Former Teammates Gruszecki, Rhoden, Corbin, Barnes Reunite at SBCA Senior All-Star Game
TOMS RIVER - It's the Super Team That Never Was.
Two years ago, Central Regional's boys basketball team featured a stellar sophomore class that included guard Maks Gruszecki, center Elijah Barnes, swingman Jaden Rhoden and rugged forward Denis Corbin under former coach Steve Zengel.
All four players went on to have outstanding careers, but not all of them for the Golden Eagles. At Thursday night's Shore Basketball Coaches Association Senior All-Star Game at Pine Belt Arena, they were all back on the same court for the first time since they went their separate ways.
Corbin, Rhoden and Barnes represented the East in its 124-119 win over the West all-stars, although Barnes was unable to play due to a broken forearm suffered in the state playoffs. Gruszecki suited up for the West squad, burying a long 3-pointer and pulling off a slick move in the lane through a group of defenders in the loss.
"Unfortunately Elijah couldn't play, but me and Jaden were going at it.,'' Gruszecki said. "It was fun."
Rhoden, who played his last two seasons at Toms River North, took home Most Valuable Player honors with a game-high 24 points and multiple dunks in the win.
"Playing with Maks again was a lot of fun, and I wished Elijah could've played too because that would've been a great time,'' Rhoden said. "(That sophomore season at Central) there was a lot of talent. When we left, we all just wanted to make our marks at our schools and put our programs on the map."
All four players were not only individual talents, they were winners. Their three different teams went a combined 75-13 this season.
Barnes, who is headed to Princeton University, played his last two seasons at Mater Dei Prep, which won back-to-back Shore Conference Tournament titles and finished No. 1 in the Shore in both seasons. The Seraphs went 51-6, including 25-4 this season, and only lost once to a Shore Conference team.
He was named the Shore Conference Player of the Year by the coaches, and finished his career with more than 1,000 points between his stints at Freehold Boro, Central and Mater Dei Prep. He averaged 15 points and 7.3 rebounds per game this season.
Gruszecki, who was also a 1,000-point scorer, and Corbin, a football standout who grabbed a single-season team record 350 rebounds, led Central to a school-record 22 wins this season on their way to earning All-Class A South honors. Gruszecki finished sixth in the Shore in scoring at 18.3 points per game, while Corbin led the Shore with 12.5 rebounds per game while averaging 13.8 points.
"We can't look back on it too much,'' Gruszecki said about what might have been after they showed promise in a 12-11 season as sophomores.
"Even without them we did some special things, and that was a good feeling. If we had them, we're talking about state championships and Shore Conference finals."
Not to be left out, Rhoden was a 1,000-point scorer as well for the Mariners, who had one of their best seasons in school history in finishing 28-3 and ranked No. 4 in the final SSN Top 10. They reached the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV final and came up just short of winning the program's first sectional title when they lost in triple overtime to Shawnee at Pine Belt Arena. They also went unbeaten in Class A South for the second straight season to hang another division title banner.
A first-team All-Shore selection by SSN, Rhoden averaged 15.8 points and finished third in the Shore at 10.2 rebounds per game.
Rhoden was one of three Mariners to participate in Thursday night's game for one last run on their home court. He is looking to possibly play basketball and be a jumper on a track team in college.
"I loved playing my last two years here,'' he said. "To be able to play on this court one more time is a great feeling. It was nice to have a good memory and to do it with my teammates, Darrion (Carrington) and (Mike) Nyisztor, all of us playing in a last game together.
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"It's upsetting we didn't win the (sectional) championship, but as I look back, we really did put Toms River on the map. We helped set the standard for the younger players, and I hope they keep it up and show that Toms River North is the place to be."
Gruszecki was essentially the last man standing as the lone returning starter at Central after Zengel departed as coach and the other two stars transferred. Corbin was more known for his work as a punishing fullback and linebacker on the football team before becoming an impact basketball player as a junior.
"It obviously was a heart-breaking moment when I found out both of them were leaving that summer, but it was more motivation for me to get into the gym and get to work,'' Gruszecki said.
Gruszecki, whose full first name is Maksymillian, is the son of Polish immigrants who came to the United States in their late teens and met in Lakewood.
"I was supposed to be a soccer player, but I got the ball in my hands and took it from there,'' he said.
Being part of the Senior All-Star Game was a cherished experience for him before he heads off to Rutgers University, where he plans on majoring in either civil engineering or computer engineering and possibly trying to make the basketball team as a walk-on.
"It means everything to me to come out and play with the best of the best from the Shore,'' he said. "Three years playing there, it was unbelievable. I never thought I would be at this point. I'm just grateful for everything I did."