Boys Soccer – SCT Semifinal Preview, Picks
Shore Conference Tournament Semifinals
Thursday, Oct. 30 at Memorial Athletic Complex, Summerfield School in Neptune
No. 2 Manalapan vs. No. 11 Freehold Township, 5 p.m.
Based on the last 10 years of SCT history, it is not unusual for Class A North teams to meet in Neptune. It is, however, the first time since 2009 that two Class A North teams have met in the final two rounds in the tournament and the first time since 2008 that any two have met in the semifinal round. So what has a third meeting meant for said A North teams? Since 2006, the higher-seeded A North team is 5-1 in head-to-head meetings with five straight wins for the higher seeded team since Manalapan beat No. 1 Howell in the 2006 semifinals.
On the surface, those facts seem to stack the deck further against Freehold Township, which did not beat Manalapan during the season but did pitch the season’s only shutout against the Braves in a 0-0 tie at Freehold Township. So, while Freehold Township has not yet defeated the Braves, the Patriots have shown, to a degree, that they can make scoring difficult for the Braves. Another reason for optimism for Freehold Township is that the goal-scoring attack has been more dangerous away from the confined, rocky terrains of the Freehold Regional School District and on more open surfaces. The Patriots have speed and can knock the ball around as well or better than any Freehold Township team since the 2008 championship team, mostly because this group has been playing together at the varsity level for two-plus years. While A North wasn’t kind to Freehold Township during the regular season, the postseason has brought better fortune and the Patriots have gone through two A North teams – CBA and Marlboro – to get to this point.
Manalapan, meanwhile, just faced a similar task Saturday, when the Braves beat a defensive-minded Jackson Memorial team. Freehold Township has exceptional speed relative to any other defensive team, plus a Division I goalkeeper in Brian Shushkovsky, but Manalapan has a good idea of how to handle the athleticism. More and more teams have attempted to clamp down on Ryan Hammer and it has forced other Braves to finish goal in different ways, which they have done, for the most part. On the whole, Manalapan is a more creative team when it comes to finishing around the goal, but Freehold Township has been the best team at preventing goals during this tournament. Goals will be hard to come by and it will probably take a little extra time to decide this one, but I’ll stick with the statistics and the defending champs. The Pick: Manalapan, 2-1
No. 4 Wall vs. No. 25 St. John Vianney, 7 p.m.
There was not much indication prior to the tournament that the second game of the semifinal double-header at Memorial Athletic Complex would feature the No. 25 seed Lancers. St. John Vianney entered the tournament a shade above .500 and had to travel to face an experienced, dangerous Brick Memorial team in the first round with top-seeded Toms River South potentially standing in the way of this trip to the semifinals. Vianney survived the first round against Brick Memorial and after a late goal helped them beat Point Boro, the Lancers turned in their best performance of the season in beating Toms River South 4-2 on Tuesday.
Now, St. John Vianney faces a Wall team with a similar level of returning experience and even more big-game exposure, which will make this Vianney’s toughest task yet. While the Lancers have not recorded a shutout in the tournament, defense has been a focus over the course of this year and will surely be a focus on Thursday night against a Wall team that has scored more than other Wall teams of recent vintage. The Crimson Knights have six strong finishers for the Lancers to account for, which is different than anything they have faced during the tournament. While there is not a straight-ahead scorer like Brick Memorial’s Bryan Malerba or Matawan’s Brian Cella, the Wall balance will challenge Vianney to continue to keep the ball out of its goal.
On the other end, Wall has hit its stride defensively as well after having to replace three starters from last year’s team. St. John Vianney’s offense has broken out over its last four games, with 14 goals in that stretch after just 11 in its first 11 games, so while the overall numbers are about average, Wall will have to shut down a hot offense. Wall just faced another high-flying attack that scored four goals in its previous round and limited that Shore attack to just a single goal that came right before halftime. Wall has not done it with obvious dominance, but the Crimson Knights have limited mistakes and has found its groove scoring goals and making the most of scoring opportunities. The St. John Vianney run has been historical both for the individual program and the tournament as a whole and with each win, the Lancers’ run will be exponentially more impressive and likely unrepeatable for a 25 seed. In all likelihood, this is where the road ends, but likely outcomes haven’t meant much to the Lancers to this point. The Pick: Wall, 2-0