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Before Rory Caswell took over as head coach of the Toms River North boys basketball program, the Class A South division title had made stops at several schools in the years prior, with Jackson Memorial emerging as a regular favorite for the top spot. Since Caswell led the Mariners to their first A South crown on his watch, the division title has not only stayed with Toms River North for six out of the last seven season – it has gotten to the point where no other A South team can even beat the Mariners.

After another unbeaten run through A South in 2018-19, Toms River North enters the new season with a 60-game winning streak in divisional play, which dates back to an early-February road loss to Southern back in 2015, when the Mariners still managed to win the Class A South title at 12-2.

A streak of that magnitude is sure to dominate the narrative within the division as long as it exists and the Mariners will once again enter the season as the favorite to not only win the division, but do so in perfect fashion. With Toms River North bringing back as much or more than most of the other contenders in the division, the end of the streak may still be a ways away.

In predicted order of finish

Toms River North

Head Coach: Rory Caswell, ninth season
2018-19 Record: 24-5 (14-0, first in A North)
Returners: Najae Hallenbeck (Sr., 6-7, Center), Jakari Spence (Sr., 6-0, Guard), Colin Baker (Sr., 6-2, Guard), Mike Vansprang (Sr., 6-5, Forward), Jaiden Fraser (So., 6-2, Guard), Jake Kazanowsky (Jr., 6-3, Guard), Zack Browne (Jr., 6-2, Guard)
Key Losses: Nick Duncsack (6-5, Forward), Aaron Craig (6-3, Guard)
Newcomers: Lamir Mitchell (So., 6-4, Guard), Wesly Deitsch (Jr., 6-0, Guard), Vinny Lebello (Sr., 6-5, Forward)

Toms River North senior Jakari Spence. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

No team in the Shore Conference has dominated their division more than the Mariners have over the past five years. Toms River North is the five-time defending Class A South champion and enters opening night against Toms River East Thursday with a 60-game unbeaten streak within the division – a run that dates back to February of 2015. With four starters back from last year’s team and some up-and-coming talent working its way into the lineup, the Mariners are eyeing a serious run at another 14 Class A South wins in 2019-20.

At the heart of Toms River North’s team in 2019-20 is the inside-outside senior duo of center Najae Hallenbeck and guard Jakari Spence. The two classmates were the top producers on last year’s 24-win squad, with Hallenbeck putting up 14 points and 11.4 boards while Spence poured in 18.5 points to go with 4.2 assists per game. Senior Colin Baker overcame an early-season injury to slot back into the starting lineup while senior Mike Vansprang played both as a starter and off the bench. Sophomore Jaiden Fraser, meanwhile, ascended to the varsity starting lineup as a freshman and will stay there heading into his sophomore year after making an immediate impact.

Whether or not Toms River North extends it’s a South streak to 14 games, the Mariners have their sights set on bigger things than just winning a sixth straight division title. They have been to five straight Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinals and to the semifinals four times in the last seven years but have yet to reach the final. Toms River North is also looking for an elusive South Jersey Group IV championship that it barely missed out on three seasons ago with a totally different group. As Spence, Hallenbeck and Co. head into their senior years with a high-ceiling supporting cast around them, this could be the year Toms River North breaks through on all fronts.

Toms River East

Head Coach: Tom DeRiggi, first season
2018-19 Record: 15-11 (6-8, tied fifth in A South)
Returners: Mike Goodall (Sr., 6-1, Guard), Ryan Goodall (Sr., 6-0, Guard), Riley Engelhard (Sr., 6-4, Forward/Center), Mark Roma (Jr., 6-0, Guard/Forward), Reece Miller (Sr., 6-0, Guard)
Key Losses: Josh Nicol (Sr., 6-1, Guard), Aidan Meola (Jr., 6-1, Guard/Forward), Matt Santos (Sr., 6-3, Forward)
Newcomers: Nasceem Davis (Sr., 6-0, Guard), Ryan Higgins (Sr., 6-4, Forward), Charlie Monica (Jr., 6-1, Guard/Forward), Ryan Cicardo (Sr., 5-11, Guard), Dylan Hall (Jr., 6-3, Center)

Toms River East senior Mike Goodall. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Toms River East was among the Class A South teams to play Toms River North tough in one of the two meetings between the two teams and out of all the teams in the division, the Raiders look like the team most likely to end the streak and perhaps even steal the division title from the five-time defending champions. If the Raiders can pull it off, it will be behind seniors Mike and Ryan Goodall – cousins in the back court who combined for 34 points per game, with Mike averaging 21.5.

The Raiders lost a few solid contributors in Josh Nicol (graduation), senior Matt Santos (baseball) and junior Aidan Meola (baseball) but they still retain what should be a strong supporting cast. Senior Riley Engelhard leads that group as the team’s big man inside at 6-4 with finishing ability. Junior Mark Roma came on strong over the course of last season and gives Toms River East some versatility, with senior Reece Miller spacing the floor as a shooting threat. Juniors Charlie Monica and Dylan Hall will chip in as first-year varsity players and seniors Nasceem Davis, Ryan Cicardo and Ryan Higgins will all be in the mix as well.

Toms River East will also be under the direction of first-year head coach Tom DeRiggi, who should have some idea about beating Toms River North after spending time as an assistant for the Mariners prior to accepting the head job with the Raiders. The Goodalls and Co. will get their first crack at Toms River North and the streak on opening night with a chance to make a statement to the rest of the Shore in the process.

Central

Head Coach: Mike Clemente Jr., fifth season
2018-19 Record: 12-15 (6-8, tied fifth in A South)
Returners: Justin Soranno (So., 6-5, Forward), Marvin Goodwine Jr. (Jr., 5-9, Guard), I-Meer Johnson (Jr., 6-4, Forward), Eugene Brown (Sr., 6-4, Forward), Cody Blocker (Sr., 6-3, Guard)
Key Losses: Darius Martorano (6-2, Guard), Walter Maldonado (5-8, Guard), Nick Altieri (6-2, Guard), Nasir Dillard (5-8, Guard), Kyle Rhoden (Jr., 6-9, Forward) – transferred to Ranney
Newcomers: Charles DiGirolamo (Sr., 5-10, Guard) – transfer from Elizabeth, Jeremy Bruner (Jr., 6-5, Forward), Conor Sheppard (Jr., 6-3, Forward), Kwesi Bekoe (Jr., 5-10, Guard), Shane Sajewicz (So., 6-0, Guard), John Truhan (Fr., 5-10, Guard)

Central sophomore Justin Soranno. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Despite high expectations heading into the season, Central struggled early in 2018-19 behind a young core and could not quite recover in time to make the Shore Conference Tournament. In nearly rallying to qualify, however, the Golden Eagles showed flashes of the potential that made them such an interesting team heading into last year. A number of players integral to that potential left – three of whom were seniors (Walter Maldonado, Darius Martorano and Nick Altieri) and another in Kyle Rhoden who transferred to Ranney.

Not all, however, is lost for Central; in fact, the Golden Eagles return quite a bit of promise. Sophomore Justin Soranno shook off a slow start to the season and took over as the team’s top scorer and second-leading rebounder thanks to an advanced low-post game for a first-year high school player. He will head up a long, athletic front line that also includes junior I-Meer Johnson and senior Eugene Brown – both of whom saw time last season. In the back court, junior Marvin Goodwine Jr. will step into the lead guard role after coming off the bench a season ago and even starting some as a freshman, while 6-3 wing Cody Blocker jumps up in the rotation as well.

Juniors Jeremy Bruner and Connor Sheppard will be key additions to the front court and senior transfer Charles DiGirolamo, who spent last season at Group IV power Elizabeth and will bring energy off the bench for this year’s Golden Eagles squad. Sophomore Shane Sajewicz and freshman John Truhan are also ready to chip in for Central, which is hoping to overcome some of those losses from last year and surprise this season after a disappointing 2018-19.

Jackson Memorial

Head Coach: Kevin McQuade, sixth season
2018-19 Record: 13-13 (7-7, fourth in A South)
Returners: Matt Mahala (Sr., 6-2, Guard), Ryan Mahala (Sr., 5-10, Guard)
Key Losses: Micah Wallace (6-0, Guard), Nick Kinzler (6-3, Forward), Jayson Lee (5-11, Guard), Tommy Mitchell (6-3, Guard), Joe Schlageter (6-3, Forward)
Newcomers: Nick Colon (Sr., 5-9, Guard), Bill Petrina (Sr., 5-11, Guard), Jason Woods (Sr., 6-4, Forward), Sean Slusak (Jr., 6-1, Guard/Forward), Caden Brooks (Jr., 6-2, Forward), Keith Adame (Fr., 6-0, Guard)

Jackson Memorial junior Matt Mahala. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

In a lot of ways, last year was the quintessential .500 season at Jackson Memorial. In addition to actually finishing .500, the Jaguars had their share of good wins and regrettable losses, which included a win over eventual Central Jersey Group III champion Wall, two over Toms River East and an SCT win over B South champion Pinelands. In order to build on last year’s successes, the Jaguars will have to replace four starters from what was a balanced, experienced starting lineup that helped navigate Jackson Memorial through last season.

Senior Matt Mahala is the returning starter and at 6-2, brings some size and length to the perimeter on the defensive end and scoring ability on the other side. Ryan Mahala, meanwhile, will jump into the starting lineup after getting plenty of run as a junior last season. Nick Colon, Bill Petrina and 6-4 forward Jason Woods will be key additions as seniors and freshman Keith Adame is expected to make an instant impact in his first high school season as a back-court option.

At this stage of the game, every team that is not Toms River North is a longshot to win the division but Toms River East and Central still have some questions to answer as the top contenders to the No. 2 spot. That leaves an opening for a team like Jackson Memorial to have a strong year, particularly for a team that will be replacing a fair amount of production from last season.

Toms River South

Head Coach: Curt DeFillippo, sixth season
2018-19 Record: 4-19 (2-12, eighth in A South)
Returners: Jalen Folsom (Sr., 6-0, Guard), Phil Fried (Sr., 6-2, Forward), Nick Luongo (Sr., 6-1, Guard), Jack Huber (Jr., 6-3, Forward), Steve Beaton (Sr., 6-3, Guard), Nickerson Jean-Louis (Sr., 6-0, Guard), Gerry Ferrigno (Jr., 6-2, Forward)
Key Losses: Jordan Covin (5-10, Guard), Rob Marro (6-2, Guard/Forward)
Newcomers: Neil Kwincinski (Jr., 5-10, Guard), Amari Johnson (Jr., 5-11, Guard)

Like Jackson Memorial, Toms River South is in a position to pounce on a top-three spot should one of the projected favorites falter. The difference is the Indians have a lot of varsity experience back this year, albeit from a team that finished last in the division a year ago. Injuries were a major culprit in sinking Toms River South’s 2018-19 season and if the Indians can stay healthier in 2019-20, they will take the floor with a good chance to climb back into the top half of the Class A South standings.

Senior Jalen Folsom leads the core of returning talent as a four-year varsity contributor and the team’s leading scorer each of the past two seasons. Folsom – who posted 13 points per game last year – enters the season within 400 points of 1,000 for his career, so an improved team and an extra game or two thanks to postseason qualifications would give him a fair shot to reach the milestone, if he doesn’t get there before March. Phil Fried chipped in eight points per game as a junior as well and will be among the secondary scoring options for the Indians.

Senior Nick Luongo and junior Jack Huber missed the vast majority of last season due to injury and the return of both should reinvigorate the starting lineup and put two more scoring threats back on the floor. Luongo poses a threat from the perimeter and slashing to the rim while Huber will be more of an inside threat. Steve Beaton, Nickerson Jean-Louis and Gerry Ferrigno gained valuable experience during last year’s injury-plagued campaign and juniors Neil Kwincinski and Amir Johnson should both help out as well for a Toms River South team that expects to be markedly improved.

Brick Memorial

Head Coach: Mike Pelkey, third season
2018-19 Record: 13-13 (9-5, tied second in A South)
Returners: Brandon Thomas (Sr., 6-2, Guard), T.J. McArthur (Jr., 6-0, Guard/Forward), Blake Zammit (Jr., 5-11, Guard)
Key Losses: Matt Bernstein (6-3, Forward), Kyle McMahon (6-2, Guard/Forward), Nick Manso (5-10, Guard), Nick Dominguez (6-4, Forward)
Newcomers: Nagid Lovett (Jr., 6-3, Forward), Luke Braaten (So., 6-6, Forward)

Few teams in the entire Shore Conference took a bigger graduation hit than the two Brick teams did and in Brick Memorial’s case, there is very little senior influence left after the graduation of four top scorers. Junior T.J. McArthur returns after earning time as a starter during his sophomore season and will take a much larger role on both ends of the floor this season. Classmate Blake Zammit, meanwhile, will also jump into the starting lineup after playing significant minutes as a sophomore as well.

For scoring, Brick Memorial will turn to its lone senior, Brandon Thomas, who was a dangerous shooter off the bench for the Mustangs in 2018-19 and is tops in scoring among the returning group. The rest of this year’s roster will be new to playing important varsity minutes and carries with it some potential. Junior Nagid Lovett and 6-6 sophomore Luke Braaten will be players to watch and keys to Brick Memorial, especially when it comes to replacing all-division performer Matt Bernstein in the paint.

There is a great deal of unknown at Brick Memorial, but the performance of last year’s group in filling some notable holes should give coach Mike Pelkey peace of mind heading into the season with three experienced players in his back court.

Southern

Head Coach: John Pampalone, first season
2018-19 Record: 8-18 (3-11, seventh in A Central)
Returners: Will Devane (Sr., 5-6, Guard), Jay Silva (Jr., 6-6, Forward)
Key Losses: Vinnie Deck (6-1, Guard), Johnny Tilton (6-4, Forward), Cole Markley (6-2, Guard), Joe Infurna (5-10, Guard)
Newcomers: Cole Robinson (Sr., 6-2, Forward), Luke Infurna (Jr., 6-0, Guard), Matt Godfrey (Sr., 5-9, Guard), Ben Ridgway (Sr., 6-5, Forward), Noah Wasacz (Sr., 6-5, Forward), Jake Barbierri (Jr., 6-2, Forward), Mike DelValle (Sr., 5-6, Guard), Jake Hughes (Sr., 6-0, Forward), Nick Devane (So., 6-1, Guard)

Like Toms River East, Southern will be venturing into the 2019-20 season with a new head coach, with John Pampalone taking the reins. Unlike Toms River East, the Rams pulled their new coach from the existing staff and on the personnel side, there is much more talent that will need to be replaced. Vinnie Deck, Cole Markley, Joe Infurna and Johnny Tilton were all steady contributors on offense and the lost production gives Pampalone plenty to consider right out of the gate.

Senior guard Will Devane and 6-6 junior Jay Silva are the returning contributors from a year ago, with Silva in particular looking to make a big jump as a junior. With his size and the rebounding and shot-blocking he has already provided, Silva will be a key to Southern’s success while Devane jumps into the starting back court.

For Southern to thrive, it will need instant impact from its wave of inexperienced varsity players. Seniors Ben Ridgeway and Noah Wasacz both provide some size at 6-5, Cole Robinson some toughness and athleticism in the front court, and Luke Infurna and Nick Devane some promise and pedigree in the back court as younger brothers of Rams players both past and present. With an emergent standout or two out of that group, plus the development of Silva, Southern will have a chance to crack the top four in the division.

Brick

Head Coach: Mike Gawronski, eighth season
2018-19 Record: 14-10 (9-5, tied second in A South)
Returners: Anthony Maniscalco (Sr., 6-1, Guard), Brandon Bautista (Sr., 5-10, Guard), Ryan Duffy (Jr., 6-2, Forward), Ty Williams (Jr., 5-11, Guard), Joaquin Ragland (Jr., 6-0, Guard), C.J. Lavarin (Sr., 5-7, Guard), Val Grigorian (Sr., 5-9, Guard)
Key Losses: Shane Williams (6-3, Guard/Forward), Jalen Jackson (5-10, Guard), Cole Groschel (6-2, Forward)
Newcomers: James Rea (Jr., 6-2, Guard/Forward), Tyler Kononowitz (Sr., 5-11, Guard), Aziz Osman (Sr., 6-2, Guard/Forward), Alex Lawes (Jr., 6-1, Guard/Forward), Anthony Prato (Sr., 6-0, Guard), Jack Dougard (So., 6-3, Guard/Forward), Joey Kozak (Sr., 5-11, Guard)

Losing three starters to graduation is the norm in high school basketball but losing the statistical production and leadership that Brick will be trying to replace this season makes for an especially tall order. Shane Williams and Jalen Jackson were two of the best players in Class A South and combined to average 36 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists and five steals per game – Williams as the top scorer and rebounder and Jackson as the No. 2 scorer on the team and No. 2 assist man at the Shore (5.2 per game). The Green Dragons also lost hard-nosed forward Cole Groschel, which will set Brick back on the glass and the defensive end.

Fortunately for Brick, it has strength in numbers with the return of the rest of the roster beyond those three standouts. Senior Anthony Maniscalco was the third-leading scorer for the Green Dragons last year thanks to his three-point marksmanship and senior point guard Brandon Bautista is also back after starting as a junior. That duo should lead the way, with Ty Williams and Joaquin Ragland leading a deep group of juniors and seniors C.J. Lavarin and Anthony Prato also looking at key minutes.

This year will mark a significant overhaul for Brick after bringing back established talent each of the past three seasons but the Green Dragons have enough depth that they could make it work and snag a postseason berth or two – a major step in the right direction for a team that should bring back a lot of experience next season.

 

A South Players to Watch

Jakari Spence, Toms River North – A Second Team All-Shore selection as a junior, Spence was one of the Shore’s top point guards while averaging 18.5 points and 4.2 assists last year. This year, he will get a chance to play off the ball more and give him a chance to lead the Shore in scoring.

Mike Goodall, Toms River East – Speaking of players with a chance to lead the Shore in scoring, Goodall is coming off a season in which he averaged 21.5 points – more than any other returning player in the conference. He enters the season with 903 career points.

Justin Soranno, Central – Following a slow start to his freshman season, Soranno caught fire in early January and never let up, finishing with averages of 12.3 points and 6.7 rebounds.

Najae Hallenback, Toms River North – Few players in the Shore are as physically imposing as the 6-6 offensive lineman and Hallenbeck can step out and shoot it as well. Last year, the senior center averaged 14 points and 11.3 rebounds – making him one of four returning players around the Shore to have averaged a double-double last season

Ryan Goodall, Toms River East – The second of the two Goodall cousins brings plenty of energy on both ends to go with his 12.6 points and five-plus rebounds per game from a year ago.

 

Breakout Players to Watch

Marvin Goodwine Jr., Central – After starting as a freshman, Goodwine came off the bench on a deeper Central team a year ago and is ready to assume the reins at point guard.

Jaiden Fraser, Toms River North – On the subject on young point guards, Fraser injected some excitement into the Mariners lineup when he got the varsity call-up in the middle of his freshman year.

Ryan Mahala, Jackson Memorial – Mahala came off the bench last year and will get a much larger role now that he is in the lineup, along with his brother, Matt.

Brandon Thomas, Brick Memorial – Thomas had a handful of high-scoring games for the Mustangs and with the team graduating its top four scorers from a year ago, Brick Memorial needs him to have plenty more this season.

Jay Silva, Southern – Silva gave Southern some shot-blocking and rebounding as a sophomore last year and the Rams are looking for him to take the next step and become a program standout.

 

Burning Questions

Will Toms River North add 14 more to the streak?

The Mariners return with a team that looks even stronger than it was a year ago, when they had mostly juniors and dealt with a couple of key injuries in the middle of the season. With Kyle Rhoden leaving Central for Ranney, Toms River East not bringing back quite as many players as it could have and with a more experienced, imposing team on its side of the floor, Toms River North looks poised to rattle off 14 more A South wins this season if it can stay healthy.

Who has the best shot to sink the Mariners?

Last year, three teams nearly took down Toms River North during divisional play: Southern, Brick Memorial and Central. Jackson Memorial and Toms River East both had second-half leads on the Mariners, so last year was no cakewalk. Of those teams, Toms River East and Central have the most firepower back from last year, with Toms River East boasting the scoring power to keep up with the defending champions and Central measuring up athletically.

Can Central continue its growth without Rhoden?

Kyle Rhoden transfer to Ranney lowers the ceiling for Central this year but it does not completely eliminate the Golden Eagles from contention for a Class A South title over the next two years. Sophomore Justin Soranno is already one of the best post players in the conference and the emergence of Marvin Goodwine Jr. and I-Meer Johnson could give Central a push into the Top 10 this season and set them up to challenge for the A South crown sometime in the next two seasons.

Which team makes its move up the standings?

Toms River South was decimated by injuries last year, which was a strain on a team that was already in need of senior leadership. This year, the Indians have the seniors in Jalen Folsom, Phil Fried and Nick Luongo and if a healthier roster is also part of the equation, they could surprise in A South.

Which team best handles its significant graduations?

Brick Memorial, Jackson Memorial and Southern each graduated four starters and Brick lost two all-division players that carried the offense. There is a good chance one of those teams shakes off the adversity and finishes in the top half of the Class A South standings. Brick Memorial will try to do it with juniors; Jackson Memorial has the Mahala brothers and talented freshman Keith Adame; Southern will built around its size; and Brick will try to work in a young group around two senior returnees in Brandon Bautista and Anthony Maniscalco.