Boys Soccer – NJSIAA Tournament Preview
Last year’s NJSIAA Tournament was an all-in-all success for the Shore Conference. Although no Shore boys teams took home an overall state title, five – Christian Brothers Academy, Freehold Township, Ocean, Toms River South and Holmdel – won sectional titles and CBA, Toms River South and Holmdel all reached the state final in their respective groups.
A number of sections will be in play again this year for the Shore Conference, with CBA, Ocean and Asbury Park earning No. 1 seeds in their respective sections. Below is a glance at each of the 10 sections that include Shore Conference teams, the vast majority of which will begin their state championship pursuit on Monday.
North Jersey Section 2 Group III
Shore Teams in the Field: No. 6 Middletown North, No. 13 Red Bank
Defending Champion: Mendham
No. 1 Seed: Hopewell Valley
Favorite: Hopewell Valley. Although Mendham is the defending champion and might actually have an easier road to the final, the Bulldogs have been the more consistent team over the course of the season. All four of Hopewell’s losses are by one-goal margins and two of those losses came against perennial public school power Princeton. Hopewell will likely have to go through one of the other teams that beat them this year in No. 4 West Windsor-Plainsboro North.
Sleeper Team: No. 11 Chatham. Chatham was last year’s “sleeper team” as the No. 11 and they also played Middletown North in the first round in 2015. That was a 2-1 game, so this year’s matchup figures to be competitive again. Middletown North is a little banged up heading into the tournament and Orange is a relatively vulnerable No. 3, so Chatham has a chance to make a run if it can get through Middletown North this year. No. 9 Somerville is also dangerous after taking down Gill St. Bernard’s in the Somerset County Tournament, but the Pioneers will have to play Hopewell in the second round. Red Bank is an underrated Shore Conference team that was in a sectional final just two years ago, but will face a very tough West Windsor North team in the opening round.
Prediction: No. 2 Mendham over No. 1 Hopewell Valley. It looks like a rematch of last year’s sectional final is likely, as Hopewell looks to avenge its loss to a Mendham squad that went on to win the overall Group III title by routing Toms River South on the final Saturday of the season. Middletown North has a senior-laden team with a good goalkeeper, so the Lions will be dangerous if they can get out of the first round.
Central Jersey Group IV
Shore Teams in the Field: No. 3 Marlboro, No. 8 Freehold Township, No. 14 Colts Neck, No. 15 Manalapan
Defending Champion: Freehold Township
No. 1 Seed: Hunterdon Central
Favorite: Marlboro. There are three teams that deserve to be deemed the favorite in this bracket and another in Monroe that might fit the bill were it not for an early-round GMC tournament loss. Marlboro has the best win of any team in the field (CBA), while Princeton has a win over Westfield and a tie against a talented Pennington team. Hunterdon Central’s only loss is to Scotch Plains-Fanwood, which is arguably the most talented team in the state, but the Red Devils don’t have the wins on the resume that either of the other two teams have. That doesn’t matter on the field, but it can be an indicator.
Sleeper Team: No. 11 South Brunswick. How good is this bracket from top-to-bottom? The two finalists in the Greater Middlesex Conference Tournament are meeting in the first round as No. 6 and No. 11 seeds. The North Brunswick-South Brunswick rivalry goes from the GMC final to the first round of the state tournament and the winner will be a dangerous team going forward. Teams like Colts Neck and Manalapan should not be underestimated either given the schedules both have played this year.
Prediction: No. 2 Princeton over No. 8 Freehold Twp. This would be a rematch of last year’s sectional semifinal game that Freehold Township won, 3-1. The Patriots are more than battle-tested enough to challenge No. 1 Hunterdon Central and should they survive that, they would likely go play a Monroe team that Freehold Township beat in a classic sectional final last year. Marlboro at Princeton would be a tremendous semifinal if it happens and it’s a total tossup. The bottom line is predicting this bracket is a total crapshoot and there might be at least 11 teams that could end up winning it, with the top four looking especially good.
Central Jersey Group III
Shore Teams in the Field: No. 1 Ocean, No. 2 Toms River South, No. 3 Wall, No. 9 Jackson Liberty, No. 11 Lakewood, No. 12 Brick, No. 15 Long Branch
Defending Champion: Ocean
No. 1 Seed: Ocean
Favorite: Toms River South. If the seeds stay true to form, the sectional final will be a rematch of last year’s Group III semifinal, won by Toms River South. The move from South Jersey to Central Jersey is a good one for the Indians since they are now in a section whose Nos. 4 and 6 teams both have records below .500. Unfortunately for Toms River South, they likely won’t face any of those teams and could end up facing a pretty tough road that includes a talented Long Branch team, a hot Steinert squad and a solid Wall team before getting to the final.
Sleeper Team: No. 10 Steinert. The Spartans are 5-2-1 over their last eight games and reached the Mercer County Tournament semifinals as a No. 12 seed. They didn’t get a great draw in having to face Toms River South in the second round, but Steinert is likely to get there. Long Branch is also very good as No. 15 seeds go and Lakewood has come on strong over the last several weeks. The Piners, in particular, have a great shot to advance against a sub-.500 Moorestown team.
Prediction: No. 2 Toms River South over No. 1 Ocean. Ocean has had some time to recover from losing to Holmdel in the Shore Conference Tournament and got a very favorable draw as the No. 1 seed. Ocean is one of only two teams on its side of the bracket with a winning record and the other is a Northern Burlington team that is 9-8-1. Ocean, Toms River South and Wall are far superior to the other teams in this bracket and while Wall could trip up Toms River South, Ocean should handle its business on the way to the final.
Central Jersey Group II
Shore Teams in the Field: No. 3 Matawan, No. 9 Holmdel, No. 10 Raritan, No. 13 Rumson-Fair Haven
Defending Champion: Holmdel
No. 1 Seed: South Plainfield
Favorite: No. 2 Bernards. The Somerset County champions have won all but two of their games this year and the loss and tie both came against a quality Gill St. Bernard’s team. South Plainfield’s move down from Group III makes this a very strong overall bracket, which will challenge a quartet of teams from Class A Central.
Sleeper Team: No. 11 Governor Livingston. Under most circumstances, a No. 9 seed with a chance to win the section would qualify as a sleeper, but Holmdel is a program that is not sneaking up on anybody. Governor Livingston, though, has played a decent schedule and could be trouble on the road as a No. 11 seed. Raritan should get by Hillside in the first round, but will run into Bernards in the quarterfinals. Rumson faces a tough challenge in North Plainfield, but the Bulldogs are also capable of a run to the semifinals if they can pull off the first-round upset.
Prediction: Bernards over Holmdel. It’s hard to pick against Holmdel in the state tournament. The Hornets have a very winnable first-round road game against East Brunswick Tech, but South Plainfield and North Plainfield would be tough games. South Plainfield, however, is 3-5 over its last eight games and might be looking ahead to potentially playing North Plainfield. As far as Matawan goes, the Huskies would have been a great bet to reach the final on the other side of the bracket as a No. 4 or 5 seed. As it is, they still have a shot, but Bernards will be a very tough challenge.
Central Jersey Group I
Shore Teams in the Field: No. 1 Asbury Park, No. 6 Shore, No. 13 Point Beach
Defending Champion: South River
No. 1 Seed: Asbury Park
Favorite: No. 2 Florence. There is not an obvious favorite in this section, with the top six seeds all looking viable as a potential sectional champion. The Flashes have the best overall resume, but Palmyra is right there in that regard, while Shore has probably played the best all-around schedule as the No. 6 seed.
Sleeper Team: No. 11 Riverside. The Rams just beat No. 2 Palmyra to head into the tournament on a high note. The downside for Riverside is the draw, which includes a trip to Shore in the first round and potential matchups against Palmyra and Florence. Point Beach has some potential as a No. 13 seed, but has to face defending sectional champion South River in the first round.
Prediction: No. 5 Bound Brook over No. 3 Palmyra. This section is usually full of surprises, and while the double-digit seeds don’t look as dangerous as in years past, there are a whole bunch of teams that have a shot to win it. In addition to the top six teams, No. 7 Metuchen is a solid Group I team and No. 8 New Egypt is also dangerous. Throw in Riverside and this should be a crazy tournament.
South Jersey Group IV
Shore Teams in the Field: No. 7 Toms River North, No. 10 Southern, No. 13 Jackson Memorial
Defending Champion: Washington Twp.
No. 1 Seed: Clearview
Favorite: No. 3 Rancocas Valley. The Red Devils are coming off a loss to Cherry Hill West in the South Jersey Coaches Tournament and with Washington Township featuring a lot of new players, the Red Devils look like the tentative favorite. Cherokee, Williamstown, Clearview and Shawnee are all serious threats as well.
Sleeper Team: No. 9 Eastern. Southern might be a tough out as a No. 10 and Jackson Memorial has Mike Schoener to put a scare into some teams, but it’s hard to see any of the top six teams getting picked off on the first day of the tournament. Once the quarterfinals roll around, it’s really anybody’s game and Eastern is among the battle-tested teams in the section that can make a run.
Prediction: No. 5 Washington Twp. over No. 3 Rancocas Valley. Washington Township had trouble getting over the hump in this section before its powerhouse team of 2014 but now that the program has won consecutive state titles, it’s hard to see them giving up their spot all that easily. Like Central Jersey Group IV, the top nine seeds all look pretty good and no team, to this point, looks unbeatable.
South Jersey Group III
Shore Teams in the Field: No. 2 Pinelands, No. 7 Central, No. 10 Lacey
Defending Champion: Toms River South
No. 1 Seed: Ocean City
Favorite: No. 4 Cherry Hill West. As the South Jersey Coaches Tournament champs, the Lions have to be considered the favorite in this field. They might be the favorite if they were in South Jersey Group IV, so in a field that no longer includes defending champion Toms River South, Cherry Hill West looks like the clear favorite. Mainland has also had a great season and Ocean City is always a threat to win it, especially with the No. 1 seed. Pinelands might have been in that conversation, but the Wildcats will be without 32-goal scorer Matt O’Connell (back) for the rest of the season.
Sleeper Team: No. 10 Lacey. The Lions have had an up-and-down season, but face a Central team that beat them by a goal in the first round and could potentially face a Pinelands team that Lacey defeated once already this year.
Prediction: No. 4 Cherry Hill West over No. 3 Mainland. Don’t completely rule Pinelands out of the running without O’Connell. The Wildcats played Marlboro tough without him and are still good enough to beat Lacey or Central in round two. Central is another team to watch, as the Golden Eagles have a quality keeper in Tom Ruscitti and should be well-prepared after enduring the A South schedule. Ultimately, it looks like Mainland’s year to make a run and Cherry Hill West is one of the hottest teams in the state.
South Jersey Group II
Shore Teams in the Field: No. 3 Point Boro, No. 6 Manasquan, No. 16 Manchester
Defending Champion: Delran
No. 1 Seed: Delran
Favorite: Delran. While Delran has had some great seasons, this team is one of the best in the recent memory of the program. The Bears (18-2) have not lost to an NJSIAA school, beat four-time defending Non-Public A champion Delbarton by two goals, and recently knocked off powerhouse St. Benedict’s. If there is one semi-red flag, it’s that Delran has not overwhelmed that many teams on the scoreboard, but that is nitpicking. Middle Township is also a perennial contender and Point Boro has had a great season and is overdue for a sectional final trip.
Sleeper Team: No. 13 Cinnaminson. While Point Boro might face a tough task in getting past Manasquan and into the sectional semifinals, Delran, Middle and No. 5 Robbinsville all look like safe bets. Both No. 9 Cinnaminson and No. 9 Bordentown are better than their seeds indicate, but Bordentown would run into Delran in the sectional quarterfinals and Cinnaminson would have to go through Robbinsville to get to a match with Delran – and that’s assuming they can get through a quality Sterling squad. Since Cinnaminson probably has a better shot vs. Robbinsville than Bordentown has against Delran, they get the title of “sleeper.”
Prediction: No. 1 Delran over No. 3 Point Boro. This might finally be the year Point Boro reached the sectional final after some close calls in recent years. The Panthers won’t have it easy in getting there, with a rematch with a Manasquan team that beat the Panthers last year looming and a potential trip to Middle down the road. Ultimately, however, this is Delran’s bracket to lose after the Bears won it as No. 8 seed last year.
South Jersey Non-Public A
Shore Teams in the Field: No. 1 CBA, No. 3 Donovan Catholic, No. 9 St. John Vianney, No. 10 Red Bank Catholic
Defending Champion: CBA
No. 1 Seed: CBA
Favorite: CBA. CBA might be the biggest favorite of any team in any section. The Colts have a strong case to be the No. 1 team in the state and while St. Augustine is a good program that has had a solid season, there is little to suggest the Hermits will beat CBA. Donovan Catholic is the No. 3 seed in the field and while the Griffins did knock off Toms River South earlier in the year, that is a far cry from even hanging with this CBA machine.
Sleeper Team: No. 6 Notre Dame. Despite a loaded No. 1 seed, this is one of the weakest South Non-Public A fields in recent memory. No team is a real threat to stop CBA or St. Augustine from reaching the final, but Notre Dame might have a shot if the Irish can get past Donovan Catholic and into the sectional quarterfinals.
Prediction: No. 1 CBA over No. 2 St. Augustine. While St. Augustine is very likely to reach the sectional final, the Hermits will be a big underdog against CBA. The Colts’ only loss this year was against a Marlboro team that has a serious chance to reach the Group IV final and it came with the Colts’ top center back sitting on the bench. One thing St. Augustine has going for it is the Hermits have played some good competition: Mainland twice (loss and a draw), wins against Rancocas Valley and Middle, and losses to Cherry Hill West and Delran.
South Jersey Non-Public B
Shore Teams in the Field: No. 3 St. Rose, No. 8 Ranney
Defending Champion: Moorestown Friends
No. 1 Seed: Gill St. Bernard’s
Favorite: Gill St. Bernard’s. The Knights might not be as big a favorite in South Jersey B as CBA is in South Jersey A, but it’s close. Gill St. Bernard’s is not as good as CBA, but there is not a program like St. Augustine standing in the way. Gill did take a rough 4-1 loss to Somerville in the Somerset County Tournament.
Sleeper Team: No. 6 Holy Cross. None of the teams seeded lower than Holy Cross appear to have a legitimate shot to reach the semifinals, but the Crusaders have a resume that suggests they could knock off St. Rose and Wildwood Catholic and get back to a sectional final for a second straight year. Ranney reached the sectional semifinals last year as a No. 5 seed, but would have to get through Trenton Catholic and Gill St. Bernard’s to do it again this year.
Prediction: No. 1 Gill St. Bernard’s over No. 2 Wildwood Catholic. St. Rose definitely has good chance to beat Wildwood Catholic and take a crack at Gill St. Bernard’s but the more likely scenario is Wildwood Catholic holding serve as the No. 2 seed before running into the top-seeded Knights.