For the second straight year, there is room for some debate about which team should finish No. 1 in the Shore Conference at the end of the baseball season. The preseason No. 1 team won both a county tournament and a conference tournament but is still not a shoo-in for the No. 1 spot because of another team tied them for a division title and beat them three times.

Beyond the top spot there are close calls all over the top 10, particularly when it comes to No. 10. There are about six teams with a strong argument to be made for the final two spots in the top 10, with the top eight occupied by teams that clearly made the case that they belong. For better or worse, 2018 was a season that did not provide any clear answers as to which teams were the best, which means any top 10 list is sure to stir some controversy.

The talk of reforming the Shore Conference Tournament – in which No. 8 seed Toms River North won by beating five teams seeded Nos. 25, 24, 16, 13 and 11 – has grown louder because of how much it has affected the top teams’ ability to advance in the NJSIAA Tournament. The weather created even more of an overlap between the two tournaments this season and the result was a mix of Shore Conference teams that had strong showings in one but not the other.

No top team is without a blemish or two and lots of unranked teams beat teams in the top 10, making for a long list of quality teams. Here is the best guess at how they stacked up at the end of the 2018 campaign.

 

1. Jackson Memorial (25-7, 11-3) Preseason ranking: Not ranked

From unranked to No. 1 in the Shore, the Jaguars opened the season with a talented-but-unproven roster that delivered on every bit of that promise during a 25-win season – the only of its kind in the Shore Conference in 2018.  Jackson Memorial shared the Class A South title with Toms River North – the preseason No. 1 team and the Shore Conference Tournament champion for the second straight year – went 3-1 against the Mariners and won the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV championship before bowing out to three-time Group IV champion Hunter Central in the group semifinals. With five sophomores and two juniors among the eight starters in the field and three underclassmen gaining experience on the mound, Jackson Memorial will be among the top teams in the state heading into 2019.

Jackson Memorial baseball South Jersey, Group 4 champion (Photo by Gregg Lerner)

2. Toms River North (22-8, 11-3) Preseason: 1

Outside of losing three out of four to Jackson Memorial, Toms River North’s case for No. 1 is hard to deny. The Mariners won both the Ocean County and Shore Conference Tournaments for the second straight year, with the county title the third straight OCT crown Toms River North has won. The Mariners will miss a senior core that was instrumental in this three-year run of success, but there are some quality players coming back that will keep Toms River North competitive.

3. Wall (22-6, 13-1) Preseason: 4

For the second straight year, Wall did major damage during the regular season but could not get over the hump in the postseason. On the bright side, the Crimson Knights made progress late in the year, reaching the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals and the Central Jersey Group III championship with a team that started four junior pitchers as well as six juniors and one sophomore in the field. There will be a handful of accomplished, senior-heavy teams – as well as a junior-heavy power in Jackson Memorial – but Wall’s pitching will make the Knights a Shore and Group III favorite in 2019.

4. Red Bank Catholic (20-8, 10-4) Preseason: 7

With only one starter back from 2017, expectations were somewhat guarded at RBC this year and the Caseys exceeded those expectations in most every regard. They caught fire in late April to win the Monmouth County Tournament title for the second straight year and reached the 20-win mark for the sixth straight season – the longest such streak in the Shore Conference. The Caseys lose two senior standouts on the mound ahead of 2019 but laid a solid foundation of underclass arms to grab the torch and back a loaded class of returning talent at the plate and in the field.

5. Jackson Liberty (20-5, 13-1) Preseason: 6

No Shore team in 2018 had a more prolific offense than Jackson Liberty did. The Lions scored a Shore Conference best 237 total runs and 9.48 runs per game behind a deep lineup that combined for 28 home runs and an average-on-base-slugging slash line of .372/.467/.568. The Lions rolled to a Class B South division championship and reached the semifinals of both the Ocean County and NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III Tournaments. With only starting pitcher Matt Pickus in the rotation and Rich Dordas and Billy Hart in the batting order graduating from the starting lineup, the Lions are another team that believe 2019 will be their big year.

6. Christian Brothers Academy (19-5, 13-1) Preseason: 2

The Colts looked like a lock to reach 20 wins in early May, but injuries and possible the weather helped contribute to a late-season slide that spoiled their chances in both the Shore Conference and Non-Public A Tournaments. CBA lost to Point Boro in the SCT after a long layoff and ran into a Cinderella Notre Dame team in the opening round of the South Jersey A bracket. CBA still managed to win the A North title by a comfortable margin and reached the Monmouth County Tournament semifinals but will have some losses to graduation and some talented returning rosters around the Shore to overcome in 2019.

7. Raritan (21-6, 10-2) Preseason: Not ranked

For the first time in 14 years, Raritan reached an NJSIAA Group II championship game – the only Shore Conference team to make it that far in 2018 – and nearly took down the No. 1 team in N.J. in the Group II final. That was not all the Rockets did this year, also winning the Class A Central championship and reaching the semifinals of the Monmouth County Tournament. Graduation losses will be a bigger factor next year than they were this season, but coach Jeff Struble and his staff have laid the groundwork to be a competitive Group II team for the foreseeable future after a legitimate breakthrough season this year.

Photo provided by Raritan Athletic Dept.

8. Central (18-9, 9-5) Preseason: Not ranked

Not only did Central reach the championship game of the Shore Conference Tournament but the Golden Eagles have a win apiece over the top three teams in the SSN rankings. Central beat both Toms River North and Jackson Memorial during the regular season and lost to both in a postseason tournament (Jackson Memorial in the OCT; Toms River North in the SCT final) while also knocking off Wall in a nine-inning classic in the SCT semifinals. Unlike most of the teams in the top 10 mix, Central relied almost exclusively on seniors and, all things considered, made the most of its veteran lineup during a successful 2018 campaign.

9. Manalapan (22-7, 10-4) Preseason: 5

The Braves were one of eight Shore Conference teams to win 20 games and while the results point to A North being a little down this year, doing so in a division of Group IV schools and CBA is quite the accomplishment. The Braves endured earlier-than-expected exits in both the Monmouth County and Shore Conference Tournaments but rallied to reach the Central Jersey Group IV championship game, where they were competitive in losing to Hunterdon Central. Manalapan also handled Toms River North in what was probably the best win the Braves had all season long.

10. Monmouth (18-10, 9-5) Preseason: Not ranked

The Falcons reached the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals and won a game each in the MCT and state tournament, but its best wins get Monmouth in the Top 10. Monmouth beat No. 1 Jackson Memorial in the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals and also beat No. 4 Red Bank Catholic and No. 5 Jackson Liberty over the course of the season – the Liberty win coming in the SCT.

 

Top 10 Honorable Mention

Toms River East (13-11, 7-7) – The Raiders reached the OCT final by beating Jackson Liberty, knocked off Red Bank Catholic in the SCT round of 16 and six of their 11 losses came against No. 1 Jackson Memorial and No. 2 Toms River North.

Point Pleasant Boro (18-9, 10-4) – With a trip to the SCT quarterfinals and the South Jersey Group II final, the Panthers are right there for a Top 10 spot. The Panthers have a slew of players coming back and look like a preseason top 10 team in 2019.

Freehold Township (14-11, 7-7) – The Patriots had a good showing in the Shore Conference Tournament by beating Manalapan and nearly taking down Wall. They also beat Toms River North and St. Rose during the regular season.

St. Rose (20-7, 13-1) – The Purple Roses beat Manalapan, Monmouth and Raritan on the way to a Monmouth County Tournament championship game appearance. If not for a first-round upset loss to Keansburg, the Roses probably inch their way into the top 10.

Howell (13-12, 6-8) – The Rebels were under .500 in A North play but came to play when it counted, rallying to qualify for the SCT and winning a game each in the conference and NJSIAA Tournament as a No. 15 seed.

Freehold Boro (12-10, 8-6) – The Colonials didn’t have any wins that jump off the page, but an 8-6 finish in A North is worthy of praise.

Point Pleasant Beach (16-9, 12-2) – B Central teams only have so many chances to leave their mark and the Garnet Gulls did so by beating St. Rose, knocking Raritan out of the SCT in the first round and then reaching the Central Jersey Group I semifinal before losing to two-time Group champion Middlesex, 2-0.