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The 2013 Boys Shore Conference Tournament was supposed to be one of the more open tournaments of the last decade, but here we are with four of the top five seeds in the semifinals. The girls side of the tournament was supposed to be a little clearer with top seed Freehold, but a No. 13 seed (Central) is playing a No. 6 seed (Red Bank Catholic) in the final. Those seeds were supposed to be ones we might see on the boys side at this point.

Holmdel senior Jack Flanagan (left) and Rumson senior Eamon Kitson (far right) will be at the center of their respective team's attack in the third meeting between the teams on Thursday night. (Photo by Matt Manley)

The two semifinal matches pit two division rivals against one another, as well as two programs that have enjoyed great success over the last 20 years.

 

Shore Conference Tournament Semifinals
Memorial Field at Summerfield School, Neptune

No. 2 Holmdel (15-1-1) vs. No. 3 Rumson-Fair Haven (15-1-1), 5 p.m.

Since I started covering soccer at the Shore, never have two division rivals from outside Class A North faced this late in the Shore Conference Tournament. The smaller schools of the Shore Conference have raised their game over the last several seasons and coupled with a slight slip in the overall talent in Class A North from the days of the loaded CBA, Marlboro, Freehold Township, Howell and Manalapan teams of the 2000’s, the tournament has become more unpredictable.

A large part of that small-school uprising can be attributed to the success of Holmdel, which has developed into a year-to-year threat to win the Shore Conference since finally putting it all together in 2010. The Hornets have ruled over Class A Central since then, but other teams have improved by playing the Hornets twice a year. No team has benefitted more from the raised standard of excellence in Class A Central than Rumson-Fair Haven, whose stacked senior class has had in its mind that Holmdel is the standard in the division and the team the Bulldogs will have to beat in order to take over the division.

This season, the two rivals have been almost as even as can be. The two teams split the Class A Central championship as well as the regular-season series, with Rumson winning the first meeting, 3-2, and Holmdel taking the second one, 2-1. The Hornets lost to the Bulldogs in the third game of their season and have since gone 14 straight games without a loss. Holmdel has outscored opponents 48-12 in 17 games and Rumson has a 48-15 advantage in 17 games as well.

During the tournament, Rumson-Fair Haven has been the slightly more impressive team. The Bulldogs have outscored the opposition 4-0 in two games and played very clean games each time, although they failed to cash in on a number of quality chances against Monsignor Donovan in the round of 16. Holmdel, meanwhile, needed overtime to beat Toms River East after squandering 2-0 second-half lead, then scored three goals in the last seven minutes to erase a 1-0 deficit against Jackson Memorial in the quarterfinals.

With a roster full of seniors and striker Eamon Kitson playing his best soccer of the season lately, Rumson should have an edge in play. Mentally, however, Holmdel has been the battles before and knows how to pull out games in the postseason. This is Rumson’s first shot at the SCT semifinals, and with so many seniors, it might be the Bulldogs’ only shot for a while.

The Pick: Rumson-Fair Haven, 3-2

 

No. 1 Manalapan (15-2-1) vs. No. 5 Ocean (11-1-5)

This year’s tournament favorite takes on last year’s tournament champion in a game that pits two teams that were involved in the most lopsided defeat in SCT championship game history back in 2000. Manalapan beat Ocean 8-1 in the final that year, but of course, that was a long time ago.

As a matter of fact, the last team to score eight goals in a Shore Conference Tournament game was Ocean in 2012. The Spartans beat Toms River South, 8-2, and then beat Long Branch, 6-1, to start a dominant postseason run. This year’s tournament has been anything but easy for Ocean, which survived an overtime scare from Toms River South on Saturday and a penalty kick shootout against Toms River North on Tuesday. Although they’ve had to sweat out those wins, the fact that Ocean is still alive shows the Spartans still have the ability to win close games.

While Ocean was winning a championship last year, Manalapan was just trying to figure out its identity. The Braves finished 2012 with a 5-10-3 record and did not qualify for either the Shore Conference or NJSIAA Tournaments, but are once again relevant thanks to a balanced group of seniors, juniors and sophomores and a very deep roster, not only of athletes with skill, but players who can come into a game and score a goal.

Manalapan has looked the part of favorite for most of the year and have won some big games lately to earn that title. Now, the Braves face a team that has done nothing but win big games over the last calendar year and change. Now at full strength with the return of Adam Weisgber from a concussion, the Braves are going to have a lot of match-up advantages. Ocean’s best chance is in goal with Monmouth University recruit Chris Seager, who can swing the advantage to Ocean with a top-notch performance. If Seager has a career game, expect Ocean to be going back to the final. I’ll tentatively bet the other way.

The Pick: Manalapan 2, Ocean 1