Steinert’s Mario Mazur slices between two West Windsor-Plainsboro North defenders during the Spartans’ 64-57 loss Feb. 7, 2018. (Photo by Amanda Ruch.)

Steinert basketball coach Kyle Flanagan feels that Mario Mazur needs to be the recipient of a hard foul before he really starts getting intense about a game.

Look no further than Mazur’s childhood as to the reason. That first foul is almost like a flashback to pick-up games with big brother Garrett, who had five inches on Mazur as he would struggle to try and beat him.

“He would always push me around and pound me hard,” Mazur said. “I think that’s why I need to be fouled hard to get into games. He’s the main reason. Whenever we’d play in the street, he’d pretty much throw me to the pavement, like every single time.”

Believe it or not, that was a good thing.

“He really helped me develop my strength,” Mazur said.

The result was one of the most underrated players in the Colonial Valley Conference this season. Playing for a Spartan team that was improved but still had a losing record, Mazur was not the recipient of much publicity this season.

What the masses missed was a strong all-around campaign by Mazur, who was asked to do pretty much everything. He averaged over 15 points and five rebounds, made over 40 3-pointers and posted up and scored inside. He was usually put on the other team’s top player for Flanagan’s ever-changing defenses.

“I ask him to do a lot,” the coach said. “The kids kind of lean toward him to get him to be a leader. I think in crucial situations, be it the offensive side with ball handling or the low post, or defensively guarding the other team’s best player, we have a tall order for him. He’s kind of taken a step forward this year. He’s proven he can play with some of the elites in the county. Our kids trust him, he gives us a lot of things. He can be strong enough to play down low, he’s a good enough shooter to play outside, and he’s certainly our sparkplug.”

The 6-foot-2 junior is a bit of a rarity when it comes to quality players, as his experience in organized basketball is somewhat limited. He played for the Hamilton Little Lads, but has never played travel or AAU ball. Much of his experience came against Garrett, or playing pick-up with his friends at Mercer County Park or St. Gregory the Great Academy.
“Apparently, it’s been working,” he said with a smile.

Mazur’s freshman season overlapped with Garrett’s senior year, although Mazur didn’t get a ton of playing time.

“I kind of came in at the end of the season and started playing a little bit,” he said. “I was only 5-10, 5-11. I was our shooter. I’d come in when we were losing by 30 and hit a couple threes and that was about it. But it was fun playing with Garrett. We’d play a little two-man game, do some pick and roll stuff.”

Mazur started as a sophomore and averaged 12.5 points to lead the Spartans in scoring. It took him some time to get comfortable in his new starting role.

“It was kind of frustrating for me as a sophomore knowing I had to be the guy on the team,” Mazur said. “But towards the end of the year, I started getting into the motions more, and started having a better year. At the beginning I kind of struggled getting into it.”

Flanagan felt there were some definite growing pains for the young player.

“They threw him to the wolves as a freshman and sophomore, and certainly now as a junior this is what you want to see,” the coach said. “You want to see a kid come out and establish himself and have this kind of junior campaign. For him to go ahead and put the work in the offseason helped. He used to live across the street from me, he’d be sitting in my driveway shooting threes.”

Mazur had some of his best games against some of Mercer County’s top teams. He scored 26 against Trenton, 28 against Ewing, 22 against West Windsor-Plainsboro North and 19 against Hopewell Valley. His contributions in victories included 18 points and five rebounds against Delran, 20 points and 10 rebounds at Spotswood and 19 points and four rebounds at Lawrence.

“When he’s on, we’re on,” teammate Lamont Morrison said. “We consider him one of our key players. We try to get him the ball when we can.”

Flanagan agreed, saying, “We kind of feed off him and how he goes. When he hits a big three, it’s a huge difference for us and our emotion. Some games he kind of waits to turn it on, when he turns it on from start to finish he plays above his ability.”

Mazur doesn’t disagree with that assessment. It all goes back to that first foul.

“Someone needs to hit me really hard for me to realize, ‘Oh crap, I better get in the game,’” he said.

In assessing his attributes, Mazur feels his combination of inside strength and perimeter shooting is what makes him effective. It certainly makes him difficult to guard and it gives Flanagan plenty of options.

“His versatility is huge for us,” the coach said. “To play inside, outside, post up guards. To dominate; his boxing out has been lights out in certain crucial situations this season. When he’s in the mentality there’s no stopping him, the sky’s the limit.”

Flanagan also praises Mazur’s mental toughness, as it can sometimes be difficult to remain interested when a team struggles. The Spartans won just three games last year and had only four entering this year’s Mercer County Tournament; although they lost a slew of close games this season.

“It’s a testament to his character,” Flanagan said. “He’s got strong character. You say to a kid, ‘I want you to go play their best player, I want you to be our shooter, I want you to be our rebounder, I want you to dominate when you can.’ That’s a lot to ask of a kid, whose got all kind of other aspects going on in his life. Now all of a sudden you say, ‘I’m gonna ask you to do more than what you probably do off the court,’ and even put more on his shoulders. But he’s a strong bodied kid and can handle that. We believe that and the guys rally behind him.”

And what does Mazur think of that role?

“I embrace it, I take every little bit of it I can,” he said. “I love these guys, they’re family.”
Even better, they’re family that doesn’t knock him down in the street.