Monday wrapped up another high school basketball season in N.J. and although the Shore Conference played its last official game more than a week ago, it was a strong overall season for the conference. The emergence of Mater Dei and Ranney lifted the entire talent level of the conference, giving the Shore a number of teams that could be considered among the 50 best in the state.

The top 10 has remained fairly consistent all season long and the top-three teams are going to look awfully familiar for those who have paid attention all year long. The four spot ended up being a three-team pile-up that could go in any direction and even the teams that finished No. 7 and 8 have a case to be made for a top five spot.

This year offered a diverse mix of public and non-public talent, although every indication points to the non-publics – specifically Mater Dei and Ranney – ruling the roost over the next couple of seasons and perhaps beyond, not only because both of those teams are so strong, but public staples like Manasquan, Rumson, Lakewood, Colts Neck and Point Beach are taking some big hits in graduation. Those programs should all build back up in short time, but this year’s final top 10 could look a lot different than next year’s, just like it looks a lot different from last year’s.

From left: Mater Dei's Josh Green, Elijah Barnes, Marvin Pierre and Kenny Jones celebrate while NyQuan McCombs raises the trophy. (Photo by Mark Brown, B51 Photography)

1. Mater Dei Prep (26-2, 14-0)

The Seraphs left no doubt who the best team in the Shore Conference was this year by winning a game that was very much in doubt from their perspective. Trailing CBA by 18 points with nine minutes left in the game, Mater Dei finished the Shore Conference Tournament final on a 32-7 run to stun the Colts and win the program’s first ever Shore Conference title. The Seraphs’ two losses were both by three points each – to Pope John on Jan. 3 before all of Mater Dei’s players were eligible, and to Gill St. Bernard’s in the NJSIAA South Jersey Non-Public B semifinals. The Seraphs are slated to return Elijah Barnes, Elijah Mitchell and Kenny Jones from this year’s starting lineup as they look to defend their SCT title.

2. Christian Brothers Academy (22-6, 13-1)

Like last year, the lasting image of CBA’s tournament exits mars an otherwise stellar season. The Colts essentially lost just five games this season (one of the six losses was a make-up game against Middletown North two days before the Shore Conference final in which none of the CBA starters played) and all of them were teams ranked in the top 12 in the state (No. 1 St. Anthony, No. 6 Don Bosco, No. 12 Mater Dei and No. 5 St. Augustine twice). CBA reached the finals of the Shore Conference Tournament for the third straight season and ran into a buzzsaw in the South Non-Public A semifinals against St. Augustine, which barely squeaked by the Colts during their regular-season meeting in Atlantic City.

3. Manasquan (24-4, 11-1)

In a season dominated by Non-Public teams that made headlines, Manasquan was the Shore’s best, most consistent public school team from start to finish. The Warriors won arguably the most competitive division in the Shore Conference – Class A Central – and followed up a two-loss regular season by advancing to the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals and the Central Jersey Group II final. Manasquan beat Rumson twice in postseason play, beating the Bulldogs 80-77 in triple overtime in the SCT quarterfinals before handing them a 65-46 loss in the CJ II semifinals. Manasquan’s only losses were on the road at Rumson, the Patrick School (No. 3 in N.J.), CBA in the SCT and at Bordentown in the Central Group II final.

4. Colts Neck (23-5, 12-2)

Before the state tournament, Colts Neck was likely to hold on to a top-10 spot, but not by much. After losing to Long Branch at home in the SCT round of 16, the Cougars regrouped and won a deep Central Jersey Group IV sectional bracket by beating Freehold Township on a shot by junior Brendan Clarke at the buzzer for the program’s first ever NJSIAA sectional championship. While that was the most memorable win of the year, the Cougars turned in some even better overall performances that make them worthy of this ranking: a win at Rumson in December, a home rout of GMC Tournament finalist South Brunswick and a hard-fought, 55-50, loss to Atlantic City in the Group IV semifinals while playing without second-leading scorer Tom O’Reilly. The only blemish on Colts Neck’s resume was two losses to Long Branch in three meetings, but the Cougars also won the Class B North championship over the Green Wave and the rest of the field.

5. Rumson-Fair Haven (21-6, 10-2)

On overall resume alone, Rumson probably owns a slight edge over Colts Neck and the No. 6 team for the No. 4 spot, but Colts Neck did beat the Bulldogs when the teams met in December in Rumson. With that being said, Rumson enjoyed another great season after winning the Shore Conference Tournament last year – this time doing so with a target on its back and four new starters joining 2015 Player of the Year Brendan Barry. The Bulldogs lost the first two games of the season without Barry due to a broken hand, which essentially cost them the division title. They won 13 games in a row at one point before losing a stunning game at home to sub-.500 Red Bank Catholic, a streak that included a 17-point win over the No. 8 team in the state, Gill St. Bernard’s. The Bulldogs could not solve Manasquan during the SCT and NJSIAA Central Jersey Group II playoffs, but they did manage to beat the Warriors during the regular season.

6. Ranney (22-4, 12-2)

The third of the legitimate contenders for the No. 4 spot, the Panthers have major advantages over Colts Neck based on the resumes of each, but Rumson’s resume is a bit stronger based on the wins over Gill St. Bernard’s and Manasquan. While Colts Neck went 2-4 in games against Point Beach, Long Branch and Red Bank, Ranney went 4-0 against those teams with a routs against Red Bank and Point Beach. Ranney’s problem with respect to the rankings was mostly outside its control – the Panthers lost to the best team in the conference three times and the No. 2 team in the state to end their season, but never got a chance to play any team in the middle tier of the top 10. The did score a home win over Freehold Township – another common opponent with Colts Neck and a tournament one at that – in the SCT, which solidifies them as a top-six team with a real argument to be No. 4. With four freshman starters – two of whom have already been offered by St. John’s, Notre Dame and UConn – the Panthers could very well enter next year as the favorites in the Shore Conference.

7. Lakewood (21-7, 13-1)

Lakewood also has a pretty good case to be a top-five team, but the Piners didn’t win the postseason hardware that Colts Neck did, did not have the standout win on the resume that Rumson did, and did not avoid losses to teams outside the top 10 like Ranney did. With all that said, the Piners accomplished plenty this past year and in most Shore Conference seasons, their roster might have been able to win the SCT. Lakewood won an outright division title for the sixth straight year and reached the quarterfinals of the SCT and the semifinals of the Central Jersey Group III Tournament. The Piners had top-seeded Ewing on the ropes in the sectional semifinals, but the Blue Devils rallied from an 11-point deficit in the final four minutes to break Lakewood’s heart.

8. Toms River North (23-5, 14-0)

The Mariners spent most of the season in the top five and finish the season in the same spot they started it in the preseason. A first-round loss in the South Jersey Group IV playoffs at home to No. 13 Cherry Hill West hurt Toms River North’s standing not just because it was a first-round upset, but because Lakewood beat that same Cherry Hill West team during the season on a neutral floor. In addition, Toms River North ended up with a favorable draw in the SCT – facing a Toms River East team it ended up beating three times in the round of 16 and No. 12 Long Branch in the quarterfinals. The Mariners were mostly competitive against Mater Dei in the semifinals, although the Seraphs pulled way in the third quarter. The silver lining for Toms River North is that the Mariners will enter next year with three top players (Jaden Rhoden, Darrion Carrington and Mike Nyisztor) due back from this year’s unbeaten Class A South division champions.

9. Freehold Twp. (20-10, 10-4)

This season was a challenge to the depth of Freehold Township’s program and coach Brian Golub and the Patriots passed that test with flying colors. Although they returned a top point guard in Nick Facendo, the Patriots had to replace four starters from last year’s Central Jersey Group IV finalist and still managed to get back to the championship game this year. The Patriots were nine seconds away from their first ever sectional title, but lost at the buzzer to Colts Neck for their second straight sectional final heartbreak. Freehold Township also got a tough draw in the SCT by having to play a Ranney squad that was more talented than the No. 8 seed it received, but still took the Panthers down to the wire on the road. They also would have likely won the Class A North public division title outright, but CBA sat its starters in a loss to Middletown North two days before the SCT final that allowed the Lions to grab a share of the title with Freehold Township.

10. Long Branch (17-9, 11-3)

While the runarounds at Ranney and Mater Dei stemmed from a major influx of talent, Long Branch’s turnaround was not as easy to see coming although it made plenty of sense in retrospect. The Green Wave won just three games during a 2014-15 campaign beset by injuries and with a healthier, more experienced roster this season, Long Branch proved last year was an aberration. It also helped that the Green Wave brought aboard senior transfer Anthony Velasquez, who moved to Lakewood from Puerto Rico in the summer and from Lakewood to Long Branch in the fall. Velasquez and Co. did their best work against Colts Neck this year, beating the No. 4 team at the Shore in two of their three meetings – including an SCT victory that catapulted the Green Wave into the quarterfinals for the second time in three years. Long Branch also played Freehold Township, Toms River North and Ranney tough in losses.

 

Best of the Rest

Point Pleasant Beach (16-12, 9-5)

Manchester (19-8, 11-3)

Toms River East (16-7, 10-4)

Southern (18-9, 10-4)

Middletown North (15-11, 10-4)