The 2016-17 basketball season began with two favorites to win the Shore Conference Tournament and an entire field trying to catch up to them. Mater Dei Prep and Ranney held the top two spots for most of the season, as expected, but the Shore Conference Tournament threw a wrench into the preseason order. Marlboro upset both Freehold Township and Ranney to reach the SCT final, which leaves spots two through six in the top 10 up for grabs.

What stands out about a lot of the teams in the final top 10, as well as the teams that fell just short of the top 10, is that most of them bring back a lot of talent next year. Teams like Toms River North, Freehold Township and Marlboro had big seasons thanks to a roster loaded with seniors, so there will be a lot of teams with rosters like that next year trying to take their respective spots.

 

1. Mater Dei Prep (25-4, 13-1)

While other teams played deeper into the season, the Seraphs were the clear No. 1 team in the conference this season, particularly once junior Kyle Cardaci became eligible in mid-January. With Cardaci in the lineup, Mater Dei went 16-1 with its only loss a South Jersey Non-Public A quarterfinal loss to the Patrick School. Not only did Mater Dei have to play the No. 1 team in the state in their second game of the state tournament, but they had to do so without senior forward and Princeton signee Elijah Barnes, who broke a bone in his right forearm in a first-round win over Gloucester Catholic. It was a less-than-ideal ending to another banner season for Mater Dei, which is 51-6 over the last two years.

Mater Dei celebrates its Shore Conference Tournament title. (Photo by Ray Richardson)

2. Ranney (22-5, 13-1)

Spots two through five in the rankings could go a lot of different ways and you could even make the case that two through six is a pretty involved debate as well. There is plenty of reason to question Ranney’s placement at No. 2: the Panthers lost to Marlboro in the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals and did not beat a Shore Conference team outside of B Central other than Middletown North. On the flip side, Ranney’s non-division schedule during the regular season did not include any Shore Conference teams, the Panthers beat the likes of Newark East Side and Mater Dei, and they were right in the game against both Patrick School and St. Anthony. The Panthers are on course to enter next year as the heavy favorite to win the Shore Conference and will be among the preseason contenders to win the Tournament of Champions.

3. Freehold Township (26-3, 13-1)

The Patriots grab the No. 3 spot because out of the three Shore Conference teams with three losses this season, the Patriots played in by far the toughest division (Class A North) and also have a head-to-head win over Toms River North. Although Toms River North might have been playing better than Freehold Township by the end of the year and Freehold Township did not reach the SCT semifinals, the Patriots have an overall edge on body of work that stands out upon closer examination.

4. Toms River North (28-3, 14-0)

Based on the way they were playing at the end of the season, the Mariners had the look of the second-best team in the conference. They dominated both CBA and Rumson-Fair Haven during the Shore Conference Tournament and later Vineland, Millville and Cherokee in the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV Tournament. Toms River North’s two postseason losses came at the hands of Mater Dei (SCT semifinal) and Shawnee (SJ IV final) and both were about as close as can be. The rankings are based on the entire season and it’s hard to argue that Toms River North should be ahead of Freehold Township, which also had three losses while playing in a tougher division and defeating the Mariners at Pine Belt Arena in December.

5. Marlboro (18-7, 11-3)

The Mustangs are another serious candidate for the No. 2 spot in the final rankings and a Shore Conference Tournament win over Ranney is the best win of any team on the board other than Mater Dei. Unlike the teams ahead of them, though, Marlboro has losses to teams that are not in the Top 10 and did not win a share of a division title. Although the Mustangs beat Freehold Township in the SCT, the Patriots won the season series 2-1, won the Class A North title and advanced two rounds further in the Central Jersey Group IV Tournament by beating the team that eliminated Marlboro (Sayreville). Regardless of the final rankings, Marlboro’s run through the Shore Conference Tournament was the story of the boys basketball season at the Shore.

6. Rumson-Fair Haven (24-3, 12-0)

Most teams that lose a 6-foot-6 center who blocks five shots per game and grabs double-digit rebounds for the season would end up wondering “what if we were healthy this year?” Rumson never made the injury-plagued season of Elijah McAllister an excuse and went on to have, arguably, the best overall season in the recent history of the program. The Bulldogs went 19-1 during the regular season with only a loss to Roselle Catholic. After a humbling loss to Toms River North in the SCT quarterfinals, they responded by winning the Central Jersey Group II title – Rumson’s first boys basketball sectional championship since 1973. They also have a case to jump Marlboro for No. 5 based on a head-to-head win, but that came when P.J. Ringel was sidelined.

Rumson-Fair Haven following its Central Jersey Group II title. (Photo by Matt Manley)

7. Middletown North (16-11, 10-4)

To pick the No. 7 team in the Shore is to split hairs. Middletown North and Manasquan tied for the division title, both dealt with injuries, both have “bad” losses and both have a win over Point Pleasant Beach. Middletown North didn’t deal with injuries for as much of the season as Manasquan did, but the Lions lost their best player, Rob Higgins, for four full games and he was injured just before taking two free throws with four seconds left that could have beaten Sayreville. The Lions will return Higgins and three other starters next season.

8. Manasquan (18-11, 10-4)

Although Devin Jensen stayed healthy enough to play all season long, Manasquan played without both senior Brian Paturzo (ankle) and junior Shane Flanagan (foot) for an extended period of time and those injuries held back a Manasquan team that had to replace four starters from a year ago. Despite those injuries, the Warriors won a share of B North, reached the quarterfinals of the Shore Conference Tournament, and gave Rumson all it could handle in two games in Rumson. The second of those games was a Central Jersey Group II semifinal loss that ended the season for Manasquan – which will bid farewell to Jensen, Paturzo, guard Tyler Hobbie and center Seamus Hogan.

9. Point Pleasant Beach (18-10, 10-4)

The Garnet Gulls got off to a 9-1 start to the season, followed with five straight close losses and ended up having a solid overall season. They lost a competitive game to Manasquan in the Shore Conference Tournament round of 16 and lost a tight game in the Central Jersey Group I quarterfinals to Burlington City, which eventually went on to win the sectional championship. Point Beach is set to return four starters next year, including standout point guard and Shore Conference assists leader Danny Frauenheim.

10. Colts Neck (15-9, 9-5)

The No. 10 spot has been somewhat of a revolving door all season and the merry-go-round ends with Colts Neck cracking the final Top 10. The Cougars had a lot to replace from last year’s Central Jersey Group IV team and despite only one player, Brendan Clarke, returning with varsity experience. The Cougars improved as a unit over the course of the season and finished tied for third place in a very competitive Class A North field. They also lost two very competitive games at Middletown North in both the Shore Conference and Central Jersey Group III Tournaments. Although the Cougars lose Clarke next year, they return most of the team in 2017-18.

 

Just Missed

Christian Brothers Academy (16-10, 8-6) – Considering how young and inexperienced they were, the Colts had a solid showing this year and laid the groundwork to climb back into the top five next year and make a run at the Shore Conference title game.

Central (22-6, 11-3) – The 22 wins by the Golden Eagles this year set a new school record, which they are hoping gives them some momentum heading into next year, when they will have to replace most of their senior-laden roster.

Red Bank Catholic (17-10, 10-4) – The Caseys were one of the more improved teams in the Shore Conference this season, when they won a share of the Class B North title and won a game in both the Shore Conference and South Jersey Non-Public A Tournaments.

Long Branch (15-11, 9-5) – The Green Wave had an up-and-down season that ended on a high note with a win over Lakewood in the Central Jersey Group III playoffs. Long Branch is set to return all but one rotation player next year.

Neptune (14-12, 9-5) – The Scarlet Fliers looked like a potential top-five team in the Shore Conference in late January, but hit a rut over the final stretch of the A North schedule and into the postseason. The good news for Neptune is they return a good chunk of this year’s lineup, including breakout star Jared Kimbrough.

Lakewood (16-11, 12-2) – The Piners won their seventh straight outright division title by outlasting Point Boro despite having to reload its talent coffers. Losing senior Adi Palmer will be a hit to the roster, but Lakewood will have some depth in its senior and sophomore classes to build upon next year.

 

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