Although no Shore Conference boys soccer teams took home an NJSIAA sectional championship last year, the season featured a competitive Shore Conference Tournament with a decent amount of uncertainty. In the end, though, the top two seeds reached the final and the No. 1 seed, Manalapan, took home the Shore Conference crown for the first time since 2006.

While it remains to be seen how things play out in October and November – or September for that matter – it does appear that there are five obvious SCT title contenders with a few, if any, potential sleepers to make a run. Here is an early look (the earliest look, in fact) at the teams we could be watching play for a championship late in the season.

Manalapan celebrated 19 victories last year, including an SCT championship. (Photo by Cliff Lavelle)

1. Manalapan (19-3-1 last season)

There are some concerns, some holes to fill and plenty of challenges on the division schedule, but with an All-Shore caliber player returning at all three levels of the field, the defending Shore Conference Tournament champions have to remain the favorite, especially considering how deep they proved to be last year. If Ryan Hammer, Mike McNicholas and Adam Weisberger stay healthy, expect Manalapan to remain among the favorites. If any of them don’t, things could get dicey in A North.

2. Wall (14-3-6)

Although Wall has been among the SCT and Central Jersey Group III contenders in past years, this is the year this group of seniors and the coaching staff has been looking toward. Last year was nearly the year for the Crimson Knights, who suffered a crushing overtime loss to Allentown in the Central Jersey III final, and the quest to hang the first postseason championship banner since 2004 continues into its 10th season. With so much talent back from last year, this is likely the best chance Wall has had in a decade.

3. Christian Brothers Academy (13-5-2)

The Colts are probably the most volatile team in the top five because they are also the youngest, but they also have the most room for improvement. Losing Conor Mulligan to the academy ranks hurts the cause, but CBA showed a lot of depth last year and has a number of players who could emerge as top talents in the division while filling that spot. CBA also returns one of the most dangerous forwards in the Shore Conference in Russell Romano to go with an experienced defense in front of returning senior keeper David Krall.

4. Freehold Township (13-6-1)

By the end of last year, Freehold Township was essentially starting the team it would be running out in 2014 and if those results were a little better, the Patriots might be the preseason No. 1 pick. Instead, this group got some valuable experience playing together and now also adds goalkeeper Brian Shushkovsky, who played academy soccer last year. Scoring is a bit of a question mark with no player eclipsing six goals last year, but the depth and balance are a strength, as evidenced by 10 different returning players scoring at least one goal.

5. Holmdel (16-2-3)

The Hornets have become almost a lock to reach the SCT semifinals in Neptune after advancing at least that far in each of the last three years, so ranking them outside of the top five might be selling them a bit short considering they return a good amount of starting talent. The question is how Holmdel will replace not only the scoring of Jason Kyriacou but the durability of Jack Flanagan. Kyriacou was injured at the end of the year anyway, but Flanagan was a constant on a team that dealt with a lot of injuries. If Gino D’Agostino and Brendan Wall remain healthy all year, expect to see the Hornets getting off one of the four buses at Summerfield Elementary in late October.

6. Red Bank (9-8-2)

The top five teams in the Shore seem to be pretty clear cut considering those teams are perennially in the conversation for top-five rankings in the Shore. Of the teams likely to break into that group, Red Bank is the best on paper, with its seven starters and 36 of 37 goals returning, as well as two players who missed last season to honor academy commitments. If the Bucs have put last year’s early-season struggles behind them and pick up where they left off when they finished 8-2-2, Red Bank is a threat to Wall in B North and, therefore, a threat to any team it plays.

7. Central (11-4-2)

Some of the teams below Central on this list may be a little deeper or a little more solid across the formation than the Golden Eagles, but the duo of Blake Czajkowski and Doug Jensen make Central one of the more dangerous teams in the Shore Conference field. Junior Shane Cranstoun is a proven player who will contribute and Bryan Jones is one of the top goalkeepers in the conference, but Central’s potential lies in players 5-through-11. If that mix of sophomores and juniors all make strides, count the Golden Eagles among the teams that could be thinking about championships into late October.

8. Toms River South (8-8-2)

With nine starters back from a .500 team, Toms River South is one of those teams that is solid across the lineup with some depth in the program to combat injury and fatigue. What they lack is a proven source of scoring, which coach Ed Leibe has tried to battle by mixing and maxing players at different positions, which that depth allows. The Indians expect to defend better than they did last year thanks to a senior-heavy back-line and a strong goalkeeper in Kollin White, so it might not take all that much scoring to keep Toms River South in the top 10 field.

9. Long Branch (6-10-2)

Last year was a nightmare season for Long Branch and this season got off to a less-than-ideal start with the news that leader scorer Fabio De Souza was transferring to St. Benedict’s. Long Branch suffered from the lack of a second scorer last year and newcomers Guillerme De Novaes – who transferred from Monmouth Regional last year, only to tear his ACL in the preseason – and Hernan Acevedo should take care of that. The Green Wave will also need to clean up the little things, particularly in defending the goal, and with a much more experienced team this year, the talent should shine brighter than the inconsistency.

10. Brick Memorial (10-11-0)

The No. 10 spot goes to a real darkhorse in Class A South, although one look at the individual accomplishments of some of Brick Memorial’s players should convince anyone that the Mustangs have plenty of potential. There are more proven programs that could go in this spot, but Brick Memorial is coming off a 7-7 season in A South with a great deal of its offense coming back. Kevin Simek is one of the Shore’s top returning midfielders, and he and teammates Bryan Malerba and Kevin Duffy should gain some widespread appreciation if Brick Memorial continues to improve.


On the Bubble

Colts Neck (9-4-5) – The Cougars have a lot of scoring to replace, but they are a battle-tested team with some good young talent coming in.

Ocean (12-3-5) – The uncertain status of leading scorer Wadneson Alexis (knee) has Ocean in a sort of holding pattern, but even without the junior striker, the Spartans will be a factor in B North sooner or later.

Raritan (11-6-2) – There is enough returning experience to compete now while a talented group of freshmen and sophomores gets acclimated.

Jackson Memorial (13-6-3) – The Jaguars will miss Garrett Muzikowski, but the current group of starters proved themselves last year and will definitely be a factor in the race for the A South title.

Rumson-Fair Haven (19-3-1) – Few teams are as much of a mystery as Rumson, which lost nine starters and 17 seniors from last year’s SCT and CJ II runner-up teams.

Shore (12-10-0) – Just about everyone is back and healthy for the Blue Devils, who still have a sour taste left over from losing out on the B Central title to Point Beach last year.