Boys Soccer – SCT Opening-Round Preview, Predictions.
The Shore Conference Tournament is here and this year, it will be a 29-team free-for-all that begins with the opening-round on Monday. In a first round with 13 games, just about anything is possible but the question for now is, “Can I predict it?” The answer is most certainly no, but that’s never stopped me from pretending I can.
Let’s get to it.
(29) St. Rose at (4) Freehold Twp., 3:30 p.m.
Although Freehold Township is a legitimate contender to win this whole tournament, the Patriots have not exactly been a model of consistency. They have lost two games to teams with a losing record and early in the year, they battled through some offensive struggles while surviving close games. Freehold Township played well in each meeting against CBA, but has left the door open against what one might consider inferior opponents on several occasions.
That is the hope St. Rose carries into the game. The Purple Roses have had their own issues staying consistent, as evidenced by a draw against Ranney in their final game prior to the SCT. St. Rose has allowed more than two goals per game (38 in 17 games), is 1-8 against teams in the tournament and 0-5 against teams outside of B Central this year. If Freehold Township trips up, it probably won’t be in the first round. The Pick: Freehold Twp., 5-1
(28) Lakewood at (5) Ocean, 3:45 p.m.
No team in this tournament heads into this week hotter than Ocean, which has won 10 straight games since dropping to 3-2 in mid-September. The Spartans battled some short-term injuries during their brief rough patch and also welcomed back midfielder Job Cajas, who missed the first three weeks while tending to a personal matter in Ecuador. Cajas has been a steady presence in the midfield to complement the dangerous duo up top in Steve Carton and Santieno Harding. Ocean has been solid at every level, which will pose a problem for its first-round opponent.
That opponent on Monday will be Lakewood, and while the Piners are not exactly on an opposite trajectory of Ocean, they are trying to regain the form from the middle of September. Lakewood’s second trip through the B South schedule included a 7-0 loss to Barnegat, a 5-0 loss to Point Boro and a loss to four-win Jackson Liberty. The Piners have some play-makers sprinkled throughout the formation and an aggressive, capable keeper in Moises Galvan, but they will have to find themselves and fast to have a chance on Monday. A good version of Lakewood could give a lot of teams trouble, but the Piners are still an unknown to this point. The Pick: Ocean, 3-0
(27) Point Beach at (6) Pinelands, 3 p.m.
This is the best seed Pinelands has had in the Shore Conference Tournament and the Wildcats still have to play a first-round game because of the sheer volume of teams that made the tournament. That being said, Pinelands should advance in this game thanks to a roster that will indeed be healthy. Leading scorer Dominic Dos Santos missed last week’s action with a knee injury, but will be ready to go for the SCT.
Point Beach had been competitive in all of its games before dropping a 4-1 decision to Neptune on Saturday. That game could offer a preview of what Monday will look like, but the Garnet Gulls are also likely to make some adjustments based on that result. They have consistently been able to score against the teams they have faced, and that will probably continue on Monday, even if it won’t be enough. The Pick: Pinelands, 4-1
(26) Barnegat at (7) Howell, 5:30 p.m.
A week ago, this game might have seemed like an obvious mismatch, but Howell is suddenly struggling to find the back of the net. What was an eight-game Rebels winning streak at the beginning of last week is now a three-game losing streak heading into Monday evening. Howell is a relatively young team, one that starts three seniors and has a lot of junior influence on the roster that is starting to pay dividends after five straight seasons of missing the SCT.
Should Howell’s scoring problems persist, it could come back to bite them against a Barnegat team that is putting up nearly 3.5 goals per game. The Bengals are also giving up 2.25 per game, so it’s hard to see a battle-tested team like Howell walking off the field without at least a goal. The bigger concern for the Rebels is dealing with Barnegat’s dangerous scoring duo of Ryan Flaherty and Ricky Norman, who have combined for 36 goals. It will probably take at least two for Barnegat to pull off the upset so that will also likely be the magic number for Howell. The Pick: Howell, 3-1
(25) Matawan at (8) Toms River South, 7 p.m.
Last year, Matawan reached the Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinals for the first time in program history behind its stellar senior class. This year was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Huskies, but the young pups managed to qualify for the Shore Conference Tournament with a sophomore-heavy roster. Going by the seeds, the closest opponent to Toms River South that they have played is No. 9 Rumson and the Huskies pulled out a 3-3 draw and lost, 2-1, in the two Class A Central meetings.
That information should keep Toms River South on its toes. The Indians fell short of winning the Class A South title for the first time since 2013 and will look to reset their focus heading into the postseason. Scoring has been a little harder to come by this season, particular against teams with winning records. On the bright side, Toms River South has been able to limit goals as well and that will go a long way toward the Indians reaching a potential quarterfinal showdown with No. 1 CBA. The Pick: Toms River South, 2-0
(24) Lacey at (9) Rumson-Fair Haven, TBD
The Lacey-Rumson game has been postponed to an undetermined date and time due to the death of Rumson student Pierce Jarck on Sunday.
Lacey entered the season in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 and have not quite put everything together to this point. The Lions played two close games against Point Boro, one against Pinelands and one against Southern. On the flip side, the Lions gave up six goals on two occasions – once in a 6-1 loss to Pinelands and another in a 6-3 loss to Barnegat. Lacey has four dangerous offensive players in Riley Hunt, Kevin Miller, Dylan Fielder and Kip Byrne that will keep the Lions within striking distance so long as the defense can keep the game close.
Another reason Lacey has a chance to ride home a winner Monday is because Rumson will be playing short-handed. The Bulldogs lost attacking midfielder Owen Greengrove to a concussion on Tuesday and will be without his services for however long they play in the Shore Conference Tournament. While Greengrove’s absence stings, it shouldn’t totally sink Rumson. The Bulldogs have found scoring from other sources throughout the year and still have a strong back line anchored by Luke DiStefano and Dan Cragg. The question is whether or not that defense can hold down Lacey’s quartet and move on to the next round. This one could go the distance. The Pick: 1-1 draw, Rumson advances on penalty kicks.
(23) Wall at (10) Brick Memorial, 3:45 p.m. at Veterans Middle School
With a loss after the start of the seeding meeting, Wall is the only team to enter the SCT with a record below .500, which is not a typical scenario for a program that has ranked among the best in the area over the last decade-plus. Despite a sub-standard overall record, Wall has done some notable work this year, namely defeating Long Branch to give coach Garry Linstra his 200th career win. Wall still sports a quality defensive unit when it is at its best and it will have to be on its game to contain Brick Memorial’s attack.
Erik Fatovic has been on a scoring tear this season, scoring 18 goals and notching at least one in 12 of Brick Memorial’s last 13 games. Those 18 goals account for more than half of Brick Memorial’s 34 goals as a team, which means the defensive focus during Brick Memoria’s postseason stay will be on the senior forward. That is not a new challenge for Fatovic, but as the games get more physical and tenser, the goals will be harder to come by. With Wall’s defense and experience in competing with quality opponents this year, the Mustangs could be in for a fight. The Pick: Wall, 2-1.
(22) Toms River East at (11) Long Branch, 6 p.m.
This game features a pair of teams that have endured some ups and downs, but the feel around both squads is different based on expectations. Long Branch entered the season expecting big things this year, including winning the B North championship, being an SCT final four team, and making a run in its first year as a Group IV school in the NJSIAA Tournament. The first of those goals did not work out because the Green Wave lost twice to Ocean, were shut out by Wall and got smoked by Middletown South, 6-0. While those cost Long Branch a shot at B North, the other goals are still on the table and the Green Wave are whole again heading into the tournament, which should put other teams on notice.
Toms River East meanwhile, is back in the SCT after two years on the sideline – which might have seemed implausible going back five years. The Raiders were perennial A South contenders and a high seed in the SCT and South Jersey Group IV before this recent dry spell. That spell is over for the moment thanks to a huge win over Southern on Thursday to qualify, which should answer any questions about how Toms River East will handle itself in a pressure situation. The challenge for the Raiders will be to make sure this game stays close and keep the pressure squarely on the home team. If this game is close in the last 20 minutes, the edge goes to Toms River East, but Long Branch’s potent attack could put it away early. Which one happens? That’s anybody’s guess. What’s my guess, you ask? The Pick: 2-2 draw, Long Branch advances on penalty kicks.
(21) Asbury Park at (12) Point Boro, 4 p.m.
The 12-vs.-21 matchup features a clash of styles: one team plays a wide-open, high scoring game, while the other is interested in playing closer to the vest and keeping the opponent off the board, first and foremost. Asbury Park won the Class B Central division for the second straight year and for the second straight year, the Blue Bishops will face a tough Class B South opponent in the first round. The Bishops beat Donovan Catholic in overtime last year to advance in the SCT and beating Point Boro this year will mean scoring against a Point Boro defense and keeper Steve Redler that has conceded only 10 goals in 14 games.
Although Point Boro’s goal prevention has been its strength, the Panthers did give up a pair of goals in a 3-2 win over Donovan Catholic last week, which was just the second time they allowed more than one goal in a game. On Monday against the Bishops, keeping Davensky JoinVilmar quiet will be a tall order for the Panthers, but the real key to the game will likely be whether or not the other Asbury Park players can take advantage of the attention their 20-goal scorer draws. If JoinVilmar shakes loose, Point Boro will have to break out the scoring shoes and embrace the scoring fest. The Pick: Point Boro, 3-2 in overtime.
(20) Monmouth at (13) Toms River North, 4 p.m.
With a little more than a week before the Shore Conference Tournament cutoff, it appeared Toms River North had no shot of qualify for the SCT. The Mariners were 2-5-1 and would need to go no worse than 3-0-1 over a four game stretch to qualify, which meant beating either Jackson Memorial or Toms River South and tying the other. Toms River North beat both and qualified for the tournament with a resume impressive enough to earn a home game. The return of forward Harmony Bellgam from Spain after a two week absence to open the season has changed the dynamic of the offense and given the Mariners a playmaker up top that was missing early on.
Speaking of playmakers, stopping Monmouth’s top scorer will be Toms River North’s No. 1 priority. Falcons senior Joel Burgos has scored 22 goals this season despite missing the last two weeks with a thigh bruise and is primed to return on Monday. Even without Burgos, Monmouth managed to win a pair of games behind junior midfielder Brian Waltsak, so the Falcons are not exactly a one-man gang. One of those men, though, will have to have a big game for Monmouth to cool off the surging Mariners and while Burgos will be champing at the bit in his return, Toms River North has the mojo right now. The Pick: Toms River North, 2-1.
(19) Raritan at (14) Southern, 4 p.m.
Raritan was involved in the 14-vs.-19 game last year, only as the No. 14 seed in the SCT. That did not end as planned for the Rockets, who lost to Jackson Memorial on penalty kicks, only to watch the Jaguars go on to upset No. 3 Toms River South in the round of 16. This time around, it is Raritan that will look to win on the road as the No. 19 seed and, fittingly enough, No. 3 Jackson Memorial awaits the winner on Wednesday.
One of the obstacles standing in Raritan’s way is that the Rockets will have to win on a grass surface, which the Class A Central teams have very little experience on during the regular season. Red Bank is the only A Central team that plays on grass and the Bucs are 1-14 this season. That could be an x-factor in the game, which features a pair of dueling midfielders in Southern’s Ethan Leming and Raritan’s Jake Fortune who could end up being players who take over the tournament should they advance. On turf, Raritan would be dangerous given how tough the Rockets played Holmdel and Rumson, but the grass might slow them down. The Pick: Southern, 1-0.
(18) Shore at (15) Middletown North, 4 p.m.
Shore and Middletown North enter Monday headed in different directions, with Shore feeling good following a golden goal win over St. John Vianney to qualify and a 2-0 win over Rumson-Fair Haven on Saturday. The Blue Devils entered the season with a roster heavy on juniors and took some lumps early in lopsided losses to Holmdel, Long Branch and Haddonfield before regrouping to go 4-1-1 in the second turn through the division. Junior center midfielder Leo Montesinos is a player to watch in the tournament and could break the game open for Shore, although the Blue Devils have had a lot of players step up and score this year.
Middletown North also managed to qualify with a win over Monmouth on Tuesday, but that win was the only victory for the Lions in their last six games. The year started out in promising fashion for Middletown North, which went 7-3 in the first 10 games of the season with wins over Westfield, Ocean and Freehold Boro to highlight the fast start. Liam McGregor started the season on fire, but teams have crowded him and made the rest of the Lions beat them. Ryan Binn has stepped up to create goals for Middletown North, but he and McGregor have had to do a lot of the scoring. With a more balanced attack lately and a team trending in the right direction, Shore might actually enter as a road favorite. The Pick: Shore, 2-1 in overtime.
(17) Freehold Boro at (16) Middletown South, 3:45 p.m.
The final game on the list will provide some clarification about how good the divisions of each of these teams is. Freehold Boro is the No. 4 team in A North and Middletown South the No. 3 team in B North and both have a recent noteworthy win. Freehold took down Howell last week, while Middletown South slammed Long Branch, 6-0, on Oct. 6. Both have also had their slip-ups, but that’s typical of teams seeded either 16 or 17.
Middletown North is a program on the rise and while there is a hungry senior class leading the way, there is also still a good deal of youth in players like Danny Minze and Tyler Jerome. Freehold Boro also has some youth in the form of sophomore Isaac Ball and juniors Cam Elslager and Abel Herrera, but Jake Brower, Jared Avila and Saif Elseidy make up a senior core that made sure the Colonials got into the SCT despite a 4-7 start. With all the work Freehold Boro did to qualify and all of the tough competition it had to face on the way, it’s hard to see them being a one-and-done team. The Pick: Freehold Township, 2-0.