Boys Soccer – NJSIAA Preview: Central Jersey
Fresh on the heels of one of the more unpredictable Shore Conference Tournaments in recent memory, the NJSIAA Tournament is up next, with the opening round of the boys sectional playoffs beginning on Monday. Thirty-five Shore Conference teams in nine different sections qualified for the tournament, with the Shore Conference earning No. 1 seeds in Central Jersey Groups I and II and the No. 2 seed in Central Jersey Group IV and South Jersey Group III.
Last year, no boys soccer teams won a sectional title, and while that is not so uncommon so as to call it a rarity, it is uncommon enough to expect some team to hoist a trophy on Nov. 13. The most likely source of a championship is out of the quartet of public school sections in Central Jersey, which is home to 21 of the 35 Shore teams in the field, including the two No. 1 seeds. Below is a quick breakdown of the four Central Jersey brackets, predictions included. Check back tomorrow morning for a preview of the South Jersey public and non-public brackets.
Shore Teams in the Field: No. 2 Manalapan, No. 7 Brick Memorial, No. 9 Freehold Twp., No. 11 Colts Neck, No. 13 Marlboro
Defending Champion: Hunterdon Central
Top Seed: Montgomery
Favorite: Monroe. Picking between the three Greater Middlesex Conference teams in the top five – South Brunswick, Monroe and East Brunswick – depends on the day as much as anything, as all three have played competitive games against one another. Monroe has had pretty consistent success in the state playoffs, while South Brunswick was the sleeper of CJ IV last year as a No. 8 seed. Because of all of those battles, as well as the recent success of the GMC, one of Monroe or East Brunswick is more likely to come out of the top half of the bracket than No. 1 Montgomery. Manalapan is certainly in the discussion as well, but the Braves have found scoring a little harder to come by lately.
Sleeper Team: Freehold Township. There are lots of candidates for this label every year because every few years, CJ IV gets turned completely upside down. No seed is safe in the first round, and teams like Marlboro and Freehold have shown they can play that role. Because of the nature of the bracket, a sleeper in CJ IV should carry with it a higher standard, and in this case, Freehold Township is a team that could potentially play every game on the road and still win the entire bracket. The Patriots play better away from home and just rolled through the Shore Conference Tournament as a No. 11 seed. The state tournament is usually not kind to public school SCT champs, but Freehold Township has found something.
Prediction: Monroe over Manalapan. The No. 2 seed did not suit Manalapan well in the SCT, but the Braves had a positive air about them walking off the field after losing to Freehold Township. They did not seem overwhelmed by the loss and for a team that has won an SCT and not a state title, they know what the goal is. Ultimately, this bracket is too good to assume any particular team is going to survive, so the safest bet is to pick schedules and conferences. The GMC has been on its game lately and one of those teams looks primed to emerge with a sectional title.
Shore Teams in the Field: No. 5 Wall, No. 6 Red Bank, No. 8 Middletown North, No. 10 Ocean, No. 12 Long Branch, No. 13 Jackson Liberty
Defending Champion: Allentown
Top Seed: Princeton
Favorite: Princeton. Give Princeton home-field advantage throughout the sectional playoffs, and the Little Tigers usually come up big. The top four seeds in the bracket are all from Mercer County and they have all played one another with very mixed, very close results. The home turf should suit Princeton well, but the Tigers could end up playing Hopewell Valley, followed by one of Allentown, Wall or Long Branch just to get to the final. This is a very good, deep bracket without a juggernaut team, so things could get wild.
Sleeper Team: Ocean. Of all the double-digit seeds, Long Branch is likely the best one. The problem Long Branch faces is that the Green Wave have had no answer against Wall, its first-round opponent. Wall is 2-0-1 against Long Branch this year, with a penalty shootout win in the Shore Conference Tournament. Couple that match-up with a potential path of Allentown and Princeton to follow, and it seems daunting. Ocean, on the other hand, has a slightly more manageable path, starting with a game at New Brunswick. Games at Steinert or Hightstown could do the Spartans in, but with two very dangerous forwards, Ocean will scare some teams.
Prediction: Princeton over Hightstown. The power points gave the Shore teams a pretty tough draw in CJ III, and the result will likely be an all-Mercer final. With that being said, Wall made the run to the final last year, Red Bank is still a dangerous team, Middletown North has beaten very good teams, Ocean has two standout finishers and Long Branch can be overwhelmingly talented at times. Any one of those teams has proven capable of winning the bracket, but that bracket is stacked against them.
Shore Teams in the Field: No. 1 Point Boro, No. 3 Matawan, No. 4 Manasquan, No. 7 Holmdel, No. 11 Rumson-Fair Haven, No. 12 Monmouth, No. 16 Raritan
Defending Champion: Delran
Top Seed: Point Boro
Favorite: No. 2 Delran. The defending sectional champs won the tournament as a No. 4 seed last year, taking out Holmdel in penalty kicks in the semifinals and Rumson-Fair Haven in the championship. With the exception of Holmdel, no team in the CJ II field has the pedigree that Delran has and the Bears will be at home until at least the final. If there is cause for reservation with Delran, it is in the disparity between the two sides of the field. The bottom half of the bracket is far more difficult than the top half, with the likes of Matawan, Holmdel and a live No. 14 seed Bordentown (more on them in a second) with which to contend. That is good news for someone in the top half, but with Point Boro’s propensity for close games and struggles outside of Class B South, not even the No. 1 seed looks like a sure thing.
Sleeper Team: Governor Livingston. Bordentown might be the best double-digit seed in the field, but the road to the final will be very tough for the Scotties to navigate. Governor Livingston, meanwhile, is a night-and-day team that is a poor 4-16 overall, but with quality wins over Westfield and North Plainfield. Another team to keep an eye on: Raritan. The Rockets are very young, barely qualified for the field and are still probably a year or two away from making some real noise, but they also lost a lot of close games this year and will play a top-seeded Point Boro team that has won plenty of them. They should be in the game for all 80 minutes and without any powerhouses on their side of the bracket, the Rockets could conceivably be the 16 seed that breaks the bracket. The same rules apply for Monmouth, although a No. 12 seed in the final would not be as momentous as a No. 16.
Prediction: Delran over Point Boro. This bracket is laid out nicely for Point Boro and if this is not the year, it’s hard to see another opportunity like this coming around in the near future. Central Jersey Group II is a very competitive bracket and the traditional, more proven powers are all on the opposite side of the bracket from the Panthers. Perhaps the team on the other side of the field in the final is too much for Point Boro, but if that side of the bracket cannibalizes itself and Point Boro has the luxury of a home championship game, then all bets are off. Holmdel is always a team to circle for the Shore Conference, but the Hornets have been far too inconsistent to bet on, even if they are too good to completely count out.
Shore Teams in the Field: No. 1 Shore, No. 10 Asbury Park, No. 13 Point Beach
Defending Champion: New Egypt
Top Seed: Shore
Favorite: New Egypt. Shore has as much claim to the imaginary title of “favorite,” but with a 2013 sectional title under their belt, the Warriors have to be the favorite. One could make the case that Shore, as the No. 1 seed, is the most likely winner, but there really are not any options beyond those two teams.
Sleeper Team: Point Beach. South River is much better than a No. 14 team and is probably close to a championship-caliber team than Point Beach is, but the Rams also have to play a pretty solid Bound Brook team, while Point Beach faces a more beatable South Amboy side in the first round. The Garnet Gulls haven’t shown they have enough fire power to beat Shore, but they have played them close on the scoreboard in two of the three meetings between the teams. It’s not likely that any team other than Shore or New Egypt ends up in the final, but out of the double-digit seeds in the field, Point Beach is the most likely to reach the semifinals.
Prediction: Shore over New Egypt. See? I don’t totally doubt the Shore Conference. This should be a great championship game and it would take a major upset to prevent it from happening. Two of the top scorers in the state – Shore junior J.T. Kessler (31 goals) and New Egypt senior Nick Sample (28 goals) – will square off on one of the best playing surfaces around and the winner would be a strong possibility to move on to the state final, quite possibly against Group I power Harrison.