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TOMS RIVER - No team in the Shore Conference Class A South division could come close to knocking off Toms River North during the 2019-20 boys basketball season, but Southern Regional at least earned the distinction as the runner-up to the Mariners as the second-place team in the division.

On Tuesday - the first night of the 2021 high school basketball season in New Jersey - Toms River North showed that the second-best team in Class A South last year might have been its own scout team.

Seniors Will Deitch and Ethan Paul starred in their first major varsity basketball action and returning starter Jake Kazanowsky delivered on both ends of the floor to lead Toms River North to a 57-46 win over Southern in an opener that pitted A South's top teams from a year ago.

"They had two really good jayvee teams and they practiced against a really good team last year," Toms River North coach Rory Caswell said of his new group, which is replacing six of last year's seven primary rotation members from a team that reached the program's first Shore Conference Tournament final since 1996. "I think they kind of felt like this is their time. They have seen it happen in past years where it's a next-man-up mentality and on top of that, it's a talented group of kids."

Deitch and Paul were making their first career starts as seniors and both stormed into double-figure scoring in their first go-round. Deitch poured in a game-high 22 points to go with three assists while Paul posted 14 points and five assists for Toms River North.

"(Last year's seniors) took us under their wing and showed us a couple of things," Deitch said. "Just watching them every game gave us experience and playing against them (in practice) helped me out a lot."

Toms River North senior Wesley Deitch. (Photo by Matt Manley)
Toms River North senior Wesley Deitch. (Photo by Matt Manley)

Kazanowsky, meanwhile, put up 11 points, 12 rebounds, two assists and two blocks in the first game of his senior year, which will call for the Mariners quarterback on the football field to handle the ball more on the floor as the the team's most experienced varsity player.

"Most of our guys last year were all seniors and they all left, but the guys that are coming up now have all been playing together since we were freshman," Kazanowsky said. "We all know each other well, we know each others games well and these other teams don't know that. We know them and they don't know us, so I think it's definitely an advantage."

"These guys were at all those big games last year," Caswell said. "They were at Monmouth University, they were at the state game. They have seen the highs and the lows, so they're used to me, they're used to the expectations, they're used to the media being here so none of that is new to them."

Deitch and Paul got Toms River North off to a strong start Tuesday, with the Mariners going up, 16-9, after one quarter and building their lead up to 26-11 by the middle of the second quarter.

Southern made two runs to draw closer, once before halftime and again at the end of the third quarter. The Rams scored eight straight to pull within 26-19 and after Toms River North pushed its lead back to 35-23, Southern answered with an 11-4 run to get within five points at 39-34.

Seniors Jay Silva and Luke Infurna each scored four points during the third-quarter run. Silva finished the game with 12 points, seven rebounds and two blocks while Infurna chipped in 11 points.

"Silva is a load down there," Caswell said. "When they went on their runs, it was him getting free around the basket. Our defensive game plan centered around him and keeping the ball out of his hands and he was still able to get it and do some damage because that's what good players do."

Right after Southern pulled within five points for the first time since the first quarter, Deitch came back with five straight points to close the quarter to put Toms River North ahead, 44-34, going to the fourth.

Deitch then hit Paul for a layup and scored off a steal to make it a 9-0 run and a 48-34 lead.

"(Southern) got it down to five but we were able to respond with a good push to end the third quarter and really carried it into the fourth," Caswell said. "I think that has a lot to do with them being older kids. We have a mature group of kids that didn't really bend. They stayed with it, we took a couple of big charges and that got us going."

After a long offseason for every team in N.J. - made longer for Toms River North when the Mariners lost as the No. 1 seed in the South Jersey Group IV Playoffs to No. 16 seed Egg Harbor last season - this new group of Mariners was happy to officially get a game in.

"This let's us take a deep breath," Kazanowsky said. "You don't know what's going to happen at any point and any time. Just to have our first game and for things to look good, it's just really nice to get a game going and have the season underway."