Baseball: NJSIAA Tournament Preview
With the NJSIAA playoffs kicking off Monday with a slate of 25 games involving Shore Conference teams, it’s time to take a look at who has the best shot to hoist the big trophy in Toms River on June 8.
The one returning NJSIAA Group champion from last season is Manalapan, which captured its second straight overall Group IV title with a Cinderella run for the ages. The Braves hope to duplicate that feat as the No. 15 seed in Central Jersey Group IV, where they will take on presumptive bracket favorite Jackson Memorial in the first round.
Freehold is looking to defend its Central Jersey Group III crown and has a tough first-round assignment on the road against sixth-seeded Middletown South. Raritan is the returning Central Jersey Group II champion and will head way down south to face sixth-seeded Delran in the first round.
For the public schools, the first round is Monday, followed by the sectional quarterfinals on Friday. The sectional semifinals are scheduled for May 28, with the sectional championship games coming on May 31. The Group semifinals are on June 4, and then the Group championship games are spread across the three Toms River schools on June 8 for public and non-public schools. The non-public playoffs start on Friday, followed by the quarterfinals on May 28, the semifinals on May 31 and then the sectional championship games on June 4.
Here is a look at all the brackets involving Shore Conference teams.
Central Jersey Group IV
Shore Conference teams in bracket: (15) Manalapan; (14) Brick Memorial; (12) Marlboro; (8) Howell; (6) Brick; (2) Jackson Memorial.
Bracket breakdown: This is always one of the most hard-fought public school brackets in the state. Manalapan is the two-time defending champion, and we’ll see if the Braves can summon the magic as an underdog one more time. Jackson was also the No. 2 seed last year and was upset 5-2 by 10th-seeded Manalapan in the quarterfinals, so the Jaguars will be motivated to reverse that result in one of the juiciest first-round match-ups in any bracket. Jackson Memorial should see Manhattan recruit Matt Simonetti in the first round, so it should be a battle to finally vanquish Manalapan’s outstanding run.
Montgomery is the top seed, so if Howell gets out of the first round against Hunterdon Central, the resurgent Rebels will have to deal with the Skyland Conference power and possibly ace Evan Gillespie depending on how the pitching lines up. Marlboro has a chance to pull the upset on the road against South Brunswick if it can muster enough offense and continue to get solid pitching, but fourth-seeded Hillsborough, last year’s Group IV runner-up, should be a formidable obstacle in the quarterfinals.
Brick Memorial may be the No. 14 seed, but the Mustangs certainly have a chance to take out No. 3 Rancocas Valley in the first round because they will have senior ace Brian Cottrell on the mound. It also helps that Rancocas Valley’s most dangerous hitter, Maryland recruit Nick Cieri, is out with a shoulder injury. The question is whether they can advance past the quarterfinals with Cottrell not on the hill. It could be a fun quarterfinal if Brick takes care of business at home because it would be a Brick-Brick Memorial grudge match with a trip to the semifinals on the line. If that comes to fruition, there is the chance it could be an all-Class A South semifinal between the winner of the Brick schools and Jackson Memorial. The Jaguars are in a tough part of the bracket with Manalapan to start and the winner of two other dangerous contenders, Sayreville and Steinert, in the quarterfinals.
Jackson has very solid pitching depth behind undefeated senior Anthony Rocco and a deep lineup led by Matt Guarino, Matt Thaiss and Spencer Young that has pulled out several late-inning wins, so this team is built for the postseason. However, it all starts with getting out of that first round against a Manalapan team that has struggled to put up runs in tournament games so far, but is still clearly dangerous given what it did last season. The Jaguars look like the favorite to win this section, but as we saw last year, anything can happen.
As always, it depends how the pitching lines up. Jackson Memorial is still alive in the SCT, where it is the defending champion. Also, Montgomery has a solid ace in Cornell recruit Paul Balestrieri, so if the top two seeds make it to the final, the Jaguars may have to deal with him with a title on the line.
Central Jersey Group III
Shore Conference teams in bracket: (15) Middletown North; (13) Ocean; (11) Freehold; (10) Colts Neck; (6) Middletown South; (5) Jackson Liberty; (2) Wall.
Bracket breakdown: It’s kind of crazy to think given that Wall graduated seven of its eight starting position players and it’s top two pitchers from last season, but the Crimson Knights are the favorite to win this bracket. If they are good enough to go on the road and take out a red-hot Christian Brothers Academy team, which they did last week in the Monmouth County Tournament, they are good enough to win this bracket. Plus, they have three pitchers who can give them a complete-game win in a tournament – Luke Malone, Tyler Swiggart and Steve Coltrain – which is more than a majority of the teams in this bracket can say.
However, Wall may have to work just to get out of the first round against No. 15 seed Middletown North because the Lions have senior ace Chris Stark, a Maine recruit, ready to go. He has been on the wrong end of more hard-luck losses than any pitcher in the Shore Conference and boasts a 0.95 ERA, so Wall will have to work to get the win unlike most 2-15 games.
The underdog lurking is Freehold, which has stumbled in its two tournaments so far and only has this one left to play for. The defending CJ III champions always have a chance with the 1-2 punch of senior starters Jake Yanez and Mike Bolton, but the question is whether the Colonials can muster enough offense against top pitching to give either of those two any margin for error. Leadoff hitter Jason Lundy, a Fordham recruit, is having an outstanding season, but generating any offense around him has been a challenge against quality pitching.
Middletown South’s pitching staff, led by seniors Perry Kulaga and Rob Grilli, had been great most of the regular season before a few bumpy outings recently. Much like Freehold, the question is whether the Eagles’ offense can push across enough runs against quality pitching to make a run. Jackson Liberty is also in that same boat with three solid starters in Tyler Pallante, James Sofield and Dan Serreino. The Lions are coming off a 1-0 victory over St. Rose in the SCT, which may give them the psychological boost they have needed to win close, low-scoring games.
Ocean and Colts Neck are two teams that can make forgettable seasons thus far go away with darkhorse runs. Ocean has two solid pitchers in Ryan Lillie and Kevin Buell and an offense led by Jerome Cevetello that is dangerous. Colts Neck’s offense has struggled more than expected in the preseason, but the Cougars have been playing well heading into the state tournament and could be a threat if that lineup all gets going at once.
The biggest nonconference threats to the Shore in this bracket are top-seeded Northern Burlington, third-seeded Hamilton and fourth-seeded Somerville. Wall could run into Hamilton in the semifinals if the seeds hold true, but Ocean is a threat to take out Hamilton in the first round. The Shore Conference has traditionally fared well in this bracket, particularly the teams from Class B North, so we’ll see if that holds true again this year.
Central Jersey Group II
Shore Conference teams in bracket: (15) Holmdel; (12) Long Branch; (11) Raritan; (9) Point Boro; (8) Monmouth; (3) Matawan.
Bracket breakdown: This bracket is as wide open as it gets, just like last year when Raritan won it. Second-seeded Spotswood looks like the slightest of favorites, but anything is possible in this grouping.
Holmdel doesn’t have that hammer at the top of its rotation, so the Hornets will need to outslug teams behind junior Joe Sadler, but they have to deal with Spotswood in the first round. An improved Long Branch team could be trouble with Ashwin Mudiraj on the hill but is still a big underdog to get any further than the quarterfinals.
Defending champion Raritan has been up and down all season so it depends on which team shows up. If the Rockets get solid pitching from Bruce Strickland and Rob Ronan and the lineup delivers behind Strickland, they are a threat, but they have to take a long bus ride to Delran and find a way just to get out of the first round.
Point Boro has a lineup with pop behind Ryan Prout, Deven Del Priore and Kurt Van Benschoten, so whether or not the Panthers can get out of the first round and then take a shot at top-seeded Bordentown depends on their pitching. Also, the Panthers will almost certainly have to deal with a player who can swing this whole bracket – Monmouth Regional ace Tom Broyles. The unbeaten Broyles has been dominant all season. If that continues in the first round and the Falcons can get a solid pitching performance from the staff against top-seeded Bordentown in the quarterfinals, look out. They will be very dangerous and a threat to return to the championship game after losing to Freehold in last year’s final. I think Monmouth is very capable of winning this bracket.
A few weeks ago, Matawan looked like it could make a serious run at winning this bracket, but the injuries are just piling up for the Huskies. Starting shortstop Mike Creamer is out, and senior standout Shawn Johnson is banged up heading into the postseason. They still have the talent to get it done behind ace Justin Harnett, closer Robbie Marshall and top offensive force Dan Incle, so don’t count the Huskies out by any means.
Central Jersey Group I
Shore teams in bracket: (15) Henry Hudson; (11) Shore; (10) Keyport; (5) Point Beach
Bracket breakdown: Top-seeded Middlesex is the heavy favorite in this bracket, averaging 10 runs per game and allowing two. It looks like everyone else is playing for second, so if a Shore team can give the Blue Jays a run, that’s about all you can ask for.
Henry Hudson is a threat in the first round with ace Jim Trivett on the mound, but a deep run may be a lot to ask. Shore Regional is a team that could potentially surprise some people because the Blue Devils dealt with Group II and top non-public teams all season in Class A Central. They have been playing well coming into the tournament and could be dangerous with an offense led by T.J. Sempkowski, Matt Cosentino, Chris Vaccaro and Andrew Schulz. If Shore can get some quality pitching, I wouldn’t be shocked to see them make a run to the semifinals.
Keyport is another threat because of a strong lineup led by Corey Romanetz, Nick Smutz and Connor Thomson, and Joe Ruth, but will need the pitching staff to bring it up a notch in order to get deep into the tournament. Point Beach has struggled to score in recent weeks and will need to rejuvenate its offense behind Alan Nieto and Michael Allegretta if it is going to have a chance to upset Middlesex, but the Garnet Gulls have made runs before in this tournament so don’t count them out.
South Jersey Group IV
Shore Conference teams in bracket: (8) Toms River North; (12) Toms River East; (14) Toms River South
Bracket breakdown: This is a brutally competitive bracket as always, and Toms River South drew the short end of the stick more than its fellow Toms River schools by getting paired with third-seeded Washington Township in the first round on the road. The Minutemen just won the prestigious Diamond Classic tournament in South Jersey and are considered the top team in South Jersey across all schools.
The Indians will probably have to find a way to solve Mark Scarpa in the first round, as he is 6-1 with a 1.67 ERA. Toms River South has enough pitching depth to piece together a game and stay right in it with the Minutemen, and leadoff man Russell Messler, a junior outfielder, is capable of wrecking another team’s gameplan all by himself.
The team most equipped to go deep into this tournament is Toms River North because of its outstanding pitching staff led by Division I recruits Karl Blum (Duke) and Ron Marinaccio (Delaware) and also featuring talented junior Steve Slagmolen. That group threw four straight shutouts to win the Ocean County Tournament and is capable of going on a similar run here. The main wrinkle is that the Mariners are also still alive in the SCT and face rival Toms River South in the quarterfinals on Wednesday, so the question is how they will line up their pitching. If they get past Cherokee on Monday, they will almost certainly be facing top-seeded Eastern on Friday and will need one of their big guns on the mound to give them a shot in that game.
Toms River East has surprised as a low seed in this bracket before, so it’s a question of the pitching behind Paul Schifilliti and Anthony DeBlasio as far as how deep they can go and whether their offense can produce against other teams’ aces.
South Jersey Group III
Shore Conference team in bracket: (10) Central.
Bracket breakdown: Clearly, the Golden Eagles are dangerous because they have a front-runner for Shore Conference Pitcher of the Year leading their rotation. Junior Andrew DiPiazza is 7-0 with a 0.79 ERA and a Shore-leading 89 strikeouts this season. Everything hinges on if Central can pull out a win without him starting, as they only have four victories outside of DiPiazza’s. If he dominates Gloucester Tech in the first round, they will need senior Eddie Corrigan to pitch big in the quarterfinals, most-likely against second-seeded Moorestown. That would allow them to bring back DiPiazza and really make a run at a title. Top-seeded Delsea looks like the team to beat overall in this bracket.
South Jersey Group II
Shore Conference teams in bracket: (13) Barnegat; (7) Manchester.
Bracket breakdown: Both Shore Conference teams are darkhorses in this bracket, where the top two seeds, Buena and Sterling, look like the prime contenders.
Barnegat is a young team that is probably a year away and has struggled to score runs against top-notch pitching, but the Bengals’ own staff is solid and should give them a shot to steal a win. Manchester is dangerous because of the 1-2 punch of seniors Jeremy Carney and Ed White at the top of the rotation. Again, the question is whether Manchester’s offense can be consistent enough to go deep into the tournament. Cedar Creek just lost to non-playoff qualifiers Southern and Pinelands on Saturday, so the Hawks should be able to reach the quarterfinals, where they will most likely have to deal with second-seeded Sterling.
Non-Public South A
Shore Conference teams in bracket: (14) Msgr. Donovan; (12) St. John Vianney; (6) Christian Brothers Academy; (4) Red Bank Catholic.
Bracket breakdown: This is the Bracket of Doom. Everywhere you look, there is a top 20 team in the state and a Division I recruit on the mound. Just getting out of this section alive means you are a top 10 team in the state.
Monsignor Donovan is a darkhorse because of its pitching, led by senior lefty Rich Power, but it has not shown the ability to muster offense against top opponents. The Griffins have Bishop Eustace, a Top 10 team in South Jersey, in the first round, and will have to most likely deal with ace Devin Smeltzer, a junior who already has an offer from South Carolina and interest from several other major programs from the South.
St. John Vianney has to face Immaculata, which was the only team to have beaten Jackson Memorial all season until a week ago. Their ace is Brandon Wagner, a senior committed to Howard College, a top junior college in Texas. The Lancers’ lineup led by Anthony Santoro, Joe Rotelli and Evan Pietronico will have to solve him, while a pitching staff led by Dan Schirmacher will try to keep their offense at bay.
Red Bank Catholic has a big gun of its own on the mound in Maryland-bound senior Mike Rescigno and could meet Immaculata in the quarterfinals unless St. John Vianney pulls the upset. CBA has a dangerous Camden Catholic team in the first round that is coming off a darkhorse run to the finals of the Diamond Classic in South Jersey. If the Colts get out of that game, they could then have to deal with Bishop Eustace.
They also will have to find a way without Wake Forest-bound senior ace John McCarren, who is out for the season with an ankle injury. The CBA staff of Matt Pidich, Luca Dalatri, Joe Dudek and Chase Stopyra will have to take it up a notch, and an offense led by Dudek, Ryan Ramiz, Mike Caputo and Anthony Critelli will have to produce against a series of outstanding pitchers.
The main heavyweights in this bracket are top-seeded Gloucester Catholic and No. 2 St. Augustine. If RBC or CBA can break up either one of those teams making it to the final, that would be a big statement. Gloucester Catholic has Rescigno’s future Maryland teammate Mike Shawaryn at the top of its rotation, while St. Augustine’s Barry Buchowski is one of the top hitters in South Jersey.
If somehow a Shore Conference team makes it out of this bracket alive, their reward could be seeing St. Joseph-Montvale in the Non-Public A final. They’re only led by Rob Kaminsky, one of the best pitchers in state history and a possible first-round draft pick in June.
Non-Public South B
Shore Conference teams in bracket: (4) Mater Dei Prep; (1) St. Rose.
Bracket breakdown: St. Rose looks like the favorite to take this bracket as the top seed and has the pitching depth to do it with Brad Currao, Joey Delacruz and Jimmy Gowen. Their Achilles’ heel in tournament games has been offense, as they were ousted from the MCT and SCT in a pair of 1-0 losses. However, they probably won’t see pitching better in this bracket than they did against Manalapan’s Matt Simonetti and Jackson Liberty’s Dan Serreino in those losses. They also can go guns blazing into this without worrying about lining up pitching for other tournaments.
If Brendan Lynch, Conor Gammond, Travis Petillo, Currao and Co. can jumpstart the offense, St. Rose is as good a bet as any team in the Shore to take home a sectional crown.
Mater Dei Prep will most likely have to face Rutgers Prep in the quarterfinals, and the Seraphs are going to need a strong pitching performance from either Bobby Klatt or John Stanziale to get their third crack this season against St. Rose, which beat them twice in Class B Central. Mater Dei has been on a losing skid heading into the playoffs and will have to regroup just to get by a tough Rutgers Prep team that played a challenging schedule this spring.