Mariners Look Back On A Strong Year

Toms River’s Najea Hallenbeck takes a shot, surrounded by Brick Memorial players. (Photo courtesy Lors Photography)

TOMS RIVER – The Toms River High School North boys basketball team was true to its slogan: Win as One.

The Mariners did plenty of winning.

They won 25 games overall.

They lost only five games.

And they won the Shore Conference Class A South title at 14-0.

North wore the slogan on its warmup shirts with – what else? – Mariners Pride for each game.

“Everyone knows their job and does what they need to do to help the team win,” North senior center Eliot Daks said. “We know what we have to do to win. We have to use our heads and not take on everyone one-on-one. The slogan means we have to come together and win as a team. Guys have to fill their roles when their number is called. It got to the point where everyone on the team trusted each other.”

“This team plays together and shares the ball,” North senior guard Travis Holland said. “Our guys get open looks. We are not selfish.”

North coach Rory Caswell had a hand in the team choosing its slogan.

“I put a couple of slogans to our seniors and they pick one out,” he said. “I go online and see what Nike is doing for slogans. Each year, we try to come up with some type of a slogan, any type of thing to bring the team together.”

The Mariners were one of the biggest surprises in the Shore Conference.

They returned one starter from last year’s 28-3 team which won Class A South. The returnee was Holland, who averaged 8.5 points per game a year ago. Holland stepped into a leadership role this season as he averaged 15.1 points per game to pace the club in scoring.

“He’s a great athlete and a great shooter,” Caswell said. “He was the type of player who when we needed the big bucket he came up with the basket or the big rebound. He is a program kid. He just got stronger than he was last year. He learned how to play hard all of the time.”

The 6-foot-6 Daks, a 235-pounder, put up a norm of 6.5 points per outing this year after averaging two points and four rebounds per game last year.

Toms River’s Travis Holland reaches the rim against Brick Memorial. (Photo courtesy Lors Photography)

“I had a small role on last year’s team,” said Daks, who was the club’s seventh man. “I had to step up, fill a bigger role and help lead this year’s team. As a senior, I did that pretty well. We have grown a lot since we were sophomores. We have seen it (winning) done before and we know what it takes to win.”

“He is another program kid,” Caswell said. “He really developed and got better and better. He learned the proper footwork and learned the game. Tell him something once and he runs with it. You don’t have to tell him twice.”

The Mariners’ season ended with a 59-45 home loss to Atlantic City in the semifinals of the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV Tournament.

North fought the talented, speedy Vikings gamely as trailed by eight, 30-22, at halftime, and pulled to within 39-34 late in the third quarter. Holland left the game to cheers from the Mariners’ fans with 21 seconds left in the game after scoring 15 points, including eight in the second half. He received an embrace from sophomore teammate Najea Hallenbeck, a 6-foot-6 forward, as he went to the bench.

“I heard them all,” said the 6-foot-6 Holland, referring to the cheers. “The cheers gave me a good feeling, but it’s also a bad feeling as you know it’s your last game. It is over. The next step is college and I will see where it goes from there.”

Atlantic City, which blasted home five dunks, was led by senior Ray Bethea Jr., who erupted for a game-high 27 points and grabbed seven rebounds. Bound for Howard University where he will continue his career, Bethea Jr. was one of three Vikings to score in double figures.

“It’s tough, but they were super athletic and we could not get the job done,” Holland said after netting three treys, grabbing a game-high 11 rebounds and handing out two assists. “They are a better team – athleticism, rebounding and shooting the ball. We just could not stop it.”

North sophomore guard Jakari Spence knocked down three treys en route to 11 points. He added three assists, one rebound and one steal. He averaged 7.4 points per game this season.

Hallenbeck averaged 7.7 points per game in 2017-18. Caswell, North’s coach, said the 275-pounder has been offered a football scholarship from Rutgers University.

“He did not play much as a freshman because he was learning the game,” Caswell said. “He worked on his footwork and skills. For a big guy, he is extremely skilled and agile. He is being recruited as an offensive lineman by pretty much all of the Big Ten (Conference) schools. By the time he is a senior, he will have his choice of where to go to college.”

Also making contributions to the team’s success were senior guard Mark Mogarte, junior forward Nick Dunzack and sophomore guard Colin Baker.

“This year, our senior group won it when they were freshmen,” Caswell said. “It was a goal for them from the get go to win it as they experienced winning prior to this season. Our previous players taught this group how to win and these kids kept it rolling.”

Caswell is 156-42 through seven seasons as the Mariners’ coach. A former North player, Caswell has also coached the Ocean County College men’s basketball team. His assistant coaches this year were Bob Urie, a former North standout, and Tom DeRiggi.

Toms River’s Eliot Daks practices before a game. (Photo courtesy Lors Photography)

“We were a little bit of a different team this year compared to the last few seasons when we played five guards at one time,” Caswell said. “This year’s team was very versatile and deep. We put quick, athletic lineups on the floor and were able to press full court. We also used large and long lineups to play big when we were in half court situations. Our size was long and skilled.”

North has won four straight Class A South titles. The Mariners have put up three consecutive 14-0 records. They were 12-2 during the first season they captured the title under Caswell.

“This was kind of a quiet group compared to the other teams we have had,” Caswell said. “The boys were self-motivated. They knew what they had to do day in and day out. They came in and did their jobs. They were not loud. They did not boast. They came in and did what they needed to do. For the most part, we wore teams down with our size in the second half.

“Our style of play was definitely a lot different than years past as we went inside with the ball more often. We had such great overall size. We played pressure defense and ran when we could. In half court situations, we pounded the ball inside to take advantage of our size.”

Caswell said the team was a pleasure to coach.

“It was a fun year with the kids,” he said. “It was definitely different than years past. In past years, we had the same five guys in the starting lineup each year. This year, we played either eight or nine players most nights and not many teams can say that. When someone went down, we were able to come back and play fine as people just stepped in and played their roles.

“The boys were ready to play and that comes from years of winning. Winning is definitely something that is learned.”

The future is bright for the Mariners.

They won the Shore Conference Freshman Tournament en route to an 18-1 overall record. They advanced to the semifinals of the Shore Conference Junior Varsity Tournament and finished 17-2 overall.

“I am excited about next year, too,” Caswell said.

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Chris Christopher covers sports for Micromedia Publications Inc. with knowledge, pride and passion. His beats are the high school, college, professional, youth and recreational scenes. A three-time New Jersey Press Association award winner for sports writing, Christopher was inducted into the Shore Football Coaches Foundation Hall of Fame in 2015 for his work in the media. The Lakewood resident enjoys taking walks in Ocean County Park and on the boardwalks in Ocean and Monmouth counties and rooting for the New York Mets.