High School soccer practice officially began this week and the first question is today’s high school soccer scene is always: “Who is playing?” The academies often grab a few players away from the high school scene each year, while there are also players who return to their high school teams after academy stints. For many coaches, the answer to that question is still up in the air because players making that decision don’t necessarily have to have an answer just yet.

Given that the academy question is still up in the air for a number of players and teams, let’s focus on some of the other burning questions from around the Shore Conference as teams start to build toward opening day.

 

1. Will all of the coaching turnover of the last two years dramatically impact the results on the field?

The Class A North division has been the most successful in the Shore Conference over the last decade, which means there have been some beefy coaching resumes born of all of that success. In the last two years, though, four of those coaches have left their posts, giving way to four new ones. It didn’t seem to affect three of A North’s teams last year, as both Christian Brothers Academy and Freehold Township reached the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals under first-year head coaches and Manalapan reached the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV semifinals as a No. 15 seed.

Will Gould joins Tom Mulligan (CBA), Josh Mehl (Freehold Township) and Kerry Eismann (Manalapan) this year as new head coaches in the division after he was hired to replace longtime head coach Dave Santos at Marlboro. The difference between Gould the other three is Gould has been a high school head coach after spending four seasons leading Rumson-Fair Haven. In those four years, the Bulldogs reached two Central Jersey Group II championship games as well as a Shore Conference Tournament final. Gould is a Marlboro alumnus and will take over a program that graduated the vast majority of a varsity squad that won a school record 20 games in 2016.

In addition to Marlboro, Red Bank Regional, Rumson-Fair Haven, Ocean, Middletown South, Mater Dei Prep and Pinelands have new coaches. Ocean’s opening was the most high-profile of the offseason given that 400-game winner Tom Reilly stepped away to take the head women’s job at Washington College in Md. Former Ocean player and current varsity boys basketball coach John Terlecsky took the head job after serving as the freshman coach under Reilly and will lead a team built around a talented junior class.

Rumson and Pinelands are also coming off successful runs of sorts, with Rumson reaching the Central Group II final as a No. 13 seed and Pinelands putting together its best season in more than a quarter century. Veteran Shore Conference coach Sean Reid takes over at Rumson after spending seven seasons at rival Red Bank. Reid’s former Bucs assistant Vinny Gruosso, meanwhile, took Reid’s place at Red Bank. Pinelands also stayed in-house, hiring former assistant Nino Scotto di Carlo after Jason Asch stepped down at the end of the 2016 season.

Middletown South will try to continue its progression under first-year coach Rob Grella, who takes over for Pat Petretta and will coach a team that returns most of its production from 2016. Under Petretta, Middletown South had one standout season when the Eagles reached the semifinals of the SCT and Central Jersey Group III playoffs in 2012.

Mater Dei has struggled in recent years and new head coach Anthony Sherlock will look to guide the Seraphs back into the thick of the B Central race. Sherlock coached the middle school boys team at Ranney and comes with experience as semi-pro player in Ireland.

Holmdel junior Joe Arena. (Photo by Matt Manley)

2. Is this Holmdel’s best chance to win the SCT?

Holmdel is unquestionably one of the most successful Shore Conference programs of the last 10 years, but the Shore Conference Tournament championship has eluded the Hornets during that period. The Hornets have won a Group III championship and reached three other overall Group II finals in that time, but have stumbled at different points in the SCT along the way. They reached the championship game in 2011 and 2012 only to lose to the undefeated CBA team in 2011 and to Ocean in 2012.

Since 2010, Holmdel has either reached the SCT semifinals or lost to a team from Toms River prior to that round – three times to Toms River North and once to Toms River East. The Hornets lost to Toms River North each of the past two seasons by a combined score of 11-0, so there are some serious SCT demons to exorcise for the returning players.

That being said, it’s hard to see any roster better than the one Holmdel will boast this year, much less one that could beat the Hornets by five goals. In addition to bringing back nearly all of its 2016 team, Holmdel welcomes three senior academy players into mix, including Justin McStay. In 2015, McStay led the Hornets in goals as a sophomore and was a catalyst in the team’s run to the Group II championship game. Cyrus Darvish and Matt Leon will also play high school soccer this year, giving the Hornets talent and depth that few teams in the conference will be able to match.

3. Is Ocean ready to thrive in the Post-Reilly Era?

Few coaches in any sport garnered the respect of his peers that Tom Reilly did, which will be as much a part of his legacy as his 400 wins and numerous championships. Under Reilly’s watch, Ocean played in eight Shore Conference Tournament finals, won four of them and also won an overall Group III championship in 1996. Ocean last won the SCT in 2012, reached the final in 2015 and also won the Central Jersey Group III championship in 2015.

Terlecsky – who was an All-Shore player for Reilly on Ocean’s first SCT championship team in 1994 – is tasked with taking over for his former coach, Reilly, who took the head women’s coaching position at Washington College. Reilly didn’t exactly leave the cupboard bare at Ocean, either. Although light on seniors, the Spartans have a wealth of junior talent that will make them contenders for conference and state championships in each of the next two seasons. While Terlecsky has big shoes to fill, he’ll have a great chance to hit the ground running thanks to this group of juniors.

Matt Thorsheim congratulates returning junior Jack Gill on a goal during action last year. (Photo by Matt Manley)

4. Is CBA’s reload enough to hang another banner this year?

The last time CBA had to follow up a state championship season, the Colts suffered the program’s first and only losing season in 2012. That is a highly unlikely outcome in 2017, but it’s a reminder that the Shore’s most decorated soccer program is not guaranteed anything by right.

CBA returns just one starter from 2016, but that is one more than it did in 2012. John Askin was an underrated member of the CBA back line because of all the Division I senior talent around him and will be a senior leader on this year’s team. The Colts also brought two sophomores off the bench in Jack Gill and Joe Lozowski who combined for 15 goals. That’s more experience and production that the 2012 had going in, plus they still have a reserve of talent at the lower levels that should allow them to quickly and effectively fill open lineup spots, much like Freehold Township did last season.

Speaking of Freehold Township, the Patriots represent one of the primary threats to CBA’s reign atop A North and they also lost some key players – most notably All-Shore midfielder Adrian Barajas. Given the loss of talent for the other top teams in the division, CBA should at least stay in within striking distance of a division title and any A North team that is competing for a division title is a potential contender in the SCT.

5. Can the bottom half of the conference’s two large-school divisions rise up in 2017?

The standings in Class A North and A South can often be misleading because while the teams at the bottom of the standings might have ugly records attached to them, they are often decent overall teams. The top teams in those divisions over the years have been so successful that even capable teams find it hard to keep up with the field.

It also means that if one of those teams can return enough talent from one year to the next, it can make a move to the top half of the standings in one of the Shore’s top divisions. Last year, Manalapan, Freehold Boro, Howell and Neptune were the bottom four teams in Class A North and all four return a noteworthy amount of talent. Neptune, for instance, finished last in A North and returns nearly all of its scoring – led by juniors Wilby Alfred and McKenna Church. Manalapan, meanwhile, brings back a deep junior class that contributed to a Braves team that got hot during the NJSIAA Tournament.

In A South, Jackson Memorial, Brick, Brick Memorial and Toms River East were the bottom four in 2016 and all four have reason for optimism a year later. Jackson Memorial returns a roster heavy on juniors and sophomores who have already produced, while Brick, Brick Memorial and Toms River East all return most of their scoring. Toms River East also brings in senior goalkeeper Trevor Zabilowicz after Zabilowicz opted to play academy soccer last year. Toms River South, Toms River North and Central all graduated their top scorer, so the door is open for at least one of the bottom-half teams from 2016 to make a move.

6. Are the pieces finally in place at Long Branch?

Since reaching the Central Jersey Group II final with a senior-laden team in 2012, Long Branch has hosted only one NJSIAA Tournament game and is 2-4 in the state playoffs overall. The Green Wave has proven to be a tough out in the tournament, knocking off No. 5 Wall as a No. 12 seed in CJ III in 2014 and taking top-seeded Toms River South to a shootout as a No. 16 seed last year. One of the reasons Long Branch has had to play the role of underdog is because of some struggles during the regular season, which is something the Green Wave are intent on changing this year.

With two top scorers returning in Venancio Fernandes and Renan Acevedo plus Juan Carlos Merino back after missing last year while playing in the New York Red Bull Developmental Academy, the Green Wave are set up to be dangerous from Day 1. Health has also been a variable for Long Branch over the last four years and the trio will have to stay on the field, but as long as the Green Wave have a full roster heading into late October, they will be a factor in every tournament.

7. Can Toms River South keep its run going?

Toms River South is in the midst of the best three-year run in the history of its boys soccer program. The Indians have won three consecutive Class A South titles, reached an NJSIAA sectional final each of the last three seasons and have been to each of the last two Group III championship games. They were in a similar situation in 2011 after winning the Group IV title in 2009 and reaching the SCT semifinals in 2010, but could not recreate the same level of success until winning A South again in 2014. Both the 2011 team and 2017 teams return some quality players from the previous year, but replacing a strong senior class will be paramount. Junior Clem Slavik and seniors Matt Babcock and Dustin Urbaczek will look to do the heavy lifting after starting and producing last year.

Asbury Park senior Davensky JoinVilmar leaps for the ball with Ranney's Brendan Wall (left) shadowing him. (Photo by Matt Manley)

8. Does Asbury Park have more magic left?

For the first time in more than three decades, Asbury Park won a division title and an NJSIAA sectional title and did so on the heels of a five-win season in 2015. An 18-win season that culminated in a Central Jersey Group I title marked a remarkable one-year turnaround for a group of players that was essentially the same as the one that won just five games a year earlier.

While the Blue Bishops do lose a fair amount of scoring as well as starting goalkeeper Joey Johnson from last year, they bring back enough talent to chase the same goals this season. Davensky JoinVilmar was the player of the year in B Central and will be one of the Shore’s top returning players. He is also one of seven returning starters for Asbury Park, which also has improved its turnout over the last two years and should have enough depth to find suitable replacements.

The x-factor for Asbury Park will be how it handles a full season of being a marked team in B Central. The Blue Bishops were an unquestionable underdog last year, but that won’t be the case now that the entire conference knows they are a legitimately capable team. In many ways, they have a chance to be better, but getting back to 18 wins, an unbeaten divisional record and another sectional title will be even more challenging this year.

9. After facing program elimination, will Lakewood respond with a special season?

The Lakewood School District’s budgetary issues nearly led to the elimination of the athletic department, which would have meant the Lakewood High School boys soccer team would not have had a chance to follow up on a promising finish to the 2016 season. Lakewood rallied to make the Shore Conference Tournament by winning eight of 10 games before the cutoff and took Central Regional to penalty kicks in its only SCT game.

The finish to the season will have the Piners hungry for more in 2017 considering just about the whole team is set to return. Anthony Calixto was an All-Division player as a junior thanks to a 15-goal season, while Junior Bravo emerged as a versatile defender. Point Boro and Pinelands lost a significant amount of scoring, so Lakewood has a real chance to close the gap this year. That would be a pretty gripping story considering there was a time when people in the school wondered if there would be a season at all.

10. Who is/are the sleeper team(s) in the Shore Conference?

It’s not often a team from outside the preseason top 10 is left standing late in the Shore Conference Tournament, but it has happened before. On top of that, the NJSIAA Tournament always produces a few surprise runs, much like Rumson-Fair Haven and Manalapan authored last year as double-digit seeds. Even Asbury Park – a No. 1 seed in Central Jersey Group I – could be described as such after winning only five games in 2015 and going 30-plus years without a state or division title.

The top 10 is still under construction but here are a list of teams that have at least some of the ingredients for a surprise run at some point this season.

Southern – The Rams made significant strides last season and return their top two scorers, Ethan Leming and Joe Kiernan. For Southern, a Class A South title is a real possibility, which would constitute a pretty sizable two-year turnaround under second-year coach Guy Lockwood.

Middletown South – Middletown South could end up having a year similar to Southern’s 2016 campaign. The Eagles have most of their 2016 contributors back, a new head coach, and some momentum after improving from 2015 to 2016. With Ocean and Long Branch looking particularly formidable, a division title is a long shot, but Middletown South has a chance to break into the top four of B North and hit their stride going into the postseason.

Pinelands – The Wildcats were a game away from winning B South last year, so their profile is different from that of Southern and Middletown South. A B South title and postseason success, however, would be noteworthy considering Pinelands rode B South player of the year Matt O’Connell and his 32 goals last year and O’Connell graduated in the spring. With a skilled group of returnees – most of which are juniors – Pinelands figures to be in the mix for the B South title again and already proved it could compete in the postseason without O’Connell after the star forward’s season ended prematurely due to a back injury.

Lakewood – Not only would a division title be Lakewood’s first in 11 years, but it would also come after a summer of uncertainty for the entire athletic program. Nobody in B South will be caught off guard by the Piners this year after they stormed into the SCT last year, but a division title and/or a strong postseason showing would still make for quite the story.

Neptune – The Scarlet Fliers could not measure up to the A North schedule last year, but the experience will no doubt pay dividends at some point for what was a very young team. Even this coming year, Neptune will rely on a talented junior duo of Wilby Alfred and McKenna Church, so if the supporting cast can improve along with the two juniors, Neptune will have a chance to climb up the standings in what is traditionally the Shore’s toughest division. Finishing in the top four in A North this year is probably a reach for 2017, but a state tournament run could be a real possibility if the Scarlet Fliers can survive the A North grind.

The Bricks – Brick Memorial got off to a nightmare start in 2016 and things never turned around for the Mustangs, while Brick took a step in the right direction after some years in the A South wilderness. Brick Memorial returns a solid core of seniors led by talented scorer Erik Fatovic (13 goals in 2016), while Brick brings back 15-goal scorer Frank Firrito. A South looks like it will be pretty balanced from top-to-bottom, so any team with a scorer like Fatovic or Firrito that can keep the game close  could do some damage.

 

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