Kearney said. “The last couple of years , we were not quite on the same page, but the difference this year is that the guys who are here have totally bought in, and we’re all playing for each other.”

“The common denominator is my pops,” Kearney said of his coach and father. “He always preaches the importance of chemistry and being able to play with one another, and he has always created an atmosphere at Mon Don that resembles a family.”

Brick Memorial led 32-25 late in the second quarter before the Griffins turned the tide with an 11-0 surge to end the half, a lead they would not give back.

“Our strength is the way we shoot the ball, so we’re never going to feel like we’re out of a game, no matter how much we’re down,” Kearney said. “Their guy, Aaron Scheiderman (20 points) is a great player and he got hot, but that didn’t mean we were out of it. We have the ability to keep playing and come back when we go down, and we’ll always believe that.”

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