By the end of last season, Lakewood and Point Beach were the two top teams in the Shore Conference and, at least in this spot, those two begin this year in the same position. It is far from clear-cut, however. CBA, Shore, Jackson Memorial and Long Branch all return strong rosters that have a chance to contend for championships. Preseason Top 10’s tend to get torn to shreds pretty quickly, but here’s one man’s shot in the dark.

 

Lakewood senior Maurice Diawara (right) and Point Beach senior Dominique Uhl (left) will both try to help lead their respective teams back to the Shore Conference Tournament final. (Photo by Bill Normile)

1. Point Pleasant Beach

The defending Group I champion and Shore Conference Tournament runner-up returns three starters, including two Division I players (Matt Farrell and Dominique Uhl) and another Division I athlete (Noah Yates). The Garnet Gulls likely won’t have as much scoring as last year’s team, but they have some promising role players, including Immaculata transfer Mike Frauenheim and junior Chris Schifano, who is 11 months removed from surgery on a torn ACL in his knee. Farrell and Uhl would both be on a preseason watch list for player of the year if there were such a thing, but there is not. There also may be no such thing as a Shore Conference team that will beat Point Beach.

2. Lakewood

Lakewood was one of only three teams to beat Point Beach last year and the Piners did it twice, including in the Shore Conference Tournament final. Doing the same this year will be much more difficult, both because Point Beach has so much talent back and because Lakewood lost its best two all-around players from a year ago in Tyrice Beverette and Jared Craddox. The Piners will welcome in three transfers that should help along with returning starters Maurice Diawara and Ben Watson.

3. Christian Brothers Academy

The Colts look like the heavy favorite to win Class A North, but the expectations never end there for CBA. Last year, CBA went with a mostly young lineup and while there were some expected growing pains, a 16-9 mark with a team that’s mostly back is a good jumping off point for 2013-14. Senior Louie Pillari was one of the most improved players in the Shore Conference last season as a junior and committed to Navy during the offseason. Pillari will lead the way with standout sophomore Pat Andree looking to build off one of the best years by a freshman in some time. With another offseason together and a full season in the rearview mirror, this CBA team should help restore the Academy as one of the premier teams at the Shore.

4. Shore

The Blue Devils return last year’s leading scorer Dan Pillari to go with a strong core of juniors, led by third-year varsity players Kevin Bloodgood and Jack Byrne.  Last year’s team went 20-7 and finished second in Class A Central behind a Manasquan team that graduated two 1,000-point scorers, which makes the Blue Devils pretty strong favorites to win the division. Shore also played Point Beach tough in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group I semifinals and if Shore has designs of capturing an SCT or Group I title, it will have to go through Point Beach.

5. Jackson Memorial

Jackson Memorial graduated four starters from last year’s team, which is actually fewer than the Jaguars graduated prior to last season (five). The constant on both this year’s team and last year’s team is senior center Eric Carter. The 6-foot-8 Delaware recruit will look to lead a new group of starters and teammates to Jackson’s third division title in the last four years and based on the Jaguars recent history of plugging holes from year to year, it appears their chances to claim that title are strong.

6. Long Branch

The Green Wave proved it could play with any team in the Shore Conference last season, playing the likes of Point Beach, Colts Neck and Manasquan very tough and even beating Point Beach. Putting games away was sometimes an issue for Long Branch, but the Green Wave players did grow up a lot by playing in games like that. All but two players return this season from last year’s rotation, with senior guard Terrel Cox leading the way. Class B North might be the deepest division in the conference this season and Long Branch will have to scratch and claw just to win it. In the end, the Green Wave have a great chance to survive that race and make noise in the postseason.

7. Southern

There are not many teams that return a duo like Mike Gesicki and Jake Logue, both of whom measure in at 6-foot-6 and can play multiple positions. Southern had some bright moments in a mostly up-and-down season last year and will look to be more consistent while building up for the postseason. An early win over a 25-win Toms River North team and a scare of Atlantic City in the South Jersey Group IV playoffs are examples of what the Rams look like when everything is working. If it all works this year, Southern could be a sleeper to reach the SCT semifinals.

8. Matawan

The darling of last year’s Shore Conference Tournament (unless you are a CBA or Red Bank Catholic fan), Matawan returns four starters from a team that seemingly learned how to win midway through the season after losing some heartbreakers early on. Joe Piscopo and Jason Dunne are a junior duo that should keep Matawan competitive over the next two seasons, but the opportunity is there for Matawan to build on its surprise SCT run from 2013.

9. Freehold Township

Despite losing leading scorer and rebounder John Horrigan, the Patriots have an experienced roster that has a good chance to compete with CBA in Class A North and at the very least, win the public division title. Dan Saunders, brothers Kyle and Jason Czajkowski and senior returnee Chris Talbott will lead a balanced squad into the season. The Patriots played CBA tough last season, so penciling CBA in as the Class A North champ might be premature.

10. Red Bank Catholic

The Caseys quietly had a good 2012-13 season and return a number of key players from that team. The most noteworthy newcomer is the one on the bench. First-year coach James Catalano takes over a team with a good amount of talent that will look to take down Shore and a pretty deep crop of teams in Class A Central. With plenty of size (Quenton Nelson and Tim O’Hara) and perimeter athletes (Eddie Hahn, T.J. Verdiglione, Kyle Jeffery and Joe Montano), the Caseys have a versatile roster that will make them a tough match-up.

 

On the Bubble

Neptune – Last year’s rollercoaster of a season has tempered expectations a little, but the Scarlet Fliers still have a deep roster that did win the division last year.

Wall – This is one of the more anticipated seasons in the recent history of Wall basketball, but the Crimson Knights still have to prove themselves a bit before cracking the top 10.

Colts Neck – There are a lot of new faces, but the program has been strong at every level and the return of junior Chris O’Reilly can’t hurt.

Manasquan – Despite losing 1,000-point scorers Jimmy Walsh and J.R. Hobbie, the Warriors return three important players from last year’s team (Tom Toole, Jack Fay and Ryan Jensen) and should still be a major factor in Class A Central.

Rumson-Fair Haven – The Bulldogs lost some tough games last year, but did so with a young team that is mostly back.