Lions’ boys and girls basketball aim for winning seasons in 2012-13


 Jackson Liberty Jackson Liberty Jackson Liberty High School’s girls and boys basketball teams point toward winning seasons and returning to the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III tournament, but will go about it in different ways.

Junior forwards James Sofield and Dan Niblack are the lone returning starters from last season’s boys team that reached the Shore Conference Tournament for the first time in a 15-8 season highlighted by a stunning 53-51 upset of Shore Conference B South Division rival Lakewood High School, which was ranked No. 1 in the state at the time, before a packed, boisterous home crowd.

“We’re very young and do not have a lot of experience. Hopefully we’ll get some wins,” said boys coach Mark Lax, who has one junior and two sophomores mixed into his roster

The girls team returns all but one starter from a 9-14 team that ended its season with five straight losses and will play in the WOBM Tournament for the first time this year at Toms River High School North starting Dec. 22.

“We have a lot of enthusiasm, which we had lacked at the end of last season,” girls coach Dave Kasyan said.

Both teams open their seasons on Dec. 14 against Barnegat High School, with the boys going on the road and the girls playing at home.

“I thought last season, we had a good building block,” said Lax of the boys team. “We’re turning the program around and hope to build on that.”

Starters Ahmed Shalabi, Dan Johnson and Bob Brown graduated off last season’s team, which lost its Shore Conference Tournament debut to Manalapan High School and fell in its state tournament opener to Hamilton High School West. There is strength under the boards in Sofield, who averaged 10 points per game and stands 6-feet-3-inches tall, and Niblack, who rebounds well beyond what is expected from a 6-foot-1-inch tall forward. He pulled down more than 10 rebounds a game, said Lax.

“We’re a defensive, rebounding team that will focus on holding teams to one shot and pound it inside (on offense),” Lax said.

To get that inside game going, Lax will rely on the ball-handling of gritty sophomore J’son Clark, who Lax said “always plays hard,” and the shooting touch of senior shooting guard Roberto DelValle, who was out last season with a knee injury. DelValle played midfield on the soccer team, which is also coached by Lax, this past fall that likewise reached the Shore Conference Tournament for the first time in a 9-10 season.

Other guards are senior T.J. Savona, junior Mike Healy and Mackenzie Purry, a freshman who may fit into the mix on varsity or play a leading role on the junior varsity team. Jeremy Souza, a solidly built 5-foot-10-inch tall standout on the football team that comes off its first winning season, is out for basketball for the first time and will help at forward along with 6-foot-1- inch tall senior Ryan Deboer and sophomore Howard Taylor. “We have to outwork other teams and I like our work ethic,” Lax said. “We might make mistakes having no seniors with experience. And if we do, we’ll do what we can to minimize that.” Mistakes from inexperience is not a concern for Kasyan.

“I expect them to do things right away,” he said. “They’ve been learning the last two years, so things will be done the way they should be done.”

Returning starters include senior guards Courtney Titus, who averaged 6.5 points per game in a balanced scoring attack, and Maggie O’Connor, as well as center April Szymczyk, a 5-foot-11-inch fourth-year starter who averaged team highs of 9.5 points per game and seven rebounds per game. Anijaah White, a 5-foot-9-inch tall forward, who is Kyesia’s sister, is the lone graduate and a tall challenge to replace in the lineup.

Kasyan will lean toward a three-guard offense with Sheana Vega, a junior who started about half of he games last season. Mary Varsalona, a sophomore who plays shooting guard and point guard and was a spot starter for a good portion of last season, “will be a very good player,” Kasyan said.

Also in the rotation will be senior Ariel Gonza, a 5-foot-7-inch tall swing player, and 5-foot-11-inch tall sophomore forward Haley Kopf.

“I like that they expect to do better,” Kasyan said, as last year’s team lost a close state tournament opener to highly regarded Allentown High School. “The chemistry is there. They know each other well.”

The Lions wrapped up their preseason scrimmage schedule against Toms River High School South on Dec. 10 and Toms River High School East the next day, which are games that Kasyan said “will be a good measuring bar” of how the season will start.

Like the boys basketball team, Lax will have to do some rebuilding with his boys soccer team that competed well in Shore Conference B South, going 9-5 with many close losses in the recently concluded season. Top goal scorers Henry Kim (17 goals) and Mike Marino (9 goals), goalkeeper Brendan Bnecke and fullback Brandon Kokich will be graduating off that team, which suffered a 1-0 loss to Point Pleasant Borough High School in its Shore Conference Tournament debut and dropped its state tournament opener, 4-3, to eventual section champion Princeton High School. He’ll have a young lineup next fall that includes leading returnees sophomores Lou Pasqualini on defense and Chris Galisi at forward, sophomore Adam Haidi at midfield and freshmen Brian Garry, a midfielder, and Brandon Pirog on defense.