At the beginning of the 2016 season, there was no noubt who the No. 1 team in the Shore Conference was and not only did Christian Brothers Academy live up to the No. 1 billing in the Shore; the Colts also finished No. 1 in the state.

With CBA graduating 10 starters from that team, the Shore Conference is back in play for a whole lot of teams – the Colts included. That does not, however, mean there is no clear No. 1 to open the year. Among the coaches who have seen a handful of potential No. 1 teams play, there is widespread agreement on which team has the most talented roster as the kickoff to the season approaches.


1. Holmdel

This is the most talented Holmdel team since the 2010 squad that went 22-1 and won the NJSIAA Group III championship and that kind of season is essentially what the expectation is for the Hornets this year. In addition to bringing back a talented roster from a year ago, Holmdel also welcomes back senior standout Justin McStay, who was the leading scorer on the Hornets’ Group II runner-up team as a sophomore in 2015, plus two more academy transfers in Cyrus Darvish and Matt Leone. With McStay and junior Anthony Arena up top, Holmdel will be very hard to stop.

Holmdel players from left to right: Justin McStay, Anthony Arena, Torre Avitabile, Mikey Neff and Joe Arena. (Photo by Steve Meyer)

2. Toms River South

No. 2 in the Shore is up for grabs and Toms River South is as safe a bet as any. The Indians lost a lot of scoring and three quality defenders, but they bring back a talented, experienced midfield and a pedigree of winning that has really been cemented since the program won its first state title in 2009. Although the Indians have some holes to plug, this might be their best opportunity yet to add a Shore Conference Tournament trophy to their collection of hardware.

3. Freehold Township

While Freehold Township lost some significant talent from last year’s team, the Patriots also had one of the deepest rosters in the entire Shore Conference and that depth is likely to reveal itself this year. Players like Chris Orrico, Kevin Finn, Josh Cagan, Jimmy Farrell and Jon Finocchiaro were all contributors last year and all of them will have to raise their levels of play this year to help Freehold Township emerge with its first outright A North title since 2008.

4. Ocean

With a talented junior class led by Santieno Harding, James Schutz and Erick Gonsalez, Ocean might be a year away from a huge season. As it is, the Spartans have a chance to do serious damage in the Shore Conference and in Group III right now if they can overcome the loss of six senior starters. They would also like to get the taste of a disappointing postseason out of their collective mouth, one that included a 4-1 loss to Holmdel in the SCT round of 16 and a Central Jersey Group III quarterfinal loss at home to Allentown.

5. Christian Brothers Academy

The Colts graduated 10 starters from their 24-1 state championships team from a year ago and the overhaul bears at least some resemblance to 2012, when CBA graduated 17 seniors from a 21-0 team in 2011 and suffered the only losing season in the four decades that Dan Keane was the coach. This team should be much different than that one because on top of promoting some varsity-ready players to the varsity, CBA returns a senior center back in John Askin and two prove junior scorers in Jack Gill and Joe Lozowski – both of whom came off the bench as sophomores.

6. Long Branch

With the players Long Branch has on the attack, this might be a conservative ranking. Juan Carlos Merino returns after taking last year off to play for Red Bull Academy and will join with Venancio Fernandes (19 goals) and Renan Azevedo to form as good of a returning offensive trio as there is in the Shore Conference. The only reason for pause with Long Branch is it is coming off a losing season and will be unproven in goal.

7. Manalapan

The Braves won two games as a No. 15 seed in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV Tournament and will roll into 2017 with some momentum of that run and a bunch of players who were part of it. Leading scorer Rocky Garretson graduated and leaves a void in the middle of the field, but the Braves have a strong group of juniors that is somewhat reminiscent of the group of juniors who led Manalapan to the SCT championship in 2013 and to a Central Jersey Group IV title as seniors in 2014.

8. Southern

It would take quite a bit of time to comb through the archives and find the last time Southern opened the season as a top 10 team, but the distinction is well-deserved after a turnaround season during Guy Lockwood’s first year as head coach. Southern returns its two leading scorers from last year in Joe Kiernan and Ethan Leming – who head up a strong collection of seniors. Going from four wins to 12 wins in one year was a great accomplishment but the real challenge will be going from a mid-table team to a division champion and contender in the postseason tournaments.

9. Toms River North

After reaching the SCT semifinals a year ago for the first time since 2011, the Mariners return a team heavy on junior, a lot of whom played key roles as sophomores a year ago. In terms of sheer volume of returnees, Toms River North might have be the best-suited team to end Toms River South’s three-year run as Class A South champion.

10. Lacey

The Lions return 29 of their 33 goals from a year ago and with a healthy Dylan Fiedler in the lineup this season, they should have a much more dangerous attack. Fiedler joins top scorers Reilly Hunt (11 goals), Kevin Miller (10 goals) and Kip Byrne (five goals and 10 assists) on the offense and if the defense can play respectable, as it did a year ago, Lacey will be tough to beat in Class B South and beyond.


Other Teams to Watch

Colts Neck – Losing Louis Reale hurts, but the Cougars have a nice nucleus and some incoming talent.

Raritan – The Rockets lost a lot from last year’s division co-champion, but still retain some key pieces as well. They will also have two chances to knock off the preseason No. 1 team at the Shore.

Point Pleasant Boro – All Point Boro does is win: the Panthers have won at least a share of six consecutive Class B South titles and have the look of a team that can do it again.

Freehold Boro – The Colonials had a disappointing 2016 in a tough A North division, but are poised for a bounceback now that some of the top teams from last year lost significant talent.

Wall – The Crimson Knights lost their star in Dan Frisch-Harmon, but they are never out of the division title discussion.

Rumson-Fair Haven – The return of Owen Greengrove will provide a boost to a team that reached the CJ II final as a No. 13 seed last year.

Manasquan – The Warriors will be a tough, defensive-minded team that could challenge for a top 10 spot if the scoring comes along quickly.

Middletown North – Liam McGregor and Ryan Binn will have to shoulder a lot of the load this year, but there are far worse players you could ask to do the job.

Pinelands – The Wildcats got a jump on playing without 32-goal scorer Matt O’Connell last year, so they are ready to change things up and stay in the B South hunt.


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