TOMS RIVER - Mike Pelkey has been part of winning teams as a player and as an assistant coach, so when he took the head coaching job at alma mater Brick Memorial and saw all the senior players returning from an 8-17 team last year, he knew there was something to work with in year one.

The Mustangs seniors are validating the belief of their new coach with three straight wins to start the season, the latest of which was a 61-56 win over defending tournament champion Freehold Township Saturday in the opening round of the WOBM Christmas Classic on the Campus of Toms River North High School.

"From the beginning of year, I've been saying the thing that's going to carry us is our leadership," Pelkey said. "We're 3-0 and we've been down in every game. I was a little worried about a letdown today and (Freehold Township) came out shooting the lights out, but our kids gutted it out."

Brick Memorial entered Saturday the No. 13 seed in the tournament and fell behind the fourth-seeded Patriots, 28-19, late in the second quarter. The Mustangs, however, rallied with a 13-1 run that stretched into the third quarter to take a 32-29 lead.

The Mustangs built the lead up to 50-41, but Freehold Township chopped it to 54-50 with four minutes left in the game. The Patriots had a chance to pull within one score, but senior Vin Hernandez stole the ball from freshman Zach Orrico near midcourt and took it in for a layup to turn the tide back in Brick Memorial's favor.

Hernandez finished with 10 points, while senior classmate Vin Vecchione led Brick Memorial with 18 points. Seniors Anthony Argondizza and Jake Sliazis also added nine points apiece.

Freehold Township senior Ja'Zeem Foster led all scorers with 19 points, including 10 during Freehold Township's 23-point first quarter. Junior Seth Meisner added 14 points and Orrico poured in 12 on four three-pointers for the Patriots, who remain without junior standout Greg Billups due to an ankle injury.

Saturday's win over Freehold Township is the second consecutive noteworthy win for the Mustangs during a 3-0 start to the season. On Thursday, Sliazis hit a short jumper with eight seconds left to give Brick Memorial a 51-50 win over crosstown rival and previously unbeaten Brick. Entering that game, Brick had won its first three games by an average margin of victory of 31.7 points.

"It was definitely a big game for us, especially coming off the Brick game," Vecchione said. "We're coming off an emotional win against our rival and today, we had to beat another good team. They were the defending champs in this tournament and we wanted to show we could play with anybody here."

Vecchione scored 14 points to lead Brick Memorial in that game as well and is one of the six seniors playing regular minutes. All six have played in the program since their freshman season, and endured a 2-20 season as sophomores before getting up to eight wins last year.

"We came in as freshmen and we did pretty well together," Vecchione said. "Sophomore year was tough and last year we were a lot more competitive. We have been playing together forever, so we always knew once we were all seniors, we'd have a chance to be pretty good."

After already showing the progress they have made with Saturday's win, the Mustangs will try to keep it going Tuesday in the WOBM quarterfinals at the Toms River Athletic Center, where they will play last year's Shore Conference Tournament runner-up, Marlboro.

"They are all hungry," Pelkey said of his players. "They were tired of getting beat up. I told them, 'I'm coming back home, this is my alma mater, we won a little bit when I was here and we're going to try to get this program going again.' They bought in right away and we're all in right now."


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