TOMS RIVER – The Mariners will be seeking their sixth straight A South championship this season in a division they’ve dominated so thoroughly in recent years that on opening night against Toms River East they are expected to win their 61st straight division game dating back to February 2015.
But after bowing out in the quarterfinals of the Shore Conference Tournament last season, then advancing to the South Jersey Group IV semifinals before losing to Cherokee, the Mariners have much loftier goals this season than just another 14-0 division title.
And with four starters back from last year’s team that won 24 games and finished ranked No. 5 in the Shore, along with some promising newcomers in the fold, the Mariners appear primed to make a run at one or more championships.
Leading the way for the Mariners again this season will be senior guard Jakari Spence and senior center Najae Hallenback, who both had award-winning years for the Mariners last season and should take their games to an even higher level this season.
Spence averaged 18.5 points, 3.6 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 2.1 steals a year ago while shooting 78.7 percent from the field and 36.4 percent from 3-point range, sinking 59 of them.
He was a second team All-Shore selection as well as a third team All-Group IV pick during his breakout year that saw him score a team-high 538 points. “We’ve got a lot of upside,” said Spence. “A lot of us are seniors and have been playing together all three years. Everyone has the mindset that we want to win, just win no matter who we’re up against, we just want to win, that’s our goal. We just have to play together as a team and everyone needs to buy into (head) coach (Roy) Caswell’s system.”
The second piece of Tom River North’s inside-outside game is the 6-foot-7, 295-pound Hallenbeck, who has a knack for dominating a game in the paint on both ends of the floor.
The big man put up 14 points a game and averaged 11.4 rebounds, good for sixth in the Shore, on his way to being named first team All-Division. Hallenbeck broke a bone in his hand early in the Cherokee loss or the outcome could’ve been different, and he’s coming off a prodigious football career after which he picked up first team All-Shore honors and holds numerous scholarship offers from FBC schools.
“We like to push the ball up court in transition but if we don’t have anything we can slow it down and get the ball to Najae,” said Spence. “We can pick-and-roll, whatever coach calls we can run it in the half court but we like to get into transition and score easy buckets and speed teams up.”
Senior starting guard Colin Baker missed 10 games early in the season a year ago with an injury but came back strong and he’s another one who should be able to up his game another level this season after averaging five points, six rebounds and three assists last season.
At 6-foot-5, senior forward Mike Van Sprang adds some more height upfront and with a year of starting experience under his belt, Van Sprang may be in line for a breakout year after averaging five points and five rebounds last season.
Sophomore guard Jaiden Fraser rounds out the starting lineup for the Mariners. Fraser worked his way into the starting lineup late last season and made an immediate impact displaying limitless potential as an all-around player; he has star quality written all over his game.
Junior guards Jack Brown and Jake Kazanowsky add depth off the bench along with a few newcomers, including 6-foot-4 sophomore guard Lamir Mitchell, 6-foot guard Wesley Deitsch and 6-foot-5 forward Vinny Lebello. Kazonowsky was recently named the Shore Conference Offensive Player of the Year after a sensational year at quarterback, so his athleticism speaks for itself.
“’We are greater than me,’ that’s our motto,” said Spence. “We is the team and we’re greater than any one individual. That’s how we’re going to approach this season – as a team.”
The Mariners have been to the SCT semifinals four times in the last seven years but have yet to reach the finals and they are still looking for that elusive first sectional title, but this group has all the markings of a champion, so now it’s up to them to produce.
“We can go very far, we have the potential to do anything,” said Hallenbeck. “We’re a tough team and we’re going to play hard this season.”