Boys Soccer – Breaking Down the SCT Field: 1-10
The Shore Conference Boys Soccer Tournament is scheduled to begin Thursday afternoon, weather permitting, and this year’s field is packed with a whopping 30 teams. While it remains to be seen if more teams means more upsets, it does technically (and obviously) make for more potential champions. There are a few teams in the field that don’t seem to have much of a chance to make it out of the first round, but sources have indicated that all teams will be allowed to field 11 players and start their games tied at zero.
That being the case, every team has some measure of a chance to make a run, and over the next 24 hours, you can read one man’s interpretation of the field and how each of its teams stack up against the rest. The 30 teams will be ranked, in descending order, on their chances to win the whole thing, or at least get to the semifinals in Neptune. Think of it as handicapping by a guy who does not know how to create mathematically functional odds.
We’ll start with the first 10 in the field, followed by the next 10, and then the top 10. Seeding has very little to do with the list; the most important factors are how a team is playing, how well a team is likely to play and, most notably, the ever-important draw. The more manageable the path to the semifinals, the better the odds.
You have seen the long shots and the potential Cinderella stories. Now, it is time to break down the major players in this year's SCT.
10. Jackson Memorial
First-Round Opponent: No. 26 Pinelands
Reason to Believe: Since losing four out of five games to drop to 4-5-1, Jackson Memorial has gone 7-0-1 over its last eight while allowing only two goals during that stretch. The Jaguars typically surrender a majority of the possession during a game, but this version of Jackson Memorial has a balanced scoring attack in front of its usual cast of big midfielders and athletic defenders. First-round opponent Pinelands has had a breakthrough season in Class B South, but the Wildcats haven’t been able to beat either of the top two teams in the division – Point Boro and Central. Jackson Memorial is, at the very least, on that level, so Jackson enters the heavy favorite. Inexperienced Matawan and Manasquan teams are playing for the right to face Jackson Memorial in the round of 16, so the Jaguars will likely have the edge again in a second game. Manalapan will be a difficult task should Jackson make it that far, but the Jaguars have the kind of ingredients that might lead to an upset of the defending champs. If Jackson Memorial can beat the best, it can probably beat anybody else.
Outlook: Because the Jaguars give up possession and don’t always rack up goals, they will be in for a battle should Matawan come to town in the round of 16. With that being said, Jackson Memorial has discovered the winning formula lately and if it continues to serve the Jaguars well, they could very well give Manalapan a hard time. Any team that can beat Manalapan on the road can win the tournament, so Jackson Memorial is likely to get a chance to prove its mettle.
9. Point Boro
First-Round Opponent: No. 24 St. Rose
Reason to Believe: The Shore’s longest winning streak belongs to Point Boro, and the Panthers’ draw in the SCT gives them a chance to extend that streak beyond the current 13 games and into the mid-teens. Since losing to Central, 2-0, on Sept. 16, Point Boro has yet to lose and with St. Rose coming to Point Pleasant in round one, the Panthers should have an edge over a Purple Roses team that had trouble scoring against the other division champions on its schedule – Shore and Wall. The Panthers are not completely clear of an upset, but a demonstrable prowess in one-goal games should give Point Boro some confidence when things are tight. Point Boro has a diverse array of scorers now that it has a healthy roster, so the Panthers will have a good shot to win at Brick Memorial. The reason they come in ahead of Brick Memorial on this list is because it appears the Panthers have a more favorable first-round draw.
Outlook: The only reason for pause when it comes to Point Boro is the Panthers have not played any Shore Conference teams outside of Class B South, and Central is the only team from the division that both made the tournament and won a game against a Shore Conference team from another division. B South could very well be a sleeping giant considering the scoring that Central offers and the run that Point Boro is on, but that will have to be a revelation for the coming week rather than a projectable trend. Most teams that win 13 games in a row have proven a whole lot, but considering B South’s quiet showing in this tournament in recent years, the SCT will be a proving ground for the Panthers.
8. Red Bank
First-Round Opponent: No. 19 Marlboro
Reason to Believe: If there is any doubt that Red Bank should strike fear into the hearts of higher seeds, one need only to refer to last season when the No. 20 Bucs took out Howell in the first round before taking No. 4 Toms River North to penalty kicks in the round of 16 and then ultimately falling. The Bucs have as much scoring punch as anybody in the tournament, with Sam MacPherson emerging as a steady goal-scoring complement to Justin Gilson. As for this year, the Bucs have two wins over No. 4 seed Wall, including a 3-0 win at home. Marlboro will be a game first-round opponent based on its difficult regular-season schedule, and Red Bank has had some issues defending at different points this season. This list, though, is based mostly on potential and few teams have the ceiling that Red Bank has. If the Bucs can avoid stubbing their toe in the first round and can get into underdog mode against Toms River North and potentially CBA, Red Bank can build on its mini-run from a year ago.
Outlook: A loss to Red Bank Catholic serves as a reminder to the Bucs that a fired up underdog can very easily take them down, and how well they remember that lesson may determine whether a potential run through the SCT field ever gets off the ground. A potential round-of-16 game at Toms River North has a chance to be a seven-goal type of game with the way both of those teams can score and even against defensive stalwarts like CBA and Freehold Township, Red Bank can score goals.
7. Toms River North
First-Round Opponent: No. 30 Asbury Park
Reason to Believe: Of the top seeds, Toms River North has the most difficult path to the semifinals because of potential meetings with Red Bank and either CBA or Freehold Township. Even Asbury Park presents a tricky challenge for the Mariners, who narrowly escaped the Blue Bishops in the first round two years ago. Toms River North is hoping it will have a healthy Ryan Cheslock, who has been dealing with a knee issue over the last several weeks. When healthy, he is the team’s top offensive threat, and although junior Joey Hertgen has come on strong, they will need plenty of scoring to be able to counter a team like Red Bank, CBA or Manalapan, which could be the order of opponents for the Mariners. There is a reason Toms River North is a No. 3 seed and the performance and talent that got the Mariners this far can carry them through a stretch of games like that.
Outlook: Ultimately, Toms River North’s draw won’t do the Mariners any favors. In all fairness, this should have been the No. 5 seed rather than No. 3 and a seed a couple spots down probably would have benefited them. As last year showed, a game against Red Bank should be a dead heat on the Toms River turf, while a match-up with either CBA or Freehold Township would tilt in Toms River North’s favor because of that turf. Expect Toms River North to be in survival mode throughout their stay in the tournament and while that is a difficult life to live, it also does not spell doom for a good, battle-tested team.
6. Freehold Twp.
First-Round Opponent: No. 22 Colts Neck
Reason to Believe: The No. 11 seed was probably a generous one for a Freehold Township team that nearly went into the tournament with just one win over a tournament team. In the end, though, the seed does fit nicely, not only because the Patriots ended up with four wins over the SCT field (thanks to Marlboro and Freehold qualifying), but also because the Patriots are deep enough and talented enough to beat any team in the field. Freehold Township has a win at CBA, tied Manalapan and finished in third place in the always-difficult Class A North. The reason they come in at No. 6 on this list is because of that talent, and the strong showing against CBA this season. With a dangerous Red Bank team potentially playing at No. 3 Toms River North, Freehold Township could very well end up with a second home game in the quarterfinals, with the prerequisite of beating CBA on the road for a second team.
Outlook: It all comes down to finishing, which is not a problem unique to Freehold Township. There are plenty of teams in the field who could be better with some better creativity up top, but that is an overall skill that is required of a team with designs of winning a championship of some kind. While there may not be one standout in that department, Freehold Township has a lot of options to potentially get hot in a tournament setting. The Patriots should patch things up enough to keep opponents from scoring more than a goal, but they will have to get creative around the opposing net in order to live up to their expectations.
5. Christian Brothers Academy
First-Round Opponent: No. 27 Donovan Catholic
Reason to Believe: In case you haven’t been listening to its student section for the last couple decades, no matter the circumstance, the Colts believe that they will win. CBA lost a chance at the No. 1 seed when it dropped a non-divisional home game to Holmdel on Monday and with that loss comes a series of questions about possible problems that CBA might encounter during a tournament. Since the loss happened on the day of the seeding meeting, it is fresh in the minds of many, but it unfairly overshadows the nine-game unbeaten streak that the Colts had put together in Class A North. CBA found a way to beat Freehold Township on the road and Manalapan at home, not to mention cooling off Middletown North when the Lions were streaking. Donovan Catholic will have a chip on its shoulder in the first round, but the Colts have every reason to like their chances in that one, as well as in any game they play during the tournament.
Outlook: This CBA team is carrying some baggage from last year, when it lost a 1-0 decision at home to Wall in the round of 16. That was a pretty young Colts group and it’s likely that they will learn from it as the No. 6 seed for the second straight year. A third meeting with Freehold Township will be a toss-up game if there ever was one, but despite the early challenge, CBA has all the ingredients to get back to Neptune after a two-year layoff.
First-Round Opponent: No. 28 Point Beach
Reason to Believe: For some, the Blue Devils have a reputation as a team that lays waste to an easy schedule and is not up to the task of beating the big boys in the SCT. It’s not quite that simple. While Shore is still trying to break through and get into the SCT semifinals, the Blue Devils have had several instances in which they have either beaten teams on the road or pushed them to the brink. This Shore team has not only dominated its division, but it has also dominated two teams from bigger divisions in Middletown North and Ocean. It also is one of the more balanced, cohesive, experienced lineups of the past several years and if the Blue Devils did need any help, they get some in this draw. While a fully-equipped Central team will be a challenge for Shore, Central is in a similar position as a team that has a lot of wins against lesser teams. The team that would probably be the toughest to clear on the way to the SCT semifinals is Wall, which has a roster full of players with experience winning big games. Wall is not, however, invincible and with a winnable couple of games to start the run, Shore should get a chance to prove itself against one of the preseason favorites.
Outlook: The Blue Devils enter the tournament healthy, confident and, for the most part, prepared for anything. While their schedule is easier than most of the teams in this tournament, none of that matters now. All that matters is that Shore has dominated the tournament teams that it has played, which means it can do it again. A trip to the quarterfinals would be a good run for Shore regardless of the outcome during that round, but to truly bury the stigma of a B Central bully, the Blue Devils will need to earn a ticket to Neptune.
First-Round Opponent: No. 29 Jackson Liberty
Reason to Believe: This Wall team entered the season with as much buzz surrounding it as any team in the Shore Conference and although there have been some bumps in the road, the Crimson Knights are once again primed for a big postseason. There are a good number of holdovers from last year’s SCT quarterfinalist team, one that also got off to a pedestrian start before catching fire in the postseason. In addition to having a roster capable of winning the tournament, the Crimson Knights also have a nice draw. Jackson Liberty is a pretty dangerous team for a No. 29 seed and Long Branch is as dangerous as it gets at No. 20, but Wall has owned Long Branch this year in divisional play and Jackson Liberty has had a tough time closing out close games despite its scoring prowess. The Crimson Knights will be on their home field until the games move to a neutral site and after getting so close to a trip to Neptune and later an NJSIAA sectional title, this Wall team is on a mission.
Outlook: Jackson Liberty really is a tough opponent to match up with in the first round and Wall likely won’t be able to sleep walk through that game. A loss would still be a surprise, but Wall does not get a pass into the next round. Assuming Wall wins its opener, a Long Branch or Middletown North match-up appears to be favorable, but Middletown North has been a giant-slayer all year and Long Branch has a talented roster with a familiarity with Wall. If Wall plays like it did during last year’s postseason, it should end up at Neptune for the first time since 2005.
2. Toms River South
First-Round Opponent: Bye; Winner of (17) Freehold/(16) Ocean winner in Round of 16
Reason to Believe: If you can’t believe in the No. 1 seed, who can you believe in? Well, besides the No. 1 team on this list, the answer is “nobody.” Toms River South has been as consistent as a team in its position can be and when the game is big, Toms River South has showed up. The Indians are built for the turf and as the No. 1 seed, they will not have to play on a natural surface at any point in the tournament. Even if they had to, they have shown they can win under the circumstances by winning at Jackson Memorial. If there is one team standing in Toms River South’s way, it is Ocean. The Spartans are no guarantee to make it to a round-of-16 match with Toms River South, but if it happens, Ocean goes into the game with the Indians’ number. Toms River South lost to Ocean in each of the last two SCT rounds of 16, including an 8-2 drubbing in 2012. The difference this year is Toms River South will be at home and if the Indians can get by that round, a Brick Memorial team that Toms River South outscored 8-2 in two meetings this year might be the only thing keeping the Indians from making their first trip to Neptune since 2010.
Outlook: The Ocean match-up would be a fascinating one for the reasons stated above, but so would a showdown with a streaking Freehold team. Toms River South has not really dominated opponents lately, so that first game could be interesting, even if the Indians have the experience to survive in the end. The one team Toms River South has dominated this year is Brick Memorial, which is strange considering the Mustangs beat the Indians twice last year with similar rosters on each side. If Toms River South gets by the round of 16, look for the Indians to represent the No. 1 seed and A South by reaching the semifinals.
First-Round Opponent: Bye; Winner of (18) Toms River East/(15) Holmdel winner in Round of 16
Reason to Believe: The defending Shore Conference Tournament champion is experiencing its first real rough patch of the last two years. Manalapan lost three games last year, but never with the level of frustration that the last couple of games have carried. During the second trip through the division, Manalapan lost to Middletown North, tied Freehold Township in a scoreless game, lost to CBA and tied Freehold. Both losses were one-goal decisions and the CBA loss and Freehold tie were both decided, in large part, by penalty kicks. That finish had to leave a sour taste in the Braves’ mouths, but it will also likely give Manalapan a bit of a chip in its shoulder now that the tournaments are underway. Holmdel is a very difficult potential first game and Jackson Memorial is exactly the type of team that can handle Manalapan’s small field and physicality, but the Braves are built to win any type of game. They are fast, skilled, physical, athletic and, up until recently, very composed. While there are teams in the field that can beat Manalapan, to a certain extent, Manalapan will have to help them for that to happen.
Outlook: As long as these last couple of weeks are just an aberration, a small bump in the road that ultimately leads back to Neptune, the Braves should be able to survive a pretty challenging draw. CBA and Freehold Township could be waiting for Manalapan in the SCT semis, and if not, Toms River North and Red Bank would be different types of challenges standing between the Braves and the championship game. As long as the Braves play to their strengths and show the same type of composure they showed in winning the championship last year, it’s hard to see anyone keeping them from at least getting back to Neptune.