TOMS RIVER – At an age where most former coaches are content to watch highlights of their teams, Tom Westen continues to coach.
“I live basketball,” said Westen, 64, the first-year head coach of the Ocean County College women’s team. “I like teaching it. I love coaching it. I am still young enough. Rollie Massimino was 71 and still coaching. Jim Calhoun is still coaching. The old guys like Calhoun are still doing it. It was kind of a no-brainer when they (school officials) offered it to me.”
Turns out school officials did not have to look far to find a new coach.
Westen spent 2015-2017 serving as an OCC assistant coach under former Brick Memorial High School and Montclair State University player Kathryn Lamastra, now the second assistant coach at West Virginia Wesleyan.
The Vikings enjoyed success with Lamastra and Westen running the team.
In Lamastra’s second season as their head coach, the Vikings were 25-6 and placed seventh in the National Junior College Athletic Association Division III Tournament at Brookdale Community College in Middletown. They won the Region XIX Tournament to qualify for the event.
The team was 17-11 last season. Lamastra’s three-year overall record at OCC was 50-29.
Westen has been around the block more than once.
The former St. Joseph of Toms River (now Donovan Catholic) player has also served as the head women’s coach at Georgian Court College (now Georgian Court University), the head boys coach at Donovan, the head girls and boys coach at Wall and the head girls coach at Mater Dei Prep.
He took Georgian Court’s Lions to a 79-39 record and was a two-time conference and district Coach of the Year. He led Donovan’s Griffins to a 12-12 record. Wall’s Crimson Knights were 63-127 in boys play under Westen and their girls team was 87-62. Mater Dei was 10-14 with Westen at the helm.
Westen also coached St. Joseph’s junior varsity boys team and was the Griffins’ assistant athletic director and assistant boys coach. He retired as a health and physical education teacher at Wall.
“I get up in the morning, walk on the boardwalk and get ready for practice,” said Westen, a graduate of the University of Rio Grande in Ohio. “It is kind of cool.”
The Vikings figure to sorely miss the graduated Courtney Hagaman. The former Manasquan player last year led NJCAA Divisions I, II and III (OCC competes in the latter group) in scoring, averaging 30.3 points per game. The Toms River resident was named a Division III third-team all-american. Hagaman, a guard, is a junior member of the Winthrop University team.
The lone returnee from last season’s team is 5-foot-6 sophomore point guard Sydney Ulrich, a former Brick Memorial player. She averaged 9.5 points, 3.9 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game. The ex-Mustang was a shooting guard and small forward last year.
“I am hoping she can up her scoring average from last season,” Westen said. “She is our captain. I have convinced her to put her hands on the ball. She won’t have to worry about her teammates passing her the ball. She is our best player so moving her to point guard was a no-brainer on my part. She is an outside threat.
“Courtney drove to the basket. I want Sydney to take the ball to the hole if she can. I want her to shoot and score first and pass second.”
OCC appears strong up front where Westen expects production from 6-foot-2 freshman center Jessica Toplawski, a Monsignor Donovan graduate, and 6-foot-2 freshman power forward Lyanla Donaldson, who played for Lakewood.
“We have two good inside players who I am kind of excited about,” Westen said. “They are very good options for Sydney. Jessica is very good around the basket. She has great hands and a nice, soft shooting touch. We need her to score inside. Lyanla rebounds, throws the outlet pass and runs the floor. I am excited about her. She can be very, very good. They will give us more size than we have ever had before.”
Another ex-Lakewood player who hopes to make a positive impact on the team is 5-foot freshman guard Ashely Vargas.
“She and Donaldson played together so that is a big plus,” Westen said. “They are used to each other. Vargas is our spark plug. She brings us a lot of energy and hustle. She is constantly on the go and constantly talking. She likes to play the game.”
Vargas’ sister, Carolay Vargas, a 5-foot freshman guard from Lakewood, is another high energy player.
“She is similar to her sister as she is always moving and always talking,” Westen said. “She could be our first guard off the bench.”
Natalie Wowkanyn, a 5-foot-10 sophomore out of Brick Memorial, gives the Vikings versatility.
“She can play either small forward or power forward,” Westen said. “She is trying to learn both positions. She is the glue we need. She is able to do a lot of different things. She knows we don’t need her as a scorer per se. She likes to play defense. She will help us on our three-quarter and half court presses. She is a very good athlete who will hold us all together.”
The team’s oldest player is freshman Melissa Lewis, 27, a 5-foot-8 forward who hails from Tennessee and resides in Jackson Township. A former member of the United States Armed Forces, Lewis attended Middle Tennessee State.
“Much like Natalie, she is learning the small forward and power forward positions,” Westen said. “She has size and runs the floor well.”
Also hoping to make contributions are 5-foot-5 freshman guard Cassie Gravelle, a Wisconson native and a Toms River resident, and former Central player Victoria Britton, a 5-foot-4 freshman guard. Gravelle also plays softball for the Vikings.
“She is an athlete who runs the floor,” Westen said. “She is helping us out. We needed bodies so we recruited her off the softball team. She is learning as she goes. You can tell she is an athlete.
“Victoria, who had never played basketball, made our team on her hustle. She is learning. She is really enjoying herself. As she learns the system, she will play better.”
OCC will have a diversified style of play.
“We want to mix it up,” Westen said. “We want to press, be able to move the chess pieces and give our opponents something to think about. We want to constantly change our defenses and our players are picking up on that concept. We want to run a transition offense before we get into our set offense.
“The players have picked up the two offenses we have installed. If we hold teams in the 50s, we should have enough offense to beat people. I really believe our inside game will surprise people as we did not have that last year.”
Westen is optimistic of success for the Vikings.
“Our goal is just to be competitive,” he said. “I think we will be OK. We can finish maybe third or fourth in our conference (the Garden State Athletic Conference) and still have a pretty good year. We lost 30 points per game with Courtney graduating and people know it. They may look past us and say, ‘You have a bunch of freshmen.’ We might sneak up on people.”
The Vikings’ first-year assistant coach is former Southern Regional and Kutztown University player Avery Hodgson, who competes in practice.
“She is a great addition for me,” Westen said. “We hit it off from day one. Because we have only nine players on the team, we do a lot of four-on-four and dummy stuff. Avery fills in and is still young enough to get up and down the court. I coached against her team when I was at Wall. We had only six girls on the team last season.”
Westen hopes to attract all-around athletes to future teams.
“We want to have multi-sport athletes and for years OCC has done that,” he said. “We will take anyone if they are interested and want to keep playing basketball. Height is important, but it does not have to be.
“OCC is a well-kept secret. All OCC needs is dorms and it is a major college. I will stay in Ocean County for recruiting. Students can go here and work on their skills.”
Westen said former OCC players April Szymczyk (Jackson Liberty) and Lauren Lamastra (coach Lamastra’s sister and a Brick Memorial graduate) are on the rosters of Rowan University and Stockton University, respectively.