With the start of the season just hours away, the theme to this year’s top 10 is that the usual suspects are still at large.

One look at the division previews will tell you that this writer sees all six defending division champions defending their titles this year, and while that will be reflected in the following rankings, the top 10 should also provide a look at just how strong the depth in Ocean County looks to begin the year. Four of the top five preseason teams do indeed reside in Monmouth County, however the next five all hail from Ocean. Class A South is going to get pretty messy this season and some team listed below is going to have to fight for its life to qualify for the postseason tournaments, but once in, any team that has to play each of those teams twice will be ready for anything.

As for the order to open the year, here is what we’re looking at. As always, it is recommended you save this, because it will, in all likelihood, look silly very soon.

Last year's SCT and OCT championship runs by Toms River North were a stark reminder that it's not how you start, but how you finish.

 

1. Wall

With returnees at all eight positions in the field and two starting pitchers back as well, the Crimson Knights will run it back after going 22-6 last year with, essentially, the same team. Wall does lose No. 2 starter Luke Malone, who also helped out at the plate and in the outfield, but the Crimson Knights have enough to overcome one loss while every other team is dealing with many more.

2. Jackson Memorial

There is no ACC-bound, Red Sox draft pick in the lineup – at least not at this point anyway – but the Jaguars retained a lot of what made them good last year: defense around the diamond and tough outs at the plate. Pitching is a question mark again this year, but it was also a question mark last year, when Jackson went 14-0 in Class A South.

3. Red Bank Catholic

This could very well be the year the Caseys relinquish their top spot in Class A Central to St. John Vianney, but even though the Lancers have more senior talent returning than the Caseys do, there was still a pretty sizable gap between the two teams last year. RBC still has a top player in the middle of the field in Al Molina, whose arm on the mound will be a major factor this year in the division race after he served as the closer last year.

4. Christian Brothers Academy

Just like Jackson and RBC, CBA lost Division I talent and is still exceedingly talented. The Colts lost four ACC players to graduation and gained one when sophomore Brandon Martorano committed to North Carolina over the offseason. While the sophomore backstop is still developing, the Colts have three fully-developed hitters and Division I recruits in the middle of the order in Will Morgan, Ryan Ramiz and Pete Papcun recruits, and a legitimate ace in sophomore Luca Dalatri, who was arguably CBA’s best pitcher last year as a freshman after ace John McCarren went down with an injury.

5. St. John Vianney

This ranking is a conservative one, as the Lancers have the most individual offensive talent of any team in the conference this year. Wall is a little more spread out with its talent, but SJV has four players who put up All-Shore numbers last year in Evan Pietronico, Joe Rotelli, Anthony Santoro and Anthony LaVigne. The pitching could not stay healthy in 2013, and if the Lancers’ fortune changes in the form of a healthy staff, they become a Monmouth County and Shore Conference favorite.

6. Toms River East

While the Vianney ranking is playing it safe, this ranking is out on a limb to some degree. Toms River East has made some moves up the rankings over the last several years but has wound up either a fringe team or out of the picture altogether by the end of the year. With three senior pitchers back and a very good middle-of-the-order, the Raiders look ready to stay in the top 10, provided they don’t fall victim to the A South gauntlet, which is as dangerous as ever this year.

7. Toms River North

This Toms River North team looks like one that could do what last year’s Mariners did, although for slightly different reasons. The Mariners won the Ocean County and Shore Conference Tournaments because their pitchers all got hot at the same time, the defense cleaned up its rough edges and the offense came through in big spots. While this year’s team will look to do the same as the year goes on, it is more of a necessity this year because of how much younger Toms River North is. The Mariners have six new starters in the field – one of whom is a senior – as well as two new pitchers to join two holdovers who combined for 60-plus innings last year. Once everything gets working – which it reportedly already has been in the preseason – the Mariners will be a threat to win any tournament.

8. Jackson Liberty

The Lions were a bit of a disappointment with the bats last year, which is why they had a quiet season until the Shore Conference Tournament. At that point, their pitching began to overpower teams and the offense found some holes in the defense and before you knew it, the Lions were in the SCT final. Offense is going to be an issue heading into the year, but last year’s SCT star Dan Serreino joins four-year starter James Sofield atop the rotation again as one of the best one-two punches in the area.

9. Central

Jackson Liberty may have the one-two punch, but Central has the hammer. The Golden Eagles will have one of the top pitchers in the state, 6’7” Alabama-bound right-hander Andrew DiPiazza, pitching once a week with a team around him that proved it can compete in tournament play, even without their horse on the mound. Central is, of course, more ordinary without DiPiazza on the hill, but when the Golden Eagles can go to their ace, it’s hard to find a Shore team that would be favored.

10. Toms River South

This is partially a player rank and partially a program rank and when you combine those two, you get a pretty solid candidate for the top 10. The Indians return one of the best offensive players in the state in Rutgers recruit Russell Messler and also have a mix of returning players who proved they could win in A South last year. Jackson is a little more balanced, Toms River East a little more experienced, and Toms River North has the higher ceiling, but the Indians still have as good a shot as anyone to win Class A South.

 

First Five Out

Howell – The Rebels faded down the stretch last season, but have a lot of talent back from that team that is fresh, rested and ready to build on 2013.

Freehold Township – The Patriots won eight straight games to end the year after underachieving in A North and with some big bats and decent arms returning, they’ll have a chance to win Class A North.

Rumson-Fair Haven – The Bulldogs have some questions in the field, but if the pitching is as good as it could be, Rumson will find its way into the top 10 soon.

Marlboro – Most of this year’s roster got a taste of the postseason during Marlboro’s run to the Central Group IV semifinals and with a little spike in offense, the Mustangs become a pretty serious team.

Brick Memorial – Another team that thrived after a so-so regular season, the Mustangs figure to be better offensively with All-Shore first-teamer Kyle Cala back, but are not as good in the rotation.