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The Shore Conference Tournament opens on Thursday afternoon and the field could not be any more wide open than it is. While Manalapan was chosen as the No. 1 seed without much fuss, the Braves are hardly the infallible top seed that Jackson Memorial was as an unbeaten team last year and CBA was as a Division I recruit factory in 2010 and 2011.

Last year’s tournament proved to be wide open as well and Ocean took advantage as the hot team that rode a top player and a red-hot goal-scoring attack to a championship. This year could bring about the same scenario, although there appear to be even more teams in play, with some very good teams seeded in the low teens looking to make a run.

Stafano Muniz (arm raised), Chris Colen (20) and Mason Chin (38) have all pulled their weight for top-seeded Manalapan. (Photo by Cliff Lavelle)

Even without a surprise team in the final, there is almost always a surprise early on. Here is a breakdown of the SCT field, with a look at each team’s chance to win the whole thing. The teams are listed by likelihood of winning the tournament – or at least reaching the semifinals – rather than their likelihood of winning one game.

 

The Longshots – These teams not only have tough first-round games, but the games on the other side of a first-round upset would be awfully difficult as well.

24 Jackson Liberty

If Jackson Liberty can go on the road and knock off Colts Neck, Lions junior center midfielder Adam Haidi might have tweeted the rallying cry of the tournament when he cyber-penned, “24 is the new 1,” upon learning the seeds. To go from 24 to 1, the Lions will have to win five, but must first past get past No. 9 with a perfect 80 minutes while most likely holding the Cougars to zero. Then, they’ll likely have to do it again against Freehold Township, then Manalapan, then Ocean or Toms River North, and so on and so forth.

18 Point Boro

In seven games against teams with .500 records or better, Point Boro has scored more than one goal just once – a 3-2 overtime win over Jackson Liberty on Sept. 28. Three of those games were wins against Central, Monsignor Donovan and aforementioned Jackson Liberty, so the Panthers know how to win a low-scoring game, especially with a quality goalkeeper in Gabe Pesante. All of those games came in September, with Monsignor Donovan and Jackson Liberty winning the second meeting between the teams, so we’ll see if Point Boro can rediscover the touch against Toms River East, which is one of the more dangerous teams in the tournament on the attack.

 

The Shorter-Distance-Longshots – Same situation as the first two teams, but these two squads have a little more firepower.

25 Asbury Park

Last year, Asbury Park nearly stunned Toms River North on the road in round one, albeit with an older team. The Blue Bishops have not played a single game outside of Class B Central, which might turn out to be a problem against one of the field’s more battle-tested teams in Freehold Township. A battle is indeed what it will be against Asbury Park, which features both a physical style and one of the conference’s most talented players in Jose Cesaire up top. Point Boro and Jackson Liberty could be better all-around teams than Asbury Park is, but having an x-factor like Cesaire makes the Bishops a wild card.

22 Central

The Golden Eagles can also score and they have also protected the net as well, as displayed by a 35-7 scoring margin this season. All of those goals have come within Class B South, so whether or not that dominance will play outside the division remains to be seen. Wall is a fast-improving team with a chance to make a deep run, so Central’s status as a potential sleeper is hampered by a tough first-round draw with Christian Brothers Academy awaiting the winner.

 

Early-Round Landmines – Teams with legitimate upset potential in the first round and an outside shot at a round-of-16 upset.

19 Red Bank Catholic

The Caseys draw a Monsignor Donovan side that has started to find the net of late, which is bad news for any team that has to play the Griffins because they also don’t allow goals either. The Caseys might have a better shot than most of the other double-digit seeds because of a strong goalkeeper in senior Nick Schweizer, a tough A Central schedule and a demonstrated knack for scoring in close games.

21 Point Beach

The Class B Central champions earned their title by finding a formula that works and sticking to it. Point Beach is a defensive team with a vastly improved keeper in Ryan Franzoni and a top goal scorer in Charlie Turro. Toms River South has been an inconsistent team this season and Point Beach has not, so if the Garnet Gulls can up the intensity against a battle-tested opponent, the Gulls might have a chance to pull the upset and take their best shot at defending champion Ocean.

20 Red Bank

Any team that starts the season 1-6 and qualifies for the Shore Conference Tournament has to be dangerous. The Bucs could not get out of their own way during a 0-5 start, but they chipped away over the next month to get back to .500, capped by a wild 7-5 win over Long Branch. Goalkeeper Luis Aguirre is questionable for round one with a shin contusion, but if he comes back at any point during the tournament, the Bucs could give teams some trouble with their balance and athleticism.

23 Shore

The second half of the season has not been kind to the Blue Devils, in part because the first half was not either. Shore lost junior center midfielder Lukas Montesinos to a dislocated elbow in a 3-0 win over Point Boro and has not been quite the same since. Still, the Blue Devils have played the likes of Don Bosco Prep, Holmdel, Rumson-Fair Haven and Ocean, so they are as tested as a team can be heading down to Lacey for round one.

 

The David Bowl – The winner gets a shot at Goliath in the round of 16.

17 Matawan

A game between schools from neighboring towns in the 16-17 game should make for quite the battle and this one is nothing short of a toss-up. The Huskies would probably have a little more trouble with Manalapan just because Raritan has shown it can go toe-to-toe with the likes of Rumson and Holmdel, while Matawan lost to Ocean twice. The Huskies could very well get by Raritan, though, thanks to some emerging talent and a quality keeper in Dylan Ahrens.

16 Raritan

Like Matawan, Raritan has also been strong in net with Alex Pruckowski and that strength came in handy during ties against Rumson and Holmdel. The Rockets’ chances against Matawan are pretty much 50-50, but those two draws against top-five teams should give them some confidence if they win a trip to Manalapan.

 

Teen Dreams – Double-digit seeds that should have high aspirations of making a deep run

12 Toms River South

The Indians have been all over the map this season. They beat Toms River East twice, split with Toms River North and went 1-0-1 against Jackson Memorial. On the flip side, they got swept by Lacey, were outscored 6-1 in two losses to Brick Memorial and were the only team to lose to Brick this season. It’s hard to figure which team shows up and given that, it’s hard to see Toms River South getting by defending champion Ocean in the round of 16.

15 Toms River East

The Raiders are in the same boat as the Indians, but have been better at scoring goals, which will help them in a potential showdown with Holmdel in the round of 16. Injuries could derail a potential Cinderella run, but if Toms River East gets a head of steam – starting with a win over Point Boro – the Raiders could be a team that gets hot at the right time. Then again, they could also go cold and bow out in the first round.

10 Lacey

There should probably be separate sub-groups to distinguish Lacey from its Class A South brethren because the Lions haven’t really had the consistency issues that have plagued Toms River South and East. The Lions have proven they can beat good teams on the road and on turf – Toms River North with the division still on the line and Toms River South in overtime. That bodes well for Lacey later in the tournament, but getting there won’t be easy because in its way stands two battle-tested teams in Shore and Jackson Memorial, the latter of which will host the round-of-16 game.

14 Monsignor Donovan

The Griffins present a scary proposition for any team to face: an organized defensive team with one of the best goalkeepers in the conference (Paul Kelly) and an offense that is starting to find the net. Red Bank Catholic will give Monsignor Donovan a game at the very least, but if the Griffins can get by round one, not only do they have the capability to beat Rumson but they also have the experience after knocking off No. 2 Colts Neck as the No. 15 seed last year.

13 Howell

Of all the teams in this group, it stands to reason that Howell would have the best chance to win this tournament because the Rebels already beat the tournament’s No. 1 seed. The recent 3-0 loss to Manalapan aside, Howell has played nothing but competitive games and they have three very good finishers in Leroy Anderson, Jeremy Hoops and Matt Szyarto. Keeping the ball out of the net will have to be a priority, but scoring it is less of a problem for Howell than it is a lot of other teams. The Rebels will be a tough draw for Toms River North should they get that far.

 

Division Survivors – These teams must face at least one division foe early on in order to pass through to the quarterfinals.

8 Freehold Township

It is quite possible that Colts Neck or Freehold Township could win the tournament by facing nothing but Class A North opponents after the first round. It is likely the Cougars or Patriots would play Manalapan in the quarterfinals and a surprising-but-realistic run by Howell could set up a semifinal match between A North teams again. If CBA were to reach the championship as a No. 6 seed, that would make it four straight A North games to win the title, which is no easy task. Then again, games against Toms River North, Ocean or one of Holmdel or Rumson would be no day at the beach either.

9 Colts Neck

Colts Neck has to have the edge over Freehold Township in the third meeting because the two teams are evenly matched and Freehold Township already won the first two meetings. It is hard to fathom one of these teams beating the other three straight times, which is what Freehold Township will likely have to do to reach the quarterfinals.

7 Jackson Memorial

The Jaguars may also have to get by a divisional opponent to reach the quarterfinals, but there won’t be an endless run of division opponents for Jackson like there could be for Colts Neck or Freehold Township. If Lacey gets past Shore in the first round, the Lions have shown they can give Jackson Memorial trouble in a 1-0 win at home and a 1-0 overtime loss at Jackson. The Jaguars lost to Holmdel in last year’s semifinal as a No. 1 seed, so a rematch could come to pass if the Jaguars hold serve at home.

 

Championship-Ready – These teams have the look of a potential championship team if any of them hits its groove over the next two weeks.

6 Christian Brothers Academy

Manalapan looks like a troublesome match-up for the Colts based on how the first two games went, but the results were only 1-0 Manalapan wins both times. On top of that, CBA is on the opposite end of the bracket from Manalapan and will not have to face any Class A North teams prior to the championship game. The main obstacle for CBA is its youth, which may prevent the Colts from even winning a game, considering how tough their first opponent could be.

11 Wall

The Crimson Knights could very well stop the CBA train before it ever gets going, especially with the way they have played since CBA transfer Joe Tashjy became eligible. That makes for an intriguing storyline in a potential Saturday game between the two teams at the Academy, which Tashjy and his former teammates will no doubt be amped to play. Despite its modest seed, Wall will have slightly more senior leadership on a field full of junior talent and that could be the difference. Whichever team survives that game will have a great chance to take Rumson out and potentially win the whole thing.

4 Toms River North

The Mariners have had some let-downs this season, but this program has proven itself during postseason year after year. Even with an SCT flameout last year, Toms River North pulled it together for an NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV run. The draw is a tough one for Toms River North, which will most likely have to play a tough Howell team in its first game. A quarterfinal match-up against Ocean is a very tough draw as well, and that game would likely be followed by either Manalapan or one of Colts Neck or Freehold Township on turf. The good news for Toms River North is the Mariners will be on the artificial surface for the entire tournament, which means they will be tough to beat.

3 Rumson-Fair Haven

On talent, the Bulldogs deserved to be mentioned as the possible favorite to win the 2013 Shore Conference Tournament. They are loaded with seniors, they have Division I talent in Eamon Kitson and Pete Martin and players like Ryan Slutz, Kieran Doherty and Jamie Martin have stepped up around returning stalwarts Martin, Kitson, Matt Dell, Harry Gassert, Ryan Strang and goalkeeper Chris Tierney. The one knock on Rumson, however, is that their biggest win came in the second game of the season – a 3-2 decision against Holmdel. With a chance to effectively seal the division, the Bulldogs gave up a 1-0 lead against Holmdel the second time around in losing 2-1. The talent is there, but Rumson has yet to show that killer instinct it takes to win a championship. That doesn’t mean it’s not there, but the Bulldogs have not shown it like these last three teams.

 

Championship-proven – These two teams have already shown their championship pedigree and are good enough to show it again.

5 Ocean

The Spartans have gone about their business in somewhat unassuming fashion since an impressive opening-day win over Montclair, but this is their time of year. In some ways, Ocean is also a bit unproven because so much of their production during tournament time came from now-graduated Tyler Nowak, but the emergence of Wadneson Alexis gives the Spartans a scoring threat to scare defenses. With Alexis and Justin Silverberg up top and Chris Seager in the net, Ocean has players who can score on the goal and protect it as well. Some teams will beat them in the middle, but Ocean has the right formula to make a run at a repeat.

2 Holmdel

The Hornets have not actually won the Shore Conference Tournament, but they have been to the final in each of the last two years and have also been to three straight NJSIAA Group championship games, winning one. This was supposed to be the year that the run of appearances ended, but this year’s team has come together and played as well as any team in the conference since taking an early loss to Rumson. An injury to Gino D’Agostino that will keep him out for the entire tournament could seriously damage Holmdel’s chances at a third straight finals appearance and first-ever title, but there are plenty of players on the field who have made this run before and done it through adverse circumstances.

 

The Favorite – Self-explanatory

1 Manalapan

The Braves are not as proven as Ocean or Holmdel, not as senior-heavy as Rumson-Fair Haven, and haven’t enjoyed the recent success of Toms River North, Colts Neck, Wall, CBA, Freehold Township or Jackson Memorial. With that being said, Manalapan has shown itself to be the Shore Conference’s best team this season.

The Braves, along with Rumson and Holmdel, are the only teams in the Shore Conference to beat every team on their schedule at least once and Manalapan did it in a division with four top-10 seeds. The Braves also showed their chops in close games while winning overtime thrillers against CBA and Jackson Memorial, and also rallying from a 2-0 second-half deficit to beat Colts Neck with the division title on the line. Although Colts Neck and Howell each beat Manalapan, the Braves won the second meeting against each team and both games were played with the division title hanging in the balance. The Braves are also just beginning to get healthy again, which means they can go deeper than most teams in the tournament. It has been a different hero every game and if the postseason is anything like the season has been for Manalapan, there should be plenty of chances for its players to play hero.