Whatever you think of the Shore Conference Tournament in a given year, the field is always ripe for some first-round upsets. This year's first-round saw four out of the 10 underdogs advance to the round of 16, including two teams seeded in the 20's, which is pretty eye-opening.

In most tournament's, first-round upsets usually make for the favorites striking back in round two but there have been some exceptions in the recent years. Monmouth Regional reached the quarterfinals as a No. 20 seed last year and going back to 2014, St. John Vianney reached the semifinals as a No. 25 seed. This year's version of Monmouth or St. John Vianney figures to be either No. 21 Raritan or No. 23 Colts Neck and it is quite possible that we see both teams continue their run to Friday's quarterfinals.

This round is always a fun one because there are eight do-or-die games with all of the Shore's best teams in action. The top seeds appear to be major favorites, but Saturday's opening round should be a lesson that no team is totally safe.

Speaking of safe, let's take a look at my picks for the round of 16.

 

(9) Howell at (8) Southern, Tuesday, 3:30 p.m.

This game is a rematch of a regular season game won by Howell, 2-0. The Rebels got to host that one on their turf, where the Rebels are 8-1 and will now have to take a 2-4 road record to the natural grass at Southern to try to keep their postseason run going. Howell has only played on natural grass three times this season and lost all three, but Southern’s field plays a little bigger and truer than what Howell has seen to this point.

PHOTO GALLERY: Red Bank Catholic at Howell by Paula Lopez

Howell senior Dylan Dougher. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Southern enters the game on a four-game roll that includes wins over Jackson Memorial and Lacey and the secret has been a steadily improving possession game. He Rams out-possessed Jackson for their biggest win of the season and that will be the focus again on Tuesday. Howell’s biggest win was against CBA and by contrast, the Rebels won that game by defending and countering. Considering how strong the Rebels are defensively, in goal and up top, maybe that is the recipe for them the rest of the way, especially considering Holmdel will likely be awaiting the winner of this game.

The Pick: Howell, 1-0

 

(11) Manasquan at (6) Wall, 3 p.m. at Wall Municipal Complex

Wall senior Riley Powers splits Manasquan's Rich Maloney (21) and Brady Barry. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

The Wall-Manasquan rivalry takes the SCT stage on Wednesday and it will be a rematch of a September game at the same venue where Wall beat Manasquan in overtime, 1-0. The loss was the first of three straight suffered by Manasquan and since losing those three games in a row, the Warriors have not lost with a full lineup. They lost to Point Beach, 2-1, on Monday while resting most of the starting lineup, which ended a five-game winning streak.

Wall is also playing at a high level since losing back-to-back games against St. John Vianney and Colts Neck. The Crimson Knights rolled through Raritan, 4-0, and then blanked Ocean, 2-0, just before the tournament. Wall has a strong collection of forwards, led by Riley Powers while Manasquan has a similar type of attack led by sophomore Tommy Johnson. Both teams like to defend and get the ball to their forwards, but this game might come down to the midfield and in goal. Wall seems to have collected itself after a pair of bad losses and have come out the other side a stronger team.

The Pick: Wall, 1-0

 

(16) Toms River East at (1) Holmdel, 3 p.m.

Holmdel is 13-0 despite playing most of the season either without Anthony Arena or with Arena operating a well below 100 percent health. Based on his last two games, in which he has scored two goals in each, it looks as though the 2017 Shore Sports Network Player of the Year is fully healed after injuring his hamstring on Sept. 15. That is a game-changer for a team that has not given up more than one goal in any game this year and just five total in 13 games. In fact, Holmdel has not allowed two goals in a game in its last 25 matches and only allowed two goals one time all last season.

So that is what Toms River East is up against. The Raiders have played every single opponent this year tough, with their five losses (Howell, Brick, Toms River South, Jackson Memorial, Marlboro) all coming by a one-goal margin. They are a dangerous team on free kicks thanks to midfielder Peter Kozlej, who is along with Logan Romero and Dane Bodziak, is part of a trio of capable Raiders goal-scorers. To beat Holmdel, Toms River East will either have to score two goals or keep the Hornets off the board – two things that just don’t really happen. Another thing that doesn’t happen, though, is Toms River East losing by multiple goals, so don’t be surprised if Holmdel has to sweat this one out.

The Pick: Holmdel, 2-1.

Colts Neck senior Ethan Kilmnick (front) battles Holmdel senior Joe Arena for the ball. (Photo by Matt Manley)

(23) Colts Neck at (7) Manalapan, 3:30 p.m. at Manalapan Rec. Complex

If we’re calling it like we see it, Colts Neck was severely under-seeded. Leading up to the SCT cutoff, the Cougars were 4-1 with a 4-0 win over Wall and their 2-5 start included an overtime loss to No. 2 Jackson Memorial and a 1-0 loss to No. 4 Ocean. Pinelands paid the price for that unfriendly seeding when the Cougars travelled south and knocked off the Wildcats in overtime in Saturday’s opening round to earn a short trip to Manalapan on Wednesday. Brooks Condon has emerged as a steady source of offense along with forward Paul Tepedino, with Ethan Kilmnick directing the operation from the central midfield.

Like Colts Neck, Manalapan had to win on Wednesday to qualify for the tournament, but the Braves did not get buried in the bracket, because they won the Class A North public division title. They have run a hot-and-cold this year, starting the season with two horrible losses before rallying back to .500, then dropping under .500 with two games left before the SCT cutoff. Manalapan has scored three goals in each of its last three games and this has the making of a high-scoring game as well. Expect a wild one that will probably need more than 80 minutes to settle.

The Pick: Manalapan, 3-2 in overtime

 

(21) Raritan at (5) Freehold Twp., 3:30 p.m.

After emerging victorious from the only round of penalties on Saturday, Raritan will face an even tougher challenge on Friday. The Rockets caught a break when their first-round game at Marlboro was moved to a venue with a turf field, which is what Raritan has played on in 10 of its 14 games. Raritan has played four times on natural grass and lost all four – to Red Bank Regional, Manasquan, Wall and Lacey. Not only will the Rockets have to play Freehold Township on the Patriots small grass (and dirt/mud) field, but they will have to do so with senior Marco Vasta serving the first game of a red-card suspension.

Freehold Township senior Chris Orrico. (Photo by Matt Manley)

There is, however, hope for Raritan. Freehold Township appeared to be a heavy favorite last year heading into a round-of-16 game against Monmouth Regional, which played the game without 30-goal scorer Joel Burgos. Monmouth took out the Patriots, 1-0, and that Freehold Township team was probably more dangerous than this one. While Vasta is an important part of Raritan’s starting lineup, he is not a 30-goal scorer, so if Monmouth could do it, so can Raritan. Ultimately, though, Freehold Township should learn from last year’s disappointment and getting Rockets on grass will make a difference. Raritan forward Jake Fortune is an x-factor with seven goals in his team’s last seven games and he will probably need to score another goal or two to keep the Rockets in it.

The Pick: Freehold Twp., 3-1

 

(13) Toms River North at (4) Ocean, 3:30 p.m.

Since beating Toms River South to close out the month of September, Toms River North has been in a bit of a funk. The Mariners are 3-2, but those wins came against Donovan Catholic, Jackson Liberty and Point Beach. Toms River North got by Point Beach in the first round on Saturday, but had to hold on to a 1-0 lead for the entire second half to do it. While the recent results don’t suggest Toms River North is long for the tournament, it is worth remembering that this is a program that has thrived in an underdog role during the tenure of head coach Joe Mahon. They have operated with different styles over the years and this year’s team is a defense-first team with a handful of forwards who have a nose for the goal.

Ocean senior Santieno Harding. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Ocean, meanwhile, has not quite taken off as much as its talented roster suggested it would at the beginning of the season. The Spartans have still been very good, which explains the No. 4 seed, but there isn’t much about Ocean’s body of work that really jumps off the page. The loss to Manasquan back in September was the wake-up-call game for Ocean and since then, the Spartans have been on their toes, save for a 2-0 loss to Wall that came after Ocean had already clinched the B North title. This game will be a chance for the Spartans to make a statement that they are built for the postseason and ready to get back to the SCT final.

The Pick: Ocean, 4-1

 

(19) Lakewood at (3) CBA, 3:30 p.m.

Lakewood appeared poised for a big year through the first eight games of the season until the Piners hit a very rough stretch in which they went 1-3 with losses to Lacey, Pinelands and Donovan Catholic and a 4-3 win over Central in which they needed four goals in the last seven minutes to beat the 2-12-1 Golden Eagles. Now it looks like Lakewood is back on track after taking out Neptune in the opening round of the SCT, which earned the Piners a chance to play the gold standard for programs in the Shore Conference. The Piners have a senior-laden team with plenty of skill and they should benefit from playing on the big field at the academy.

CBA senior Joe Lozowski. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

CBA has stubbed its toe just once all year and that was a 1-0 loss to Howell. Lakewood could potentially use a similar formula against the Colts by defending, leaning on a strong keeper in Moises Galvan and trying to counter with its forwards. That’s not exactly how Lakewood prefers to play – the Piners like to build up an attack with their back line and midfield, where its most skilled players play, so if anything, CBA will have to watch out for Lakewood challenging them in the middle of the formation. That should ultimately work out for a Colts team that can still posses with just about anybody and although Lakewood will be pumped for the game, barring any major defensive miscues, CBA should eventually put this one away.

The Pick: CBA, 3-0

 

(18) Lacey at (2) Jackson Memorial, 3:45 p.m.

Jackson Memorial senior Ben Patti. (Photo by Larry Murphy)

A No. 18 seed beating a No. 15 is not groundbreaking in this or any tournament, but Lacey knocking off Toms River South definitely caught the attention of the rest of the Shore Conference. Toms River South has played in the semifinals of this tournament in two of the past three seasons and has won three straight NJSIAA sectional championships, so an upstart like Lacey taking the Indians out in round one is big news. Anyone who has seen Lacey recently, though, should not be shocked. The Lions have overhauled themselves from a high-scoring, high-risk team last year, to a strong defensive team with an opportunistic group of players on the attack.  While it should surprise no one that Holmdel and Jackson Memorial lead the Shore in goal differential at plus-38, it might surprise many to learn Lacey is third at plus-34. Sean Moffitt has been exactly what Lacey needed up top this year and Kip Byrne continues to be one of the Shore’s best facilitators.

So how does what Lacey brings to the table stack up to the team that leads the Shore Conference in goals scored (46) and goals per game (4.18) and is second in goals allowed (eight) and goals allowed per game (0.73)? It’s hard to say for sure, but the Lions could match up a little better against Jackson Memorial that they did against Southern, which ended Lacey’s nine-game winning streak by beating them, 2-0. Lacey does a good job applying pressure all over the field and when it comes to capitalizing on chances, the Lions have been as good as any team in the tournament. Jackson, though, is strong in goal, experienced in the back, and lethal in the attacking third and there are just too many weapons for most opponents to track. The Jaguars are not unbeatable and Lacey will have a shot, but playing at home, with huge expectations should make for a fired-up Jackson squad on Wednesday.

The Pick: Jackson Memorial, 2-0

 

First Round Picks Record: 7-3

 

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