The 2016-17 boys basketball season is upon us. Forty of the 47 Shore Conference teams open up their seasons on Friday night and most of those 47 teams are brimming with optimism heading into the season. And they should be. After all, over the last 10 years, eight different teams have won the Shore Conference Tournament championship and since 2010, there have been six different champions in six years.

Last year, it was Mater Dei Prep that joined the ranks of champions and did so for the first time in program history. Just one year earlier, the school was on the verge of shutting down and the second chance gave way to a basketball renaissance. This year, the Seraphs will try to break up the variety by winning a second straight title with another impressive roster, but there are a wealth of candidates in the conference that could make it nine champions in 11 years and seven straight years with a different conference champion. Of the top seven teams in this year’s preseason top 10, five have not won a title in the last decade and four have never won one.

There will be two powerhouse teams in the Shore Conference to open the season, but we’ve seen that narrative get squashed quickly in recent years for one reason or another. The games start on Friday night and before they do, here are the best-looking teams in the Shore Conference.

Elijah Barnes and Mater Dei are keeping the pressure on CBA for the No. 1 spot. (Photo by Mark Brown, B51 Photography)

1. Mater Dei Prep (26-2, 14-0; Final Ranking: 1)

A year after transforming the program and winning the Shore Conference Tournament with a new coach and nine transfers, Mater Dei has gone outside the program once again to supplement its three returning starters and the handful of other returnees. Five more transfers will play for the Seraphs this year, but the core of the team is still the returning trio of Elijah Barnes, Elijah Mitchell and Kenny Jones. Mater Dei beat Ranney three times last year, but the Panthers got closer each time and will probably further close the gap in the two-to-four times the teams will meet this year.

2. Ranney (22-4, 12-2; Final Ranking: 6)

Although the defending SCT champs still have a deeper, older roster, Ranney returns four sophomore starters and will benefit from the addition of a fifth in athletic guard Ahmadu Sarnor. With the 6-foot-2 sophomore teamed up with Bryan Antoine and Scottie Lewis, along with the physical and mental maturation of Alex Klatsky and Chris Autino, the Panthers have a strong case to be the best starting-five in the Shore Conference despite that youth.

3. Toms River North (23-5, 14-0; Final Ranking: 8)

Last year, for the third time in four years, Toms River North reached the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals and return, arguably, its three best players from that team. Darrion Carrington, Mike Nyisztor and Jaden Rhoden make up one of the better trios in the conference and now that all are seniors, the expectations at Toms River North are as high as they’ve been. If the Mariners can get some contributions from the newcomers and a handful of the guys who were bench players last year, they should feel confident taking on either of the top two teams in a tournament setting.

4. Middletown North (15-11, 10-4; Final Ranking: Not ranked)

The Lions return the vast majority of their regulars from last year, and then some. In addition to returnees Rob Higgins, Marc Cerbo, John Swift, Dave Campbell, John Tomassetti and Matt Pinckney, the Lions will also add senior Isaiah McDowell and junior Sky Cherry to the mix after McDowell missed last year due to injury and Cherry spent his first two high school years at Mater Dei. The Lions will need those two to provide some toughness and energy along with Swift to complement the collection of dangerous shooters.

5. Manasquan (24-4, 11-1; Final Ranking: 3)

The Warriors return just one starter, but that starter – senior Devin Jensen – is an improved player and ready to become a team leader in every sense of the word. One coach who saw Jensen in the preseason said he was the “best player in the Shore Conference this year.” With an effective supporting cast led by returning senior Brian Paturzo, the Warriors have the ingredients to return to the SCT semifinals this year.

6. Freehold Township (20-10, 10-4; Final Ranking: 9)

Despite losing do-it-all guard Nick Facendo and rebounding machine John Carroll, Freehold Township is in good position heading into the year because of what the Patriots didn’t lose. Returning starters Steve Staklinski, Bobby Weise and Ryan Zyskowski will be the core of the team and the rest of the roster has plenty of size and versatility that will make the Patriots a difficult matchup again in 2016-17.

7. Marlboro (16-10, 9-5; Final Ranking: Not ranked)

Even with P.J. Ringel out until early January with a broken left hand, Marlboro has a quality, senior-laden roster that might be a top-10 team on its own. Dan Weiss continues to improve while sophomore Dylan Kaufman is coming off of a successful debut as a freshman. Once Ringel does return, the Mustangs will be a quality, senior-loaded roster that also has one of the best returning players in the Shore Conference.

8. Point Pleasant Beach (16-12; Final Ranking: Not ranked)

The Garnet Gulls are lined up for a couple successful seasons over the next two years thanks to a strong core of juniors heading into this season. Danny Frauenheim, Trevor Covey and Chris Pina all return this year, while Noah Yates and seven-foot transfer Jake Lorenzo are now on board for the next two seasons. Throw in improved senior Steve Flanders, and the Garnet Gulls have a chance to be better this year despite losing three good players in Jimmy Panzini, Mike Rice and Alex Mrusek.

9. Christian Brothers Academy (22-6, 13-1; Final ranking: 2)

Most teams that graduated their top six players, including one the caliber of Pat Andree, would be crippled but CBA is not most teams. The Colts will have some growing up to do with so many sophomores, juniors and inexperienced seniors in the fold, but with Rob Mahala back with some good big-game experience and sophomores Josh Cohen and Liam Kennedy showing early promise, CBA will be a threat for the top-five.

10. Lakewood (21-7, 13-1; Final Ranking: 7)

Like CBA, Lakewood lost a good deal of production from a year ago, but does return some experience from a team that captured the program’s sixth straight outright division title. Adi Palmer was a solid third scoring option last year and twins Zyheir and Jyheir Jones are improved. Zyheir Jones also developed as a leader and Division I football prospect while playing quarterback this fall, so the Piners still have those character players like they the ones they have produced over the last four years.

 

In the Mix

St. Rose – Three senior starters return with three experienced juniors, giving the Purple Roses one of the more athletic, complete teams they’ve had in some time.

Brick – This is a big year for a Brick team heavy on seniors and with a handful of underclassmen that also look ready to break out.

Rumson-Fair Haven – If Elijah McAllister (5.6 blocks per game last year) returns to form some time before the postseason, the Bulldogs are going to be a dangerous team with a dangerous man roaming the paint on defense.

Long Branch – The Green Wave return a strong group of juniors to go with a steady sophomore point guard in Marc Dennis.

Central – The Golden Eagles are senior-loaded, led by all-around guard Maks Gruszecki.

Point Pleasant Boro – Once John Venturi (ACL) returns to the lineup, the Panthers will be a threat to take down Lakewood’s six-year streak as an outright division champion.

The rest of A North – Neptune, Manalapan, Colts Neck, Howell and perhaps Freehold Boro have a chance to be very evenly-matched and one of them could sneak up on the Freehold Township, CBA and Marlboro to win the division.

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