TOMS RIVER – Just a few short years ago, who would have thought it? Two rival high schools from a large school district combining programs to stem the tide of recent less-than-stellar seasons. That’s just what the Toms River school district did. With coaches in place with stand-alone programs who were looking for the “next” to come along and turn the page on both, Jason Verdon found himself with the unenviable task of righting the ship. Three years in the making, the future appears to have a nice flow.
Currently in his third year as head coach of the Tomes River South-East co-op, Verdon is as excited about his program today as he was when he took the helm. “This was not just my first head coaching job, this was my first high school coaching experience. Things weren’t good when I started out. Participation was low and the district was looking to make good of a not so good situation.”
With two schools in the same district carrying such a strong rivalry, the co-op wasn’t well received at first. Once the Board of Education voted on it and made it a reality, the joint program was born. “I had to take over and make it work,” said Verdon. “We started over, from the team colors and logo, down to the stripes on the helmets. I worked with the players to create something that we all would be happy with.” Now with a new look, the team now had to go out and play winning ice hockey.
The normal schedule played by both teams team individually was heavily weighted with top Shore Conference talent. If there was to be a turnaround for the newly formed team, the schedule would have to be reassessed. “We just weren’t there and our talent level just was not that high. We were outclassed on the ice and needed to make change,” said Verdon.
Over the next two years, plans were formulated to change the schedule. But in the meantime, the losses kept coming. The 2018 season saw the team come away with just one win; the 2019 season concluded with two wins.
Now in its third year, good things were happening. The much-needed schedule change was in place. There were many more skaters on the team, including the creation of a JV program. This would give skaters experience as they sharpened their game for varsity minutes.
“We now dress 18 players on varsity,” said Verdon. There was an influx of six travel freshmen – all playing varsity, having a good impact. Three of the six – defensemen Jarrod Dye and Jake Verdon, and forward David Daconde played lights out.
“They had a profound impact on our team this season,” said Verdon.
Two returning goalies – Mark Bish and Sean Cook – provided very stout support for the front line. “Things have just started to click,” he added.
Verdon singled out sophomore Chris Dineen, who he calls the most impactful skater on the squad. “He does so much and the stat sheet doesn’t show it all. He is the prototypical center who backchecks like an animal. We are very lucky to have him.”
Verdon describes his squad’s brand of hockey as ‘blue collar hockey.’ “We have a balanced attack with six or seven of our skaters around 17-20 points. We outwork our opponents.”
Crediting mentors from Southern Regional and Toms River North, Verdon stated, “Each year we’ve improved, and Parker’s Army stepped in and help fund our JV program.” Named for nine-year-old Parker Nork, this charitable organization began in 2018 as a Go Fund Me page as a tribute to the boy who suddenly, and while still holding so much promise, succumbed to Leukemia. Parker’s Army raises money for sporting programs, childhood cancer research and provides student-athlete scholarships.
Toms River South-East‘s record is 11-6 as they head toward the state playoffs. Finding them in the role of underdog, Verdon said, “I like where we are right now. We’re clicking at the right time, barring a few injuries, but I think we just might be able to sneak up on a team or two because no one is expecting us.”
Toms River South-East has come a very long way in a very short time. The only thing surpassing the energy and enthusiam of their head coach is the potential they seems to have.