Raritan’s wrestling team relying on balanced lineup



Despite having some big shoes to fill on its roster, the Raritan High School wrestling team is primed to remain a postseason favorite this season.

The Rockets lost four District 22 medalists to graduation, including standout Dylan Seidenberg, who won 34 matches a year ago with just three losses. Luckily, the Rockets have talented freshman and sophomore classes ready to play a larger role.

Christian Sookdeo went 23-11 as a freshman, while Russell Benson went 28-9 and tied for second on the team in wins. He ultimately placed third at districts. Sookdeo and Benson, along with fellow sophomore A.J. Erven and freshmen Charles Barrale and Anthony Aquilano, should give Raritan a young but formidable lineup in the lower weight classes. Junior Jimmy VanFechtman gives the squad some experience there.

The upper half of Raritan’s roster brings back more experience with several grapplers who started for the first time last season. Seniors Adam Bryant, Aaron Daniels, Mike Gillen and Joe Stabile are coming off seasons with losing records, but head coach Rob Nucci said they will flip the script this winter.

Meanwhile, the anchor of the team is senior Nick Bohal, who returns at 160 pounds after winning a silver medal at the District 22 tournament in his junior year. The Rockets also hold a wild card in Jarred Lonnay. The senior missed nearly all of the 2014-15 season after going down with an injury.

“What we’ve been known for is we don’t have that star power, but we put guys who can win in every weight class,” said Nucci, who has guided the Rockets to 10 Shore Conference A Central Division titles in 11 years. “It’s a team sport, as much as people want to say it’s an individual sport.”

In addition to their Shore Conference division championship, the Rockets also ranked fourth as a team in District 22 and advanced to the NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group II final. Nucci acknowledged that the team has less experience this time around, yet the Rockets always seem to pave a path through the postseason.

“I don’t know if there’s a harder working team around,” Nucci said.

Raritan got off to a solid start this year, as the team placed third at the Neptune Classic. Erven (120 pounds) and Benson (126) earned second-place finishes. VanFechtman (132), Bohal (160) and sophomore Ethan Wolf (220) took home bronze medals.

In what could prove to be the most important matchup of the season, Raritan had a road trip Dec. 30 to face A Central rival St. John Vianney High School, which may be the biggest threat to Raritan’s reign over the division.

Raritan is also marking its calendar for the state tournament, where the Rockets are typically a strong contender. Nucci, who is in his 15th season as Raritan’s head coach, thinks the Rockets have what it takes to head back to the finals.

“Hopefully this is our year,” he said, recalling last season’s loss in the sectional championship to Delaware Valley Regional High School.

Given the team’s young group of starters, Nucci sees a bright future for the Rockets.

“We’re on an upward climb. This is probably the first of three very good seasons in my opinion,” Nucci said.

The Rockets traveled to Manchester Township High School Dec. 28 before their showdown with the Lancers. Raritan will return home for a Jan. 2 match against North Hunterdon High School.

Eagles’ girls look to build off last year’s state hoops title



Middletown High School South’s girls’ basketball team has picked up where it left off with four starters back from its NJSIAA Group III championship team (26-6), rolling convincingly past its first four opponents and holding two of them under 20 points.

This year’s Eagles advanced into the WOBM Christmas Classic semifinals Dec. 27 with a 76-49 victory over Wall High School to join Sayreville War Memorial High School, Red Bank Catholic High School and Manasquan High School in the tournament’s final four. Middletown South was scheduled to meet Manasquan Dec. 29, and the finals were slated for Dec. 30.

“We have four returning starters and a couple of kids who played significant minutes and then five freshmen, which is a dramatic dropoff of experience,” coach Tom Brennan said, as Angela DeBartolome, a team leader last season’s championship run, is the lone graduate. “What’s really amazing is watching the juniors and seniors nurture the young players along. It’s really an interesting process seeing how they work with the influx of newcomers. A lot [this year] has to do with how the younger kids come up to speed.” Their development was needed quickly, as Julia Valkos, a 5-foot-9 senior who can sink 3-pointers and has strong leadership qualities, has not played this season and will be out until early January with a stress fracture. Brennan is touting Stephanie Karcz, who averaged 17 points for last year’s team, as a leading candidate for Shore Conference Player of the Year before she embarks on a college career at Loyola University in Baltimore next year.

“I never saw a player of her caliber who can control a game defensively as she does,” Brennan said.

He also said 5-foot-8 senior forward/center Brianna Naughton has a high basketball IQ.

“She does a really good job directing things on the offensive side and shows how tough she is on defense,” the coach said.

“We have a great connection most teams don’t have,” Valkos said. “We have juniors now who are great leaders with the seniors, and our upperclassmen have great communication with younger players.”

Karcz, a 1,000-point career scorer, does not have many goals that she has not reached aside from a repeat state championship and going a little further in the Tournament of Champions, she said. Her team lost its Tournament of Champions opener to Franklin High School, 66-38, last March. Valkos sat out that game after playing the Group III semifinals and finals with a broken finger before the pain became too much for the Tournament of Champions game.

“We want to end it with a bang,” Naughton said. “All three of us seniors will do what we can. We’re building chemistry as the season goes along and want to finish the season as strongly as we can, to reach our potential.”

“We definitely have a bigger target on our backs, which is forcing us to work harder,” Valkos said.

They’ve been working hard on their individual talents to do their part.

The 5-foot-8 Karcz said she has been working a lot on her shooting, especially from long range and at the foul line.

“I’m doing pretty well with it,” she said. “My arm was too high when I was shooting, and I lowered it a lot.”

Karcz admits that getting the first quaddouble of her high school career is in the back of her mind after she came close in the season-opening, 59-19 win over Howell High School Dec. 18, when she had seven assists and seven steals to go with 19 points and 14 rebounds. It was followed by a 66- 17 WOBM Christmas Classic opening victory over Point Pleasant Borough High School, as juniors Alexandra Balsamo and Haley Dalonzo led four players in double figures with 13 points each, and a 94-57 rout of Manalapan High School. Karcz led five players in double figures that game with 22 points.

“I’m happy to see how much I’ve improved with hard work and doing well on defense,” Naughton said.

Brennan said he sees Balsamo shooting more comfortably from the outside after working hard on that part of her game in the offseason.

Dalonzo blends a point guard’s mentality with a shooting guard’s touch, Brennan said. Freshman point guard Isla Brennan also has emerged quickly, scoring 10 points against Manalapan.

Balsamo led the way against Wall with 19 points, and Karcz scored 18. Dalonzo and Brennan added 13 and 12, respectively.

Athletic 5-foot-9 sophomore Gabby Cook can clear a lot of rebounds, and 5- foot-6 freshman guard Emily McCarthy forces opposing players to get away from what they want to do when she’s on defense, Brennan said.

Eve Pirie, a 6-foot freshman, shows the team a lot, the coach said.

“Her game has developed greatly,” he said.

Freshmen Sam Keenan, a 5-foot-9 forward, can shoot and pass the ball well, and Grace Curtis — younger sister of former Eagles player Madison Curtis — is a 5- foot-10 player who can post or shoot consistently well.

It has all blended into a deep lineup that will be needed over the long haul and demanding postseason run.

Mission Belief is NJ’s Horse of the Year

Trotting filly Mission Brief has been named the winner of the Secretary of Agriculture’s Trophy as New Jersey Standardbred of the Year for 2015.

Also selected New Jersey Sire Stakes Horse of the Year, Mission Brief will be honored Jan. 24 at the 59th Annual New Jersey Breeders Awards Luncheon at 1 p.m. at O’Connor’s Restaurant (formerly Charley’s Other Brother) in Eastampton.

Voted the nation’s 2-Year-Old Trotting Filly of the Year in 2014, she also won the Dan Patch Award as 3-Year-Old Trotting Filly of the Year in 2015.

The daughter of Muscle Hill-Southwind Serena wrapped up her 3-year-old campaign with 10 wins and three seconds in 14 starts, banking more than $1 million toward a career total of $1,599,587 for the ownership of the Burke Racing Stable, Our Horse Cents Stables, J&T Silva Stables and Weaver Bruscemi LLC. The Ron Burke trainee was regularly driven by Yannick Gingras.

Undefeated in her New Jersey Sires Stakes competition, including the $100,000 final at the Meadowlands, she also won the $307,040 Elegantimage at Mohawk Raceway, the $185,000 Zweig at Vernon Downs, the $187,400 Matron at Dover Downs, the $144,000 Continental Victory at the Meadowlands and the $174,000 Money Maker at The Meadows.

She made a bid to best the boys in the $1 million Hambletonian at the Meadowlands, winning her elimination but finishing second to Pinkman in the $1 million final Aug. 8.

Bred by Steve H. Stewart, Black Creek Farm and Andrea Lea Racing Stables Inc., she sold for $150,000 at the Lexington Selected Sale.

At 2 years old, she won both the Merrie Annabelle and Breeders Crown, for nine wins in 13 starts and earnings just shy of $600,000.

She collected 150 of 156 votes for freshman honors in 2014 and 118 of 136 votes for 2015 divisional honors.

Tickets for the luncheon cost $40 per person and may be purchased from the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, Division of Markets & Development, Horse Industry, PO Box 330, Trenton, NJ 08625.

For further information, email Lynn.Mathews@ag.state.nj.us or call 609-984-4389.


The Monmouth County Park System is keeping several of its golf courses open for play this winter: Bel-Aire Golf Course in Wall, Charleston Springs Golf Course in Millstone and Shark River Golf Course in Neptune. Golfers will enjoy reduced rates at these courses starting Jan. 1.

Weather permitting, courses are open daily from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Both reserved tee times and walk-on play will be available. The tee time reservation system is available to those with golf cards. Golfers looking to purchase a golf card may do so at these courses. All cards will be sold at 2015 rates until 2016 rates are established. Weather permitting, the FootGolf course at Bel-Aire Golf Course will remain open through the winter.

To learn more about Park System winter golf, please visit www.monmouthcountyparks.com or call the Park System at 732-842-4000. For persons with hearing impairment, the Park System TTY/TDD number is 711.

The Monmouth County Park System, created in 1960 by the Monmouth County Board of Chosen Freeholders, is Monmouth County’s Open Space, Parks and Recreation agency.

The Edison Wizards Lacrosse Club is announcing registration for two boys teams: for grades 5-6 and grades 7-8.

Players will learn to play lacrosse from experienced coaches and players. The cost of registration is $100. Players are required to supply their own equipment.

Practice will be twice a week starting in early March. Games will be played on Friday nights and Saturdays.

Please visit www.wizardslax.com for information regarding registration. Call 732-710-0310 for further information.

Lions building off last year’s state hockey title in 6-0 start



Coming from a family with two brothers who have played on the Middletown High School North ice hockey team, senior forward Kevin Felice has a pretty good idea by now what to expect from the start of the season.

This year has been a little bit different, as the Lions come off a memorable run to their first NJSIAA Public B state championship last season in a 5-4 victory over Ramsey High School at the Prudential Center in Newark. And the momentum has not slowed, as they are off to a 6-0 start, including a 4-1 rout of Howell High School in a showdown of two state finalists and top 20 ranked teams. Howell lost to Randolph High School, 2-1, in the Public A finals last season and went into the early season game with a No. 20 state ranking. Middletown North was ranked No. 7.

“We have confidence but in the big games, can we push through?” Felice asked, rhetorically.

That question was answered against Howell, as the Lions rallied from an early 1- 0 deficit, with Felice scoring the final goal.

On Dec. 1, Middletown North scored a 4-3 victory over Middletown High School South, with Vin Tomassetti scoring the deciding goal early in the third period after Middletown South cut a 3-0 deficit to 3-2 on goals by Craig Bahrs and Deven Ralph. It’s all made the opening up of the new rink in town even more worthwhile, and Felice said he sees even more support from the school at games.

“I think we’re off to a great start that’s built off tenacity,” Felice said. “We have a big mindset off the state championship.” It’s how much we’re committed to each other. Bobby Hampton and Khristian Acosta are scoring the goals, but the defense is just as committed.”

“Experience will help us,” coach Matt Clemente said. “We’re getting every team’s best game now. It’s just keeping our cool and continuing to work hard.”

Six integral players to last year’s success are graduated, including forwards Tim Felice, starting goalie Mike Corella and defensemen Tom Terranova — a big points producer.

But senior goalie Anthony Manfredi saw enough action and started at the end of the season to make a smooth move into regular action, although he had to sit out two recent games to serve a game misconduct suspension. Sophomore Jake Frontera stepped in. Frontera made 17 saves in a 6-2 victory over Manalapan High School Dec. 8, when the Lions answered back from an early 1-0 deficit with five unanswered goals — three scored by Acosta.

Acosta is an unwelcome player in Freehold these days after two games in which he was explosive last week after Manfredi returned to action.

Acosta poured in nine goals and had five assists between victories against Freehold Township High School, 11-3, Dec. 15 and Freehold-Raritan, 12-1, Dec. 18.

Acosta said he knew he had to further step up his performance and leadership because Hampton was in Chicago last week playing with the USHL.

“They were great team wins,” Acosta said.

Manfredi and Hampton, the Shore Conference B North Player of the Year last season, transferred to Middletown North last season, and both need to be in top form in the weeks ahead. Middletown North plays three state-caliber teams in four days in the Essex County Tournament at South Mountain Arena in West Orange against Montville Township High School at 12:45 p.m. Dec. 27, Seton Hall Preparatory School at 5:15 p.m. Dec. 28 and St. Joseph High School of Montvale at 5:15 p.m. Dec. 30.

The Lions’ next game is Jan. 5 against Shore Conference A North rival Christian Brothers Academy (CBA) in a battle of defending state champions. CBA won Non- Public A last year.

“All of those teams are going for us. We have a target on us every time,” Acosta said. “These will be big tests to see how tight we are as a team.”

But Acosta said this team feels a little different this year because a lot of seniors graduated after last season.

“It’s great any time you have a chance to play the No. 1 team in the state (CBA), and it will be a good way to measure where we are,” Clemente said. “You can’t make mistakes because if you make one, it’ll hurt you.”

But Clemente said wearing the mantle of defending state champion inspires this year’s group.

“We’re returning our core group of guys who won it last year and are focused to do it again,” Clemente said. “Now they understand what it takes.”

Acosta overtook Terranova on the school’s all-time career points list. Terranova set the mark at 137 last season, but a four-point effort from Acosta against Manalapan pushed him two ahead at 139. Acosta set the new record the same day one year later from when Terranova did it.

Acosta, who is headed next fall to Quinnipiac University, accumulated 74 points last season. He’s centering the first line with Felice and junior John Dinnocenzo. Hampton, who is headed to NCAA Division I power Northeastern University, is flanked by senior Tomassetti, who tallied 50 points last season, and sophomore Justin Skelly.

As for the defense, senior Ryan Davidson is the only player on the first two units with proven experience, and he starts alongside sophomore Kyle Goworak. Kevin Toland, a senior sidelined last season with a wrist injury, and junior Brian Colucci are on the second unit. Freshman John Hollard also plays on defense.

“Our forward lines have done a really good job,” Clemente said. “They’re pretty deep — a little more than last year. They put in some work over the summer to get better and have a lot more confidence.”

Senior Sean Crimmins and junior Evan Hall are backup forwards.

Lancers await challenges as defending Non-Public A champs



The St. John Vianney High girls’ basketball team, armed with a full slate of returning players, are embarking on the new season with high expectations.

All of the Lancers who carried St. John Vianney to the NJSIAA Non-Public A title last season are back in action. So a year after surging to the Tournament of Champions with zero seniors on the varsity roster, the Lancers are stocked with experienced, talented players. It does not come as a surprise, then, that St. John Vianney is ranked by MaxPreps.com as the No. 1 team in New Jersey.

Still, a merciless schedule awaits the Lancers. As in past seasons, the Lancers have penciled in as many powerhouses as they could fit in the regular-season calendar, strengthening a schedule that already includes games against the Shore Conference’s fiercely competitive A Central Division. The Lancers are well aware that the path to defending their state championship will be a rough one.

“It’s exciting in one aspect to have the attention and everybody looking at us, but we have to understand that we are going to get everybody’s best when we step out on the court. We are going to go through a full season of getting everybody’s best,” head coach Dawn Karpell said.

With that understanding, the Lancers believe they are up to the task. The Lancers go to battle with a star-studded senior class that includes point guard Kelly Campbell, who entered her fourth year as a starter. The De- Paul University commit averaged 14.7 points last season.

Campbell is joined in the backcourt by fellow seniors Kellie Crouch, Tina Lebron and Vanessa Pinho. Senior forwards Gigi Caponegro, Zoe Pero and Megan Furch, along with junior Kim Evans, are part of a formidable frontcourt. The 6-foot-3 Evans was second on the team in scoring a year ago.

The Lancers benefit from a strong junior class that consists of Evans, Courtney Dobrzynski, Julia Ramos, Riley Kehoe and Abby Anderko. Freshman Sarah Karpell and sophomores Madison Doring and Sarah Furch will also contribute to a deep roster for the 2015-16 season.

“I’m excited that we not only have a lot of seniors, but juniors. We have a lot of experience back — many girls who have been through our program for two and three years,” Karpell said.

The number of veterans allows the ninth-year head coach to push the Lancers further than she did last season, focusing on more than just the fundamentals.

“I can get on them for the little things,” Karpell said. “We know that we are going to be heavy favorites on most nights. We want to make sure that we take advantage of mismatches.”

St. John Vianney was thrown right into the fire. The quest for another state crown began on the road Dec. 19 in a showcase against Matawan Regional High School. The Lancers picked up a decisive, 78-25 victory over the Huskies. Evans scored a game-high 16 points, while Pero added 12.

The opener was followed by a divisional game at home vs. Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School Dec. 21. St. John Vianney made it two wins in a row with a 59-48 win over the Bulldogs. Evans and Pero both scored 12 points, and Pero grabbed a game-high seven rebounds.

The Lancers travel to Orlando, Florida, to face elite teams from around the country at the KSA Holiday Basketball Tournament after Christmas.

From the gym at St. John Vianney to Walt Disney World’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, the Lancers do not expect any breathing room. Their January schedule includes Christ the King High School, Eastside High School (Paterson), Gill St. Bernard’s School and Manasquan High School — one of the team’s strongest A Central opponents. The first matchup of the season between St. John Vianney and Manasquan will come Jan. 8.

“We’re going to get challenged early on. With such a veteran group, we set things up to challenge ourselves,” Karpell said. “We’re going to play some of the top-tier teams in the state when we get back from Orlando.”

The Lancers drew up their daunting schedule in order to be 100 percent ready for the postseason. After all, St. John Vianney has a big goal in mind: back-to-back state championships.

Heath built legendary cross-country program at CBA


Tim Morris

The words “great” and “legend” get thrown out so often that they have almost lost their meaning.

In the case of retired Christian Brothers Academy (CBA) cross-country coach Tom Heath, those words hardly do him justice.

Heath, who stepped down as the Colts’ head coach after another championship year, leaves as one of the greatest coaches in any sport in New Jersey high school sports history. His legacy is unsurpassed. He is synonymous with cross-country in this state and, in the process, elevated the sport.

His list of accomplishments is staggering. There is the record 21 NJSIAA Meet of Champion (MOC) crowns, which includes the last six straight. There are the 27 group state titles, as well as team average course records all over New Jersey and New York (Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx and Bowdoin Park in Wappingers Falls). Maybe the most impressive achievement is winning the Nike Cross Nationals national championship in 2011.

Tom Heath’s Christian Brothers Academy cross-country teams won a record 21 NJSIAA Meet of Champions titles during his unparalleled career. Yet he ranks the national-record 343 dual-meet victories as the highlight of his career.LARRY LEVANTI/CBA

Tom Heath’s Christian Brothers Academy cross-country teams won a record 21 NJSIAA Meet of Champions titles during his unparalleled career. Yet he ranks the national-record 343 dual-meet victories as the highlight of his career.

LARRY LEVANTI/CBA However, when asked what stands out the most to him over his unprecedented career, his reply was the streak.

“It’s pretty cool,” he said.

The streak is CBA’s ongoing national record for consecutive dual-meet victories, which began in September 1974 and continued through the 2015 season. The mark now stands at 343.

The mark is a tribute to CBA’s unmatched depth. The Colts were so deep that Heath was able to run his B or even C team in most dual meets and rest his top runners. In that way, as Heath noted over the years, everyone contributed to the streak.

One of the Shore coaches linked to Heath’s streak is Colts Neck High School’s Jim Schlentz. In 1981, the streak was at 94 when Schlentz’s St. John Vianney High School team tied the Colts in a dual meet but lost on the sixth-runner tiebreaker. It was the closest any team came to CBA during its unfathomable five-decade streak.

“I like running against CBA,” Schlentz said. “The only way to get better is to race against the best.”

The Cougars’ coach, who has had his fare share of success in the sport (his 2006 Colts Neck girls were MOC champions), spoke highly of what Heath and CBA have been able to accomplish.

“To be at the top all those years is remarkable,” Schlentz said.

The Cougars’ coach had a simple explanation as to why the Colts have stayed on top all this while. “They outwork everybody,” Schlentz said. Heath, a CBA graduate who was a sprinter on the track team, took over as head coach of the cross-country team in the fall of 1971.

“There was a tradition at CBA for crosscountry,” Heath said.

Heath, though, took the program to high levels.

Heath noted that not being a cross-country runner was, in a strange way, an advantage for him.

“I never ran distance, which is probably good,” he said. “I never knew pain.”

There was no secret formula behind CBA’s and Heath’s success. He pointed out that it starts with recognizing that kids are smart. He explained they have to work hard, put in their miles in training and stay injury free. Pretty simple stuff, but something it seems only the Colts could achieve year-in and year-out.

I have watched the CBA program over the years as it went from a state power to national champion. I, like most, used to think, “Hey, anyone can coach CBA.” He gets the talent, but after observing Heath over the years and seeing how his runners were always ready for November and the biggest races of the season, I began to appreciate what he has done more. Getting your runners to come through when it matters in a single race takes more than talent. It takes coaching. In Heath’s case, it’s great coaching.

I remember the shocked faces of the Cherokee High School runners a few years ago when they were the heavy favorites to win the MOC only to have CBA take it from them as the Colts ran above their season-level. They did it this year, rebounding from a loss in the group championships the week before to snatch a 21st MOC title.

The 2012 MOC stands out as CBA’s signature win. With superstorm Sandy pushing the MOC back, it conflicted with the Nike Cross Northeast Regional. Heath couldn’t run his starters for fear that it would impact them at the regional three days later and jeopardize their chances of qualifying for the nationals. So he gambled on his “B” team, resting his top five runners.

“I told [the MOC runners] there was no downside,” Heath said. “If you do bad, I’ll take the blame. Just relax and be focused.”

The Colts all went out and ran their Holmdel Park personal bests for a stunning triumph that was a testament to CBA’s tradition.

When the Nike Cross Nationals started up to produce a national champion, did anyone doubt that Heath and the Colts would win it? They did in 2011, raising the profile for New Jersey cross-country. The Colts were also the runnerup in 2013. They’ve made the national championships the last six years.

It’s hard to think about it now, but it wasn’t always this way for Heath and his harriers. He pointed out that he lost the Monmouth County championships the first four times his teams competed in it. Clearing that hurdle opened the door for what would follow.

“As soon as you win something, you realize it’s not as hard to win as you thought,” he said. “It was the same thing with the states (MOC). I thought it was impossible. Then you win it, and it’s not as hard to do.”

How do you get everyone to race so well at the same time?

“You just have the kids relax and realize it’s just another race and it can be won,” Heath said.

Now that Heath has retired, he said that he won’t appear at any cross-country meets next year so as to not be seen as looking over the shoulder of the coach who has the impossible task of following him.

He may not be at Holmdel Park next year, but his shadow certainly will be.


Jackson Memorial High School senior right-hander Chris Hawryluk signed a National Letter of Intent to continue his baseball career at Monmouth University.

Hawryluk is heading into his third varsity season with the Jaguars on the diamond and has starred both on the mound as a pitcher and at the plate as a first baseman. This past season, he hit .444 with five doubles, a triple and three home runs while knocking in 21 runs and scoring 24. He also posted a .550 on-base percentage and .622 slugging percentage from the middle of the Jaguars’ order.

Central Jersey RedLegs will hold tryouts for the 11U 2016 spring and summer baseball season. Winter workouts start the first week of January. Indoor tournaments, league play and multiple travel tournaments will be played.

Home fields are located in Michael Tighe Park, Freehold Township.

Contact Coach Tom at tfigliolino@aol.com for details.

Young Jersey Blues positioned for region hoops tourney run

Staff Writer

 Brookdale Community College’s Jordan Little goes up between two Ocean County College defenders during the Dec. 10 game played on Brookdale’s home floor, Collins Arena in Lincroft. The host Jersey Blues held on to beat the Vikings, 71-69.  STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER ERIC SUCAR Brookdale Community College’s Jordan Little goes up between two Ocean County College defenders during the Dec. 10 game played on Brookdale’s home floor, Collins Arena in Lincroft. The host Jersey Blues held on to beat the Vikings, 71-69. STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER ERIC SUCAR The Brookdale Community College men’s basketball team has had an almost complete turnover of its roster from last year.

Long Branch High School graduate Terrel Cox, who plays point guard, is the only returnee.

Yet, despite having nine freshmen on the team, Paul Cisek’s Jersey Blues are sporting a 9-2 record and are very much in the conversation about the best teams in Region 19.

“We’ve started off pretty good,” said Cisek, who is in his 25th year as Brookdale’s head coach. “We’re young and we’re learning from our mistakes.

“These kids are talented. I’m not surprised at our start.”

Sophomore Mason Jones, from Manchester Township High School, played for Brookdale two years ago, and his return is giving the Jersey Blues a lift.

“[Jones] has a lot of potential,” Cisek said. “He’s shooting the ball well from three and he gets to the basket. He’s quick.

“He can do it all, and he plays at an intense level.”

Jones’s impact on the team has been big. He leads the team in scoring with 21.8 points per game and assists with three per game.

Jones gives Brookdale a second ball handler to go with Cox, which is even more important this year because of the new college rule changes.

The shot clock is now 30 seconds (down from 35), and there is no five-second rule. A ball handler can now hold onto the ball, which brings the dribble-drive into play even more.

“It’s hard to defend,” Cisek said. “It’s changed the game. It rewards quick guards.”

In Cox and Jones, the Jersey Blues have guards who can take advantage of the new rule. Brookdale is running more and getting easy baskets because of its backcourt.

Those breakouts and fast breaks are made possible because the Jersey Blues have been able to control the backboard.

“This is the biggest team we’ve had here,” Cisek said.

The 6-foot-8 Jordan Little (Perth Amboy Tech) and 6- foot-5 Dillon Salva (Bishop Ahr) provide a strong, physical inside presence.

Between them, they are averaging more than 21 rebounds a game. Little has 12.2 boards per game, while also averaging 3.4 blocked shots a game.

The duo is also giving the team 29 points a game, as they each average 14.5.

Sky Harris (Cardinal McCarrick) is the team’s small forward. At 6 feet 4 inches tall and athletic, he can rebound and finish. He’s averaging 11.6 points and 4.8 rebounds.

Brookdale’s freshmen are making their presence most felt off the bench. They add both production and depth.

Already, the depth has made a difference in games with Brookdale wearing teams out and winning games in the second half.

“We’ve been fortunate because of the depth of our young freshmen,” Cisek said.

First off the bench is Howell High School graduate Aaron Trimble, who is a scorer. He’s adjusting to college ball and getting better with each game. His Rebels teammate from last year, Will Kocsis, helps out up front. He’s 6 feet 5 inches tall.

Kerry Kirkwood (Neptune) is the backup point guard, and he has the speed and ball handling the position requires.

Another impact freshman is Old Bridge High School graduate Dante Whipple, whom Cisek described as a raw talent.

These five freshmen are still figuring out the game, according to Cisek. One area where youth is most visible is defense, which needs continuity and familiarity. It has made Cisek stray from his preferred man-to-man

“We’ve been forced to play zone, 2-3 and 1-2-2,” Cisek said.

The solid start by the Jersey Blues (7-2 in region play) has them well positioned for a high seed in the Region 19 Tournament, which is Feb. 27-28 at Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

As Cisek knows, the Jersey Blues have a lot of basketball to play before then.

“There’s a lot of parity [in Region 19] this year,” Cisek said. “You have to win at home and beat the teams you should on the road.”

The Jersey Blues have a decided edge playing at the Collins Arena, where they’ve been close to unbeatable. Brookdale opens 2016 at home Jan. 9 against Sussex County Community College at 2 p.m., and Union County College visits Jan. 16 at noon.