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With an eye-opening win at Brick Memorial on Jan. 5, the Southern Regional boys basketball team took over first place in the Shore Conference Class A South division, but with three other contenders emerging and seven games still to go in divisional play, there wasn't much time to celebrate.

Then, last week, the Rams won two games that, while not enough to hang a division championship banner just yet, could go down as the games that set them on course to win the Class A South title.

Southern welcomed both Jackson Memorial and Toms River North to Stafford Township last week and sent both home with losses, gaining a significant upper hand in the Class A South race and winning the latest Jersey Mike's Team of the Week Award for 2023.

Playing in a division with three other teams that returned at least three other starters and most of their scoring, Southern has authored a 6-0 start to its A South schedule behind a group that has demonstrated cohesion and chemistry despite its lack of varsity experience compared to its other A South rivals. Senior Max DiPietro was a regular in last year's lineup -- albeit not as a primary scoring option -- while both junior Caden Schubiger and senior center Tom Menegus got separate opportunities playing as starters. Both are now starters, as are senior Pat Gaffney and sophomore Justin Silva.

That group has found its footing in January and against Jackson Memorial on Jan. 10, it shut down a hot team that traveled to Southern expecting to leave with a share of the Class A South lead. Instead, the Rams held the Jaguars under 40 points and finished off a 46-36 win that put Southern in sole possession of first place in the standings.

Three nights later, Southern had a chance to increase its lead over the second-place team in the division by two full games, but found itself trailing Toms River North, 26-10, with three minutes left in the first half. The Rams battled through the end of the second quarter to make it to halftime down 26-13, then did their best work in the second half.

It took just one quarter for Southern to erase its 13-point halftime deficit, with DiPietro, Menegus and Gaffney keying a 21-8 run during the quarter to tie the game u heading into the fourth. Menegus then scored all 13 of Southern's points in the fourth and the Rams celebrated a 47-40 win over the Mariners that significantly increased their odds of winning the outright Class A South championship.

Southern then closed its week with a 59-44 win over Cumberland at the Thunderbolt Classic in Millville, with Gaffney racking up a career-high 30 points to lead the way.

With Toms River North and Jackson Memorial still within two games of Southern and each looking forward to a rematch in their gyms, the Rams still have four games worth of work to do to wrap up a division title. If they can do it, last week's performance will be as crucial as any stretch of their surprise season.

 

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