The Shore Conference Tournament kicks off on Saturday morning with 20 of the 26 teams in the field in action and six more preparing for the round of 16 with games or practice. The first round is always good for at least an upset or two, but the following piece is about a lot more than first round results (although, you can find those predictions at the end of the post).

“Breaking Down the Field” is about grouping the teams based on their realistic chances to advance deep into the tournament and potentially even win it. That includes all factors: how a team is playing, health, its overall talent and, of course, how tough a team’s road to the final is. Most years there are only a few teams with a real chance at winning the whole thing, but it’s not uncommon for a team or two to make a surprise run.

Read on to find out which teams are realistically gunning for a title as well as the ones who could make a splash before the championship game.

 

First-Round Underdogs – A round-one win for any of these teams would be the lead story on Saturday.

26. St. Rose

The season started out somewhat promising for St. Rose, which beat Point Boro and buried Wall in a 2-0 hole before giving up the lead in a 3-2 loss. Since then, however, the Purple Rose have endure injuries and accompanying inconsistency, which manifested itself in losses to Ranney and Donovan Catholic and a tie against Manchester. A trip to play Manalapan – riding high after a thrilling win over Franklin and convincing win over Howell to qualify – doesn’t offer much reason for hope, but it’s certainly a no-pressure situation.

25. Barnegat

Last year marked the first time Barnegat reached the Shore Conference Tournament and Bengals bowed out in the opening round to Howell. This time around, the Bengals won’t have to travel nearly as far when they face Southern on Saturday and maybe that helps some. Southern, however, has looked sharp recently and Barnegat has not been tested like this since playing Pinelands in late September. That, however, was a 2-1 game, so maybe Barnegat has something to work with in a similar matchup.

24. Red Bank Catholic

The Caseys cleaned up against some struggling teams to qualify for the tournament but made good use of one last tune-up Wednesday night when they played Monmouth to a scoreless draw. RBC has the kind of keeper in Andrew Schweizer who can keep the team in the game and that will be the formula against a Howell team that is struggling all of a sudden. It’s hard to see the Rebels’ slide continuing but if Schweizer can frustrate them early, maybe it messed with the Rebels.

20. Point Pleasant Beach

The Garnet Gulls are well-positioned to go on a run in Central Jersey Group I once the NJSIAA Tournament starts, but navigating the SCT is always a tough proposition for a small school. Ki Costa has been a scoring machine for Point Beach and Toms River North hasn’t overwhelmed most of its opponents, but this will still be a big step up in competition for Point Beach. The Gulls do have some firepower with Costa, Alex Atno and Ryan Brodeur, so if they can score early, maybe that sets the tone.

 

Early Birds – This trio is capable of a round-one win, but beyond that will be a challenge.

19. Lakewood

The Piners come into the tournament struggling, but can take solace in the fact that they play a team in Neptune that they tied during the regular season. Neptune, for its part, lost to Matawan on Wednesday, so both teams have to clear their collective minds and a good way to do it is with a first-round win. Neptune is probably better equipped to take a legitimate shot at CBA, but it would be fun to watch a confident Lakewood team tackle the challenge.

18. Lacey

This might be selling Lacey short, but the Lions have had two games against top-10 teams this year and were outscored by a combined total of 5-0. Lacey is a vastly-improved defensive team from a year ago, they have a legitimate top player in Kip Byrne and should not be taken lightly as they head to Toms River South for round one. If Lacey does earn the trip to Jackson Memorial, it will have to find another level to have a shot at upsetting the No. 2 Jaguars.

Lacey senior Kip Byrne (right) challenges Lakewood senior Giovanni Hernandez. (Photo by Matt Manley)

15. Toms River South

Unlike Lacey, Toms River South has already taken a shot at Jackson Memorial and it did not go as planned. The Indians lost, 3-0, to the Jaguars and given that round two would also be on the grass in Jackson, the prospects for a win would not be significantly better. If any team can rise to the occasion, however, Toms River South would seem to fit the bill. Just two seasons ago, it was a 19th-seeded Jackson Memorial team that upset No. 3 Toms River South in the round of 16, so maybe there is some payback in order.

17. Freehold Boro

All-in-all, Freehold Boro has had an unassuming season, but there are some signs that the Colonials could be a major sleeper. They beat Wall early in the season and took CBA to overtime in Freehold, 2-1. They also lost in overtime to both No. 5 Freehold Township and No. 9 Howell, so this team was only a few bounces here or there from having a very different experience at this point in the year. The good news is there is still time make noise and nothing would catch the attention of the Shore quite likely pushing Holmdel to the brink. With forwards Isaac Ball and Abel Herrera, Freehold could absolutely be a handful for the Hornets in round two.

16. Toms River East

Everything said above about Freehold Boro applies to Toms River East. The Raiders host Freehold Boro on Saturday and if they survive what looks like an even matchup, Holmdel awaits on Wednesday. The Raiders also have some noteworthy results, namely two wins over Toms River North, one over Pinelands and a recent win at Manalapan. They also gave Jackson Memorial a game before falling, 2-1. With standout Pete Kozlej showing the scoring touch and fellow senior Logan Romero serving as a threat as well, consider Toms River East dangerous.

 

Middle-Tier Wild Card

14. Neptune

Although Neptune sports a solid 9-4-1 record, the Scarlet Fliers have had some bumps along the way – namely against non-qualifiers Point Boro and Matawan. At its best, though, Neptune is a strong defensive team with arguably the best goal-scorer in the conference in Wilby Alfred. That’s going to be a scary proposition for CBA if the Scarlet Fliers make it that far and while they were unable to beat Neptune and Wall during the regular season, they were very competitive against both. With the combination of defense and playmakers like Alfred and Mickenna Church, Neptune is as equipped as any double-digit seed to put a scare into a top seed like CBA, which is why they will be a fascinating team to follow over the next several days.

Neptune senior Wilby Alfred. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

The Roaring Twenties – These 20-and-up seeds have a real chance to make an impact.

22. Monmouth

A promising season at Monmouth took a major hit when senior center midfielder Brian Waltsak suffered a season-ending ankle injury, robbing the Falcons of their best returning player from a 2017 team that reached the SCT quarterfinals and the Central Jersey Group II final. Remember, though, that Monmouth won two games in last year’s SCT with top scorer Joel Burgos ailing, including a game at Freehold Township in which he did not play at all. The draw also favors the Falcons, who lost to first-round opponent Manasquan in overtime just a week ago and could be a potential second-round threat to a Wall side that lost to St. John Vianney and Colts Neck in back-to-back games last week.

21. Raritan

It took a big win over Middletown South for the Rockets to qualify for the SCT and now that they are in, they make for a dangerous team that is figuring things out at the perfect time. Jake Fortune has caught fire with five goals in the team’s last three games, including a hat trick in that win over Middletown South. Raritan will face a Marlboro team that, while battle-tested and proven in A North, is one year removed from a 1-14-2 season. If Raritan can pull off an upset, it will face a Freehold Township team that was upset by Monmouth in last year’s round of 16 and also lost to Middletown South earlier this season.

23. Colts Neck

Although Colts Neck got a very unfavorable seed considering its resume, drawing the Cougars in the first round is just as unfavorable for No. 10 Pinelands. Colts Neck has a convincing win over Wall and also took No. 2 Jackson Memorial to overtime, so not only can Colts Neck hang with its first-round opponent; the Cougars can hang with anybody. It would not be at all shocking for Colts Neck to make a successful trip to Pinelands and then go beat No. 7 Manalapan to set up a rematch with Jackson Memorial in the quarterfinals.

 

Opportunity Knocks – These teams have some questions around them, but got great draws.

12. Marlboro

Marlboro’s road to the quarterfinals is by no means easy, but the Mustangs will have a real shot to not only beat Raritan and Freehold Township in the first two rounds, but perhaps even Ocean in the quarterfinals. Former Marlboro All-Shore forward P.J. Ringel said at the beginning of the year this team reminds him of the 2014 team that reached the SCT quarterfinals as a No. 19 seed and while this year’s team won’t have to do it all on the road, the bracket shakes out very similarly to the way it did in 2014.

11. Manasquan

Out of the three teams in this cluster, Manasquan has the most noteworthy win, defeating Ocean on the road early in the season. The Warriors have tested themselves against Ocean, Holmdel, Wall and Neptune and should be ready for a rematch with Monmouth and, if that game goes in its favor, another shot at Wall. The Crimson Knights needed overtime to win the regular-season meeting between the two rivals so Manasquan has to feel like this road to the quarterfinals represents a real opportunity. If everything breaks right, Manasquan will play in the quarterfinals and considering how tough the Warriors played Holmdel, they might have a real shot in that one.

Manasquan sophomore Tommy Johnson. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

13. Toms River North

This one is all about the draw. The Mariners open by hosting a Point Beach team that hasn’t ventured out of B Central often and its few dives into the deep end have not gone well. After that, the Mariners line up, potentially, against Ocean and Freehold Township, the latter of which Toms River North already played to a 2-2 draw in Freehold. Toms River North has had mixed results throughout the year and is coming off an ugly loss to Jackson Memorial, but the Mariners are a defensive-minded team with some senior presence that is definitely adept enough to steal a win at Ocean in round two and perhaps more.

 

Proven-yet-flawed Contenders

6. Wall

Up until Wednesday night, it would have been debatable whether or not to call Wall a “proven” team considering the Crimson Knights had not played another team seeded in the top 10 until that point. With that win, however, Wall showed it can step up and play with a team that has legitimate championship aspirations and by associations, the Knights can assume some of those aspirations as well. They will likely have to fight off Manasquan for a second time in order to earn a trip to play CBA, but after beating Ocean, the whole Shore now knows what the best version of Wall can do.

9. Howell

Of all the teams in the tournament, Howell was the most disappointing in the week leading up to it. After stunning CBA, 1-0, and rolling up Middletown South, 4-1, the Rebels lost three straight to Toms River South, Middletown North and Manalapan, which effectively cost them a top-four seed. With that being said, the CBA win did happen and it should be a lesson that Howell might like that underdog role. The Rebels already beat Southern once and will likely get a trip to Stafford Township for the round of 16 and if they emerge victorious in those first two games, they likely get to play underdog against No. 1 Holmdel. The Hornets routed Howell out of last year’s tournament, so we might get a chance to see how far Howell has come in a year, not to mention in the last week.

8. Southern

Some midseason growing pains for Southern seem to have subsided as the Rams enter the SCT on a three-game winning streak that includes victories over previously-unbeaten Jackson Memorial and a Lacey team that entered on a nine-game winning streak. The Rams will benefit from home field advantage in a likely round-of-16 game against Howell, which beat Southern, 2-0, in Howell to extend Southern’s winless streak at the time to five games (0-4-1). The win over Jackson showed the Rams can compete with anyone and if they can overcome Howell on Wednesday, Southern will get a chance to play the only team in the tournament seeded ahead of Jackson Memorial (Holmdel).

Southern sophomore Kevin Kiernan. (Photo by Matt Manley)

7. Manalapan

Manalapan went from near-certain elimination from the SCT to a team with some serious momentum heading into the tournament. The Braves overcame a 3-0 deficit to stun Franklin in overtime, then carried that high over in a 3-0 win over Howell to win the public A North title and qualify for the SCT on Wednesday. The Braves will have to play either a talented Pinelands team or dangerous No. 23 seed in Colts Neck in the round of 16, so getting to a rematch with Jackson Memorial is no guarantee. If they can, however, the Braves would like to show they have come a long way since losing, 8-2, at Jackson in the second game of the season.

5. Freehold Township

The bracket seems to be laid-out for Freehold Township to make a run to the semifinals, but then again, it seemed that way last year when the then-fourth-seeded Patriots were upset by No. 20 Monmouth in the round of 16. That loss should serve both as a warning not to sleep on either Marlboro or Raritan in round two, as well as some motivation for redemption. The Patriots just took Jackson Memorial to the wire on Saturday so they have proven that if they can get to a quarterfinal game vs. Ocean or a semifinal game vs. Holmdel, they will be competitive.

 

Upper-Class Wild Cards

10. Pinelands

Although Pinelands did not have many noteworthy wins heading into the tournament, they have played the top two seeds in the tournament and were in both games, save for the last 25 minutes against Jackson Memorial, when they were playing a man down. The Wildcats returned their entire attack from last year and their defense-and-goalkeeper combination has started to show signs of improvement over the last several weeks after some real struggles that carried over from the end of last season. If Pinelands has its defense in order to complement one of the most capable front-sevens in the tournament, they have a legitimate chance to take out Jackson Memorial and reach the semifinals. The road is a very tough one, but if the Wildcats can survive it, it should toughen them up to play the tournament favorites in the late rounds.

4. Ocean

After losing to Wall on Wednesday, it is fair to say Ocean is a distant fourth in this tournament, well behind the likes of Holmdel, Jackson Memorial and CBA. On talent, however, Ocean remains in the same class. They went toe-to-toe with CBA in a 3-2 loss and although they lost to Wall on Wednesday, it was after they already wrapped up a B North title. This is, more-or-less, the same team that made it to both the Shore Conference and Central Group III Tournament championship games and now that the games are at their most meaningful, we might see Ocean at its best.

Jackson Memorial senior Dan Russo. (Photo by Larry Murphy)

The Favorites

2. Jackson Memorial

While all three teams in the contender category have similar chances to win the whole thing, Jackson Memorial should probably be considered third in the pecking order as the tournament begins. Holmdel is the defending champion and CBA has tested itself against St. Benedict’s, Holmdel and Delran, not to mention the Class A North schedule. Jackson, however, is as dangerous as either team on the field given its offensive firepower and traditionally stout defense. On top of that, the Jaguars are likely to face two teams – No. 15 Toms River South and either No. 7 Manalapan or No. 10 Pinelands – that they already beat this year before getting to a potential semifinal game vs. CBA. Throw in a dominant home performance over the course of the season and the Jaguars look like a safe bet to make it to Point Boro for the semifinals.

3. Christian Brothers Academy

It was probably a surprise to the CBA players to see their team turn up as the No. 3 seed instead of No. 2 and it might turn out to be a blessing. The Colts will undoubtedly be motivated by the perceived slight and in reality, the difference between being the No. 2 seed and the No. 3 seed is negligible. While this CBA team isn’t the juggernaut that the 2016 squad was, it is an experienced group that fits the mold of a typical CBA team that challenges for a Shore Conference championship, which the program has done 10 times. If Holmdel awaits in the championship game, expect CBA to again be motivated after swallowing a 3-1 loss at Holmdel last weekend.

Holmdel senior Joe Arena settles the ball vs. CBA junior Mike Casper. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

1. Holmdel

The defending champs are the clear team to beat again and that is despite playing without their most dynamic player for most of the season. Anthony Arena played sparingly in a Sept. 25 win over Manasquan and Saturday’s win over CBA and did not play any other minutes during the period spanning Sept. 17 to Oct. 4. On Wednesday, however, Arena showed he appears to be past the hamstring injury that sidelined him, scoring two goals during the second half while playing most of the game, albeit with frequent trips to the bench. Holmdel showed they are on par with CBA and Jackson Memorial without Arena and now that he appears to be rounding back into shape for the SCT, he becomes the player that separates Holmdel from the other contenders.

 

Round One Quick Picks

(7) Manalapan over (26) St. Rose, 3-0

(8) Southern over (25) Barnegat, 4-1

(9) Howell over (24) Red Bank Catholic, 2-0

(10) Pinelands over (23) Colts Neck, 2-1

(11) Manasquan over (22) Monmouth, 2-0

(19) Raritan over (12) Marlboro, 3-2

(13) Toms River North over (20) Point Beach, 3-1

(14) Neptune over (19) Lakewood, 4-2

(15) Toms River South over (18) Lacey, 1-0

(16) Toms River East over (17) Freehold Boro, 2-1

 

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