BAYVILLE - The first time Central Regional and Jackson Memorial met in a Shore Conference Class A South boys basketball showdown, Jackson overwhelmed Central and held its talented freshman forward Justin Soranno without a field goal.

A lot as changed for Central and its 6-foot-5 freshman since their three-game losing streak to open the season and that growth was on full display when the Golden Eagles hosted the Jaguars Friday for the second of two regular-season meetings.

Soranno went off for a career-high 33 points and grabbed 13 rebounds as Central handled Jackson Memorial, 62-49, for its third straight win.

Central entered the season as the No. 10 ranked team in the Shore Sports Network preseason Top 10 and promptly lost its first three games - the third of which was a 23-point loss at Jackson Memorial. By the end of 2018, the Golden Eagles were 1-5 and Soranno was averaging only 5.5 points per game while dealing with what head coach Mike Clemente Jr. described as nagging injuries.

Central freshman Justin Soranno. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

"He had some physical issues in the first couple weeks and I think that probably made things tougher," Clemente said. "I think he found out pretty quickly that it's not easy for a freshman to come out and play at the speed of varsity basketball, even for somebody as talented as he is. The last few weeks, he has really improved on his energy and effort and that's where I think the biggest improvement has been."

Since the calendar flipped to 2019, Soranno has been a different player. The freshman has reached double-figure scoring in 10 of his team's 11 games while averaging 16.4 points during that span. His breakout was a 29-point outburst in a 59-39 win over Brick on Jan. 9 and over Central's current three-game winning streak, he is averaging 22.3 points. For his freshman season, Soranno is up to 12.6 points and 6.8 rebounds per game.

"Tonight has all about energy," Soranno said. "That's been the biggest difference for me - learning that I have to bring that energy every play for my team."

Central has followed the lead of its freshman big-man by settling into 2019 with a 6-5 mark after its lackluster six-game stretch to close 2018. On Thursday, it was senior Nick Altieri who provided the complementary scoring with 13 points and six rebounds, while senior guards Walter Maldonaro (four points and seven assists on Friday) and Darius Martorano (four points, five assists and two steals) led the defensive effort against Jackson Memorial's balanced attack.

"Our seniors are all team guys and they know that we have some talented young guys on this team," Clemente said. "They understand that when Justin is playing like he is now, he's only going to make their jobs easier and they are on board with that. These guys are competitors. They want to win."

Sophomore wing Kyle Rhoden also delivered six points, eight rebounds and a pair of blocks to round out Central's starting-five production.

While each starter had a hand in Friday's outcome, Soranno took over the game from the outset. He scored Central's first 10 points of the game to give the Golden Eagles a 10-5 advantage they would never relinquish.

Soranno later finished off the game with 11 points in the fourth quarter to spoil any of Jackson's designs at a comeback. After Soranno scored the first basket of the third quarter, the Golden Eagles never led by fewer than 11 points.

"The last time we played them, we didn't do a good job getting the ball inside," Soranno said. "I knew I need to attack a lot more so right from the start of the game, I wanted to get it in the high post and go to the basket. My teammates were doing a great job of getting me the ball and I just had confidence that I could keep finishing."

Senior Jayson Lee led Jackson Memorial with 13 points and eight rebounds while seniors Tommy Mitchell and Micah Wallace pitched in 12 points each in a losing cause. Wallace is Jackson Memorial's leading scorer at just under 14 points per game and while came close to hitting his average on Friday, Central held the senior transfer from Akron, Ohio to 3-for-20 shooting from the field.

Jackson Memorial was coming off a pair of noteworthy wins over Wall and Brick Memorial - the first of which handed Wall its first loss to a Shore Conference opponent and the second of which snapped Brick Memorial's six-game winning streak.

By beating the Jaguars and improving to 7-10 on the season, Central took a significant step toward rallying for a Shore Conference Tournament berth. With four remaining division games in Class A South and a Winter Hoops Classic Showcase game Saturday at RWJ Barnabas Health Arena against Ridge, the Golden Eagles still have plenty of work to do but the fact that the SCT is a realistic goal again means Central is not far off from where it wanted to be when the season opened despite stumbling to a 4-10 start.

"That's something that we keep in the back of our mind but with this team, it's really important for us to just try to get a little bit better each day," Clemente said. "More than anything, I think that's what the first few games of the season taught these guys. It's a process, you have to come to practice ready to work and get better. That's been our focus and that's what we're going to try to keep doing every day."

 

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