The Shore Conference Tournament kicks off with 14 first-round games, all of which are scheduled to be played on Thursday, should Mother Nature allow it. Last year’s tournament saw very little in the way of upsets, and based on the picks below, upsets will not be a major theme this year either. Then again, upsets are what they are because nobody sees them coming. Will there be any big surprises in Round 1? You won’t find out here, but you should keep reading anyway.


No. 18 Toms River East at No. 15 Holmdel, 3 p.m.

A rematch of last year’s round-of-16 showdown won by Holmdel in overtime, both teams lost a number of significant talented pieces and yet still return a handful of impact players that should make this one of the more entertaining first-round games. Holmdel fits comfortably in the category of “hot teams” entering the tournament, with a 6-0-1 record over its last seven games. The Hornets adjusted their formation following a 3-1 loss to Matawan, which included moving senior Eric D’Aleo to sweeper. Coupled with the improving health of goalkeeper Tyler Marchiano – who missed three games early in the season due to injury – the defensive-minded change has kept the goals off the board while the Hornets continue to try to find their offensive rhythm.

Toms River East, meanwhile, was rolling in Class A South with a series of wins and ties over the top teams in the conference, before running into Brick Memorial on Monday, a 4-1 Mustangs win. The Raiders have two quality scorers in Josh Sommerer and Alessio Rea up top, but Chris Varga is the guy who makes it go in the middle. He’ll look to make the most of his chances to find his two forwards for the Raiders to cool down Holmdel, which has not allowed much offense of late. Holmdel is riding high right now and could possibly be looking ahead to a showdown with Manalapan in the next round. If that’s the case, pencil in Toms River East to pick them off. The pick suggests I trust Holmdel to have its full attention directed on the team that almost picked the Hornets off last year. The Pick: Holmdel, 2-1

No. 21 Lacey at No. 12 Central, 3 p.m.

This game is a difficult one to call because it’s hard to figure which team will show up on either side. Ever since back-to-back wins over Toms River South and Colts Neck, Lacey has struggled mightily, and a game against a full Central roster would be a very tough one to win, particularly on the road. This will not, however, be a complete roster as leading scorer Blake Czajkowski sits out for the second straight game while serving a red card suspension. Central still has a pure scorer in Doug Jensen and Yousseff Abdelaziz has picked up the scoring load over the course of the year, but the Golden Eagles will certainly miss the speed and creativity of Czajkowski, an All-Shore first-teamer last year.

This is currently a dormant rivalry that will be reactivated when the two teams finally meet, whether on Thursday or, if it rains too much, on Friday. Both teams will be up for the game and after getting two days off to recover from a 2-0 loss to Jackson Memorial, Lacey figures to be in better shape considering the absence of Czajkowski. The key to the game could be goalkeepers, Bryan Jones for Central and Bobby Considine for Lacey. Jones has been a standout for the Eagles over the last three seasons and may need to keep his team in this one while they find offense. Considine has had a strong debut season and will likely have to make a similar impact. There likely won’t be a ton of shots, but that just means the game will probably be tense into the final minutes. Expect Central to be extra defensive as it tries to make it one more game without their horse up top. The Pick: Central, 1-0

No. 22 Colts Neck at No. 11 Freehold Twp., 3 p.m.

Two old foes reunite for an elimination game in the first round. Isn’t that what the Shore Conference Tournament is all about? Both of these teams have had seasons that can be classified somewhere between “under-the-radar” and “mildly disappointing,” with Freehold Township losing twice to Middletown North and once to new division rival and Colts Neck replacement Freehold. The Patriots have some noteworthy moments that inspire confidence and a deep, athletic roster that will present problems to a younger, less mature Colts Neck group. Freehold Township also has a Division I goalkeeper in Rutgers recruit Brian Shushkovsky and as long as he and his defense are on the same page, goals are hard to come by against the Patriots.

Colts Neck, meanwhile, has struggled lately in its new home in Class B North and enters the tournament with a sub-.500 record. On the plus side, the Cougars have found a future standout in sophomore Louis Reale, and to some extent, he is already a current standout. There is an element of senior experience back from last year with players like Taylor Demick, Brian Knauf and Rob Berdel, but it pales in comparison to what Freehold Township offers. This is going to have the feel of a rivalry game and if Freehold Township is looking past Colts Neck and toward a third meeting with CBA, the Pats are in trouble. In fact, there might be an early wake-up call in the game, but it’s hard to see Freehold Township taking its eyes off the prize long enough to lose it altogether. The Pick: Freehold Twp., 3-1

No. 26 Pinelands at No. 7 Jackson Memorial, 3 p.m.

With the possible exception of Matawan and maybe Freehold Boro, no team in the Shore Conference has been more of a pleasant surprise than Pinelands. The Wildcats went 8-5-1 in a Class B South division that was competitive at the top and saw sixth-place Barnegat start to put together a more competitive side by the end of the year. While it is often looked at as the fourth or fifth strongest of the six Shore Conference divisions, B South probably does not get its due when it comes to the top teams it produces. Pinelands has not ventured outside the division, but it has been competitive in a division with four other quality teams.

The one concern heading into Jackson Memorial is how Pinelands fared against Central. While the Wildcats hung with every team in the division, Central beat them up to the tune of 8-1 over two meetings. Jackson Memorial is not stylistically similar to Central, but the Jaguars have put together a strong run recently in which they have gone 7-0-1 over their last eight games and allowed only two goals during that stretch. The trio of Andrew Jozwicki, Mike Schoener and Joey Stoltenberg is going to put pressure on this young Wildcats formation while on the attack, and Pinelands will have to withstand the surge. Other than senior Rabi Orellana, Pinelands is heavy on young talent that will be back next year and this is a chance to lay a foundation going forward. A win over Jackson Memorial – which also has some youth around the field – would be a huge step, but it’s one the Wildcats have not yet shown they are ready to take. Watch out for them in the state tournament. The Pick: Jackson Memorial, 3-0

No. 27 Donovan Catholic at No. 6 CBA, 3 p.m.

At first glance, this game looks like it should be lopsided based on all the talent Donovan Catholic lost from last season and based on how good CBA has been lately, the recent loss to Holmdel notwithstanding. Upon closer examination, however, this game has some elements of a potentially close affair on the scoreboard. The two teams share some degree of a rivalry, evidenced by an intense NJSIAA Tournament game between the two last season. CBA needed an overtime penalty kick to survive that game in Toms River and logic would suggest it doesn’t get to overtime again with CBA returning so much of last year’s team.

On the other hand, the Griffins have not lost a game by more than one goal and have played 12 games decided by a one-goal margin. A match-up to watch will be Donovan’s Dom DiSalvo against CBA’s Jimmy Cavanaugh, two defensive-minded, middle-of-the field players who could meet up if DiSalvo pushes forward. It’s likely that both will pick their spots, which means DiSalvo will be key in clogging the middle against Matt Thorsheim and Richie Leister while using his size against Tom Lozowski, CBA’s best threat in the air. For Donovan to have any chance, DiSalvo likely has to be the man of the match and it may take an early goal to plant a seed of doubt in the Colts’ minds. I see this as more of a 0-0 game for a little while that opens up late. The Pick: CBA, 2-0

No. 28 Point Beach at No. 5 Shore, 3 p.m.

Two Class B Central rivals reconvene for a third meeting after two fairly competitive regular-season matchups. Shore has been able to take it to a number of quality teams, but Point Beach has managed to hang around in both meetings against the Blue Devils. Ryan Franzoni has played a superb goalkeeper in both meetings and a lack of scoring punch has been the Garnet Gulls’ undoing in each match. Although Cory Gross, Connor Prima and Aris Papoutsakis have emerged alongside Alex Ciorlian as goal-scorers, the goal-scoring still remains an issue, just as it was in a scoreless draw against Ranney on Monday.

Shore has been out for revenge against Point Beach this season after the Gulls stunned the Blue Devils in the final game of the B Central regular season to win the 2013 division title. While the Blue Devils have beaten the Beach twice, they were hoping for a more resounding message in each of those meetings than 1-0 and 3-1 wins. Shore is not a team hell-bent on running up the score, but the Blue Devils will look to jump on Point Beach and put the game away early. Rather than Point Beach closing the gap this time, expect Shore’s superiority to show. The Pick: Shore, 4-0

No. 29 Jackson Liberty at No. 4 Wall, 3 p.m.

Although the seeds suggest this should be an easy pick, a clash in styles, reputation and history make this matchup both fascinating overall and potentially dangerous for Wall. Jackson Liberty is a hard-nosed team that can sometimes cross the line, as was the case against Central on Thursday when an illegal tackle ignited a fight that got a player from each team a red card. The Lions are also a team that can attack the goal, with three creative players up top in Adam Haidi, Brandon Pirog and Bryan Garry. Close losses have hurt Jackson Liberty, as the Lions have just one loss that was by more than a one-goal margin.

As for Wall, two coaches commented early in the season that the Crimson Knights, to paraphrase, lacked intensity. That might have been the case early on, but this has been a different Wall team over the past two weeks, one that looks like it has been waiting for these playoff games. Crimson Knights coach Garry Linstra implored his team to get back to a defensive focus and that shift has paid off for the Class B North champions. If Jackson Liberty came after Wall in September, it might have been able to set the course of the game and steal a win. At this point, Wall is playing like a team that won’t be derailed by any sort of physical play. If Jackson Liberty pulls off the upset, it’s because the Lions put it together on the scoring end, not because of anything else. Expect a closer game than the usual 4-vs.29 game. The Pick: Wall, 3-2

No. 19 Marlboro at No. 14 Red Bank, 3:45 p.m.

The last time Marlboro was in the Shore Conference Tournament, the Mustangs won the program’s only SCT title in 2009 by beating CBA in the championship game. This team won’t bring back memories of those loaded 2008 or 2009 teams, but it does have the potential to be a Cinderella team in this year’s tournament. One of the reasons Marlboro would be a surprise team should it win more than one game is that the Mustangs have not shown they can beat top teams. Although Marlboro has beaten No. 13 Middletown North twice, it has also had a lot of trouble with Manalapan, CBA and Freehold Township. – the three top teams in the division. With so much experience against some of the best teams in the field, Marlboro has to be taken seriously, but with little success against those teams, it’s fair to ask just how seriously they should be taken.

Red Bank nearly became the darling of last year’s tournament as a No. 20 seed, losing to Toms River North on penalties in a round-of-16 loss after beating Howell, 3-0. This year, Red Bank has been an impressive team at its peak, but the Bucs have also shown some vulnerability at times, particularly in a 3-1 loss to a four-win Red Bank Catholic team. On the bright side, scoring has not been a problem for Red Bank and the Bucs will be facing a Marlboro team that has had trouble keeping the ball out of the net after a strong defensive start to the season. The Mustangs are strong in net with Greg Reimer and it may take a big day saving shots to keep them in this one. Part of me wants to pick the Mustangs to pick off Red Bank and the other part of me wants to put the Bucs in the final four. After a good postseason showing last year, I’ll trust Red Bank plays a clean game. The Pick: Red Bank, 3-1

No. 20 Long Branch at No. 13 Middletown North, 3:45 p.m.

Before the SCT was even seeded, Long Brach was the unofficial “team nobody wanted to play.” The Green Wave have a dynamic front six, particularly with 19-goal scorer Guilherme DeNovaes up top and healthy after missing all of last year with a torn ACL. The reason Long Branch is not a higher seed is because, more often than not, it has found ways to lose close games rather than ways to win them. This has become a running theme for the Green Wave over the last two seasons, but unlike last year, they have a chance to make up for it with a playoff run.

Middletown North – coincidentally, the alma mater of Long Branch head coach Adrian Castro – stands in the way of the Green Wave, and the Lions are a team that top seeds also should want to avoid. During the Class A North season, Middletown North was a combined 3-0-1 against Manalapan and Freehold Township, but on the flip side, the Lions went 0-2 against Marlboro and just lost to a Middletown South team that went 10 games without a goal during an 11-game losing streak. The Lions have won more than one game this year in which they beat a team that outshot them by a lot and that might have to be the formula again. Long Branch is going to have the ball a lot and DeNovaes is going to get chances, so in order for Middletown North to win, goalkeeper Jordan Robinson will have to be on his game and lady luck will have to get back on the Lions’ side while continuing to avoid Long Branch. The Pick: Long Branch, 4-2

No. 30 Asbury Park at No. 3 Toms River North, 3:45 p.m.

A rematch of one of the wildest first-round games you will ever watch, the Mariners host the Blue Bishops after nearly losing to Asbury Park in the first round of the tournament two years ago as a No. 6 seed. Asbury Park jumped out to a 2-0 lead behind a fast, physical attack and came undone thanks to two red cards, which helped allow Toms River North to rally for the win. This game will not resemble that game, in all likelihood, but Asbury Park will still look to be physical and use its individual skill and foot speed to hang around. The Blue Bishops no longer have a scorer quite as dynamic as Jose Cesaire, but Carl Cazeau is the kind of player who can break the game on a counter attack if Toms River North is not organized.

Organization has not been a problem with this year’s Mariners team, which has exhibited a great deal of chemistry despite some losses to last year’s starting lineup and some positional shifts. The Mariners have been treading water lately with some close wins and ties, but the return to health of senior Ryan Cheslock has changed the team’s outlook after a knee issue kept him out of the lineup for two-plus weeks. With Cheslock and Joey Hertgen at 100 percent, the Mariners have been a scoring machine and against some inexperience in the back on Thursday, they should be able lean on the machine. The Pick: Toms River North, 4-1

No. 23 Manasquan at No. 10 Matawan, 4 p.m.

The third meeting between the two Class A Central foes will likely be much different that the most recent meeting, in which Manasquan took its foot off the gas in a 2-0 loss with the division title already out of reach. The first meeting – a 3-2 overtime win for Manasquan – should be much more indicative of what to expect in the rubber match, which could potentially be the third of four meetings if the teams somehow meet in the Central Jersey Group II bracket. Manasquan might have a little bit of an edge having rested at the end of last week and also knowing that the first game was a hard-fought battle that went in the Warriors favor.

Matawan has put together a storybook season, winning its first ever division title, capped by that 2-0 win over Manasquan on Friday. The Huskies knew they had a top scoring threat in returning senior forward Alex Cella, but coach Dave Deegan points to senior center midfielder Matt Isaacson as the No. 1 reason the Huskies have had this kind of season. Isaacson has run the midfield along with junior Bronson Dhume, which has made Cella an even more dangerous player going to goal. Manasquan, meanwhile, counters with a collection of experienced returnees that has been helped by an infusion of youth, led by sophomore Beau Bradley. Seniors Ed Franzonie and Enrique Perez have been the team’s best goal-scorers and with a number of threats developing alongside them, Manasquan could be dangerous. Matawan has been a great story, but something about this game says upset. The Pick: Manasquan, 1-0

Matawan senior Alex Cella (right) will try to guide his Huskies past division rival Manasquan Thursday, while Christian Bruno (left) and St. John Vianney look for a road upset at Brick Memorial. (Photo by Matt Manley)

No. 24 St. Rose at No. 9 Point Boro, 4 p.m.

These two teams were scheduled to face off in early October, but some questionable weather knocked out the game. Point Boro enters the SCT on a conference-best and school-record 13-game winning streak, a run that helped the Panthers run away with the division title. Since losing back-to-back games to Old Bridge and Central by a combined score of 7-1, Point Boro has yet to lose and has also gone 7-0 in games decided by one goal. In the toughest of situations, Point Boro has proven to be a tough team and with a healthy, versatile roster that goes deep into the bench for contributors, the Panthers are not going to be outworked.

St. Rose picked up a big moral victory when it tied Shore, 0-0, to end the Blue Devils’ 13-game winning streak. The Purple Roses have had some trouble scoring against the better teams on their schedule, but they have also shown they can keep teams out of the goal. Joe Forlenza is the team’s best scoring option and he will probably have to break loose for the Purple Roses to get on the board in this one, but that is certainly possible against a Point Boro team that has only posted two shutouts this season. St. Rose should put a scare into Point Boro, but expect the Panthers to find a way to push the streak to 14. The Pick: Point Boro, 2-1

No. 25 St. John Vianney at No. 8 Brick Memorial, 5 p.m.

This game is yet another first-round clash of styles that could favor the underdog. St. John Vianney comes into the game with a boom-or-bust offense, with 10 of its 17 goals coming in two of its wins, including Tuesday’s 6-1 win over Rumson. Something tells me that the Lancers viewed Tuesday as a statement game on two fronts: first, as payback to Rumson for a loss in the first meeting and secondly, to send a message that a No. 25 seed is selling the Lancers short. For that hypothetical message to truly resonate, St. John Vianney will have to win on Thursday against a high-powered attack.

Brick Memorial has only been shut out once all season long while St. John Vianney has allowed only eight goals in 12 games. Something will have to give in this one and the comparison for Vianney in this case is Jackson Memorial. Against the Jaguars, Brick Memorial managed only one goal in two games, one of which went to overtime. Every other team has failed to shut down the Brick Memorial attack in that respect and this will be a similarly difficult challenge for St. John Vianney. I’m not sure what it is, but I have a feeling that some magic comes out of this game for whichever team survives. Expect the Lancers to come out fired up and for the magic to prevail for the Mustangs under the lights, propelling them on a nice tournament run that will follow. The Pick: Brick Memorial, 3-2 (OT)

No. 17 Freehold at No. 16 Ocean, 6:30 p.m.

Thursday’s nightcap features a tournament mainstay vs. a team that is back in the field with a new head coach and now playing in the division that traditionally grades out as the toughest in the Shore Conference. Freehold began the season 1-6-1 and has since gone 6-0-3 to turn its season around and qualify for the Shore Conference Tournament for the first time since 2011. The key move for the Colonials was shifting senior captain Roberto Albarran from striker to sweeper, even after Albarran led the team in goals last year. In addition to solidifying the defense in front of junior goalkeeper Jesus Lopez, the move has allowed sophomore Andy Rizo and senior Dom Matteo to flourish in goal-scoring roles. The new alignment has led to wins over Marlboro and Freehold Township with ties against CBA, Middletown North and Manalapan, the last of which effectively guaranteed Freehold a spot in the tournament.

Ocean is one of two teams, along with Holmdel, to appear in each of the last two SCT semifinals and although this group is vastly different from the one that won the championship in 2012, there is enough back from last year and plenty of overall talent to make a deep run this season. Ocean has one of the best scoring combinations in the tournament, with Marlhens Nasanes emerging as a top forward and Wadneson Alexis playing as an attacking midfielder. Despite an early-season knee injury that cost him three games and slowed him down early on, Alexis has flourished as a passer this season after a 12-goal sophomore season in 2013 and it has made him arguably the most complete offensive player in the conference. The match-up to watch in this game will be Albarran dealing with the runs of both Nasanes and Alexis, who figure to be at the top of any Ocean scouting report he rest of the way. While it’s hard to go against Freehold right now, expect Alexis and Nasanes to be on at least one more SCT scouting report after Thursday. The Pick: Ocean, 2-1