Just as a program sometimes has to rebuild for a few years, the last few seasons show the same applies to a conference. The Shore had a couple of down years with respect to winning sectional titles in 2012 and 2013 and since the downturn, seven different programs have won NJSIAA sectional championships over the last two seasons, including five this past year. With so much junior talent throughout the conference, next year could very well be a continuation of the Shore’s reanimation as a conference that can produce state champions, something it still has not done since 2011.

As for the best teams within the conference, five teams won sectional championships, two won 20-plus games and two came up just shy with 19 wins. While sorting the teams wasn’t necessarily obvious, it wasn’t hard to find worthy teams for the top 10. After a strong showing from the Shore Conference in 2015, let’s have a look at its best teams over the past two-and-a-half months.

Photo by Matt Manley

1. Christian Brothers Academy (19-4-1, 11-2-1) Preseason Rank: 2

The Colts sent coach Dan Keane off with three championships in his final season and came up one win shy of winning the NJSIAA Non-Public A championship, losing to now four-time champion Delbarton in the state final. CBA won the outright Class A North title, the Shore Conference Tournament title and the NJSIAA South Non-Public A sectional title this year – all for the first time since the undefeated 2011 team. With eight starters returning for their senior season, the Colts will enter the Post-Keane Era with a legitimate chance to return to the Non-Public A final and win the whole thing.

Photo Courtesy of Lori Geerinck

2. Toms River South (21-4, 13-1) Preseason Rank: 9

After starting the season 5-2, Toms River South went 16-1 over the next 17 games, which was enough to carry the Indians into the Group III championship game. Their run ended there in a 4-0 loss to a senior-laden Mendham side, but despite falling short of a second NJSIAA group title in seven years, Toms River South had what could be described by many measures as the best season in program history. The Indians set a school record for wins (21), won the outright Class A South title for the second straight season, and their only loss during the 16-1 stretch came against CBA in the SCT semifinals by a 2-1 margin. While replacing seniors Cameron Geerinck and Mike Tapp will be a tall order, the Indians return a solid nucleus led by Chris Kluxten, Dylan Parks, Tyler Egnatuk and goalkeeper Dom Pizzi.

Photo by Matt Manley

3. Freehold Township (15-4-4, 10-2-2) Preseason Rank: 1

Todd Briggs is another Class A North coach headed out on a high note this year after the Patriots followed up their Shore Conference Tournament title in 2014 by winning their second Central Jersey Group IV championship under Briggs. In winning the A North public division title, Freehold Township fell a win shy of CBA for the outright Class A North title, with two one-goal losses to the Colts being the difference in the division title race. To a man, the Patriots point to a 2-2 draw against Pennington as the turning point of their season, which spawned a 7-1 stretch that included the CJ IV run. The head-to-head loss at home to Toms River South in the SCT quarterfinals keeps Freehold Township out of the No. 2 spot, but the Patriots showed in tough matches against CBA and against Washington Township in the Group IV semifinals that they belong on the field with anybody. The Patriots take a hit with 14 graduating seniors, but will welcome back standout Adrian Barajas for his senior season under a new head coach.

Photo by Matt Manley

4. Ocean (19-5, 11-1) Preseason Rank: 3

The Spartans entered the season with high expectations thanks to their fire power up top but evolved into a defensive juggernaut over the course of the season. In its final 11 games, Ocean posted nine shutouts and lost both games in which they did not turn in a clean sheet – to CBA, 2-0, in the SCT final and 1-0 to Toms River South in the Group III semifinal. Ocean finished the year with a healthy helping of hardware, winning the outright B North title, reaching the Shore Conference Tournament final and winning its first Central Jersey Group III championship since 2000. The trip to the SCT quarterfinals was the third in four years for Ocean, which returns deep junior and freshman classes that will try to offset the loss of six senior starters in order to get back to a fourth in five years.

Shore senior J.T. Kessler (left),  junior Dante Montesinos (10) and junior Stevie Johnson (3). (Photo by Matt Manley)

5. Shore (20-2, 14-0) Preseason Rank: 5

A crushing 2-1 loss to South River in the Central Jersey Group I semifinals ended a landmark year for Shore Regional soccer. The Blue Devils came up short of a second straight NJSIAA sectional title, but entered the postseason 17-0 and took a 19-0 mark into their first SCT semifinal appearance since 1994 before dropping their first decision of the season to Ocean. The unbeaten regular season included a win over the Spartans, Class A Central champion Rumson-Fair Haven, as well a 14-0 record in Class B Central. The Blue Devils will lose two-time Shore Conference scoring champion J.T. Kessler as part of a departing class of five senior starters, but return plenty of firepower with Dante Montesinos and Stevie Johnson.

Photo by Larry Murphy, Sports Pix NJ

6. Manalapan (11-6-2, 8-4-2) Preseason Rank: 4

The first team in the top 10 to not win a division title in any form, Manalapan was the only Shore Conference team to beat CBA this season and the Braves did it twice. While the rest of the résumé is a mixed bag, those two results would normally give Manalapan a case to be a top-five side in the Shore if not for the four sectional champions and another 20-win team ahead of them. The Braves ultimately had trouble overcoming the loss of most of their scoring from the 2014 sectional championship team, but still rode a strong defense and midfield to a top-10 season. Graduation will again hit the Braves hard going into next year, but Rocky Garretson will return for his fourth season as a starter to help lead the way. There will be uncertainty in the coaching ranks for the Braves heading into next season as well, as head coach John Natoli has said he does not expect to be hired back for 2016.

Anthony Chiaino and Middletown North went from 1-3 to 14-8 with two wins each in the SCT and NJSIAA Group III tournaments. (Photo by Matt Manley)

7. Middletown North (14-8, 8-6) Preseason Rank: Not ranked

A 1-3 start to the season appeared a harbinger of another season at or around .500 for the Lions in a grueling Class A North division, but Middletown North got healthy and put together one of its best postseasons in a long time. The Lions reached the Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinals, as well as the North Jersey 2 Group III semifinals before ultimately falling in both. Injuries to defenders Jordan Stratton in the SCT and to Nick Brennan in the state tournament ultimately sapped Middletown North’s back line, but the Lions found their goal-scoring groove in October and carried it through the rest of the season. Middletown North graduates Brennan and Dan Cavanagh from the defense as well as midfield catalyst Anthony Chiaino, but will return a wealth of talent from the junior and sophomore classes of this past season.

Teammates mob Dakota Dobrovich-Fago (middle) after he scored a goal in a win over Manasquan. (Photo by Matt Manley)

8. Wall (13-3-3, 9-1-2) Preseason Rank: Not ranked

The Crimson Knights led the Shore Conference in goals allowed, surrendering only eight in 19 games. Wall began the season 11-1-3 and in those 15 games, allowed only two goals – one on an own goal in a 1-1 tie against Long Branch and the other a 40-yard shot that took a strange bounce in a 1-0 loss to Ocean. The defense could not, however, keep carrying the team like that during the postseason without the attack generating more goal-scoring. After a victory over Jackson Memorial in penalty kicks after a scoreless draw in the SCT round of 16, Wall lost 3-0 to Ocean and bowed out of the NJSIAA Tournament with a 2-0 loss to West Windsor-Plainsboro North. Dan Frisch-Harmon and goalkeeper Nolan Cloney lead a quality group of returnees that should keep Wall in the hunt next season.

Photo by Larry Murphy, Sports Pix NJ

9. Holmdel (13-7-2, 4-4-4) Preseason Rank: 8

It’s hard to find a more heartbreaking way to end a season than the ending to Holmdel’s state tournament run. The Hornets stormed into NJSIAA Group II final and snatched a 1-0 lead with under seven minutes to play only to watch Garfield score twice in the final 2:03 to steal the Group II title. The bitter ending flew in the face of an unlikely run for Holmdel, which included four consecutive shutouts on the way to a fourth group final appearance in six years. While recent history dictates a deep tournament run for Holmdel should never be ruled out, a 1-4-2 start to the season seemed to suggest that the Hornets were gearing up for the future with a lineup heavy on sophomores and freshmen. Instead, they recovered to qualify for the Shore Conference Tournament and after a humbling 6-0 loss to Toms River North in the SCT first round, Holmdel again rebounded for a deep state playoff run. Holmdel will have to replace senior goalkeeper Tyler Marchiano and senior defensive leader Nick Chrystal, but the Hornets positioned well for another strong campaign in 2016 thanks to a young core.

Dylan Fiedler (6) and Hunter Dorsey (19) congratulate Kip Byrne after his go-ahead goal at Jackson Memorial. (Photo by Matt Manley)

10. Lacey (17-6, 11-3) Preseason Rank: Not ranked

When it comes to the final spot in the top 10, it’s hard to separate the seasons that Lacey and Rumson-Fair Haven had. The edge for Rumson is that the Bulldogs were a division champion in Class A Central, but the Lions take the spot thanks to a September win over the No. 2 team in the Shore, Toms River South. Only Shore and Ocean scored more goals than Lacey did this season thanks to the efforts of seniors Robert Biele and Hunter Dorsey on the attack. In addition to beating Toms River South on the road this season, Lacey also swept Jackson Memorial and entered the last week of the regular season with a chance to win the division before dropping a hotly-contested 2-1 battle with Toms River South that gave the Indians the division crown.

 

Next Five

Rumson-Fair Haven (15-4-1, 11-1-0) – The Bulldogs turned in a bounceback season after a five-win 2014 and have the makings of a quality team again next year.

Marlboro (8-7-4, 6-5-3) – With a deep junior class, the Mustangs will be a serious contender in 2016, although finding scoring will again be an early question mark.

Jackson Memorial (12-6-3, 9-4-1) – Although the Jaguars never quite took off this season, they were again competitive in Class A South and it took a round of penalty kicks against Wall to get them out of the SCT.

Toms River North (9-8-1, 8-5-1) – A regular-season win over Lacey and a resounding 6-0 win over Holmdel were examples of Toms River North’s ability, as was a 1-0 early-season loss to Kearny – a top 10 team in N.J.

Long Branch (11-9-1, 6-5-1) – The Green Wave deserve a tip of the cap for battling Wall (two overtime games and another 1-0 loss), beating Manasquan in the SCT and hanging tough with Shore while playing a man down in the SCT round of 16.