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Shore Conference Tournament Championship
At Memorial Field at Summerfield Elementary School, Neptune
5 p.m.

No. 1 Manalapan (16-2-1, 11-2-1 in Class A North)

Vs.

No. 3 Rumson-Fair Haven (16-1-1, 10-1-1 in Class A Central)

 

Probable Starters

Manalapan

Coach:John Natoli, 22nd season

Position Player

No.

Grade

Forward Ryan Hammer

9

Jr.

Forward Matt Dizenhaus

18

Sr.

LO Midfield Mitchell Volis

10

So.

C Midfield Stefano Muniz

27

Jr.

C Midfield Adam Weisberger

13

Jr.

RO Midfield Rocky Garretson

1

Fr.

LO Fullback Mike McNicholas

16

So.

C Fullback Brandon Garcia

15

Sr.

C Fullback Chris Colen

20

Sr.

RO Fullback Brian Dolan

23

Sr.

Goalkeeper Ethan Siegel

0

Sr.

 

Rumson-Fair Haven

Coach: Will Gould, first season

Position Player

No.

Grade

Forward Eamon Kitson

10

Sr.

Forward Mike Slutz

19

Jr.

LO Midfield Kieran Doherty

14

Sr.

C Midfield Pete Martin

17

Sr.

C Midfield Matt Dell

27

Sr.

RO Midfield Harry Gassert

8

Sr.

LO Fullback Chris Drummond

16

Sr.

C Fullback Ryan Strang

9

Sr.

C Fullback Carl Geiger

20

Sr.

RO Fullback Shaemus French

26

Jr.

Goalkeeper Chris Tierney

0

Sr.

 

The two Shore Conference Tournament finalists – No. 1 seed Manalapan and No. 3 Rumson-Fair Haven – are hardly a surprise. The two teams have combined to lose only three games all season, both finished at the top of their respective divisions and both were preseason Top 10 teams according to Shore Sports Network and the Asbury Park Press.

Manalapan junior Adam Weisberger handles the ball against Ocean senior George Kavarakas on Thursday night. (Photo by Cliff Lavelle)

Yet a year ago, Saturday’s Shore Conference Tournament championship seemed like more than a year away. Rumson-Fair Haven was a matter of days away from a first-round home loss to Bordentown in the NJSIAA Tournament, which followed a round-of-16 exit at the hands of Holmdel in the Shore Conference Tournament. When all was said and done, the Bulldogs finished a respectable 8-7-1.

Manalapan would have gladly taken “respectable” in 2012. The Braves, sporting a roster light on senior talent, finished 5-10-3 while missing both the Shore Conference and NJSIAA Group IV Tournaments. Although Manalapan brought back most of its starting lineup from 2012, it would have to come a long way in order to compete.

Fast forward to this weekend and everything has seemed to work out perfectly for both finalists up to this point. Rumson might have liked to win the Class A Central championship outright instead of sharing it with Holmdel, but the Bulldogs won the rubber match with Holmdel Thursday night to reach the championship game.

Manalapan lost to Colts Neck and Howell during the regular season, but beat the Cougars twice since that first loss and beat Howell in the second meeting between the teams, 3-0. The Braves also play Howell in the first round of the Central Jersey Group IV playoffs on Tuesday.

Both teams have earned their way to Saturday’s game and it’s fair to say, with all due respect to Holmdel and Ocean, the two best teams are playing for the Shore Conference title.

 

Reasons Manalapan Will Win

Experience where it counts: The Braves took their lumps in 2012 because of a roster full of sophomores and freshman, which means a lot of this year’s roster is made up of juniors and sophomores.

There are, however, five senior starters on the Braves and four of those are on the defense, including starting goalkeeper Ethan Siegel. Brian Dolan, Brandon Garcia and Chris Colen anchor the back line, along with sophomore outside back Mike McNicholas. The experience in the back has helped Manalapan hold its opponents to 11 goals in 19 games, a goals-per-game average second only to Monsignor Donovan in the Shore Conference.

Composure: Despite a relatively young roster, the Braves have shown an ability to keep their cool in tight situations. Manalapan is 5-0-1 in overtime games this season and those wins have come against Christian Brothers Academy (11-4-2), Jackson Memorial (12-5-3), Marlboro (4-11-0), Middletown North (4-11-1) and Ocean (11-2-5). Two of those wins – against CBA and Jackson Memorial – came on consecutive days.

Not only has Manalapan beat good teams in overtime, but it has beat good teams, period. In an always difficult Class A North, the Braves were head and shoulders above the rest. The Braves beat each team in the division at least once, beat CBA twice in two meetings and also went to Jackson for a tough out-of-division win.

The Braves best win was not one of the overtime wins, but rather a victory over Colts Neck that clinched a share of the Class A North title. Manalapan trailed 2-0 at halftime and to that point, Colts Neck had outscored the Braves 5-0 in 120 minutes. In the next 40 minutes, Manalapan scored three unanswered goals to win 3-2.

Balance: Like many teams in this tournament, Manalapan does not have a true, pure scorer. What the Braves do have is a vast array of players who can finish, evidenced by a roster with 13 players who have scored at least one goal.

Junior forward Ryan Hammer is the team’s most dangerous scoring threat and leads the team in scoring with five goals and four assists. Senior Matt Dizenhaus, junior Adam Weisberger, junior Stefano Muniz, Colen, Dolan and freshman Rocky Garretson all have multiple goals and key goals for the Braves.

Versatility has also been a staple of the Manalapan roster. Dolan starts at outside right fullback, but has pushed up to the midfield to score. Muniz worked in as a forward to begin the year and has stepped up in the center midfielder during the postseason. Hammer has pushed up to forward after playing in the center midfield for most of his early career.

Manalapan has exemplified the team concept this season and has demonstrated its cohesion in the biggest moments of the biggest games. That bodes well for the Braves in their quest for their first SCT title since 2006.

 

Reasons to Like Rumson

Seniors on top of seniors: While Manalapan sports a diverse roster of players from different graduating years, Rumson is heavy on seniors. The Bulldogs start nine seniors and have six more available on the bench. Three of those players – Eamon Kitson, Pete Martin and goalkeeper Chris Tierney are commited Division I players – so this is not only an experienced group, but an experienced group with some serious talent.

Rumson-Fair Haven senior Eamon Kitson looks to lead the Bulldogs to their first ever SCT championship. (Photo by Cliff Lavelle)

The seniors around the formation have also allowed the handful of juniors and sophomores who play to contribute. Junior forward Ryan Strang leads the team with 13 goals, while junior Paul Criscitiello and sophomore Jamie Martin have come off the bench to contribute scoring as well.

Size and strength: As a general rule, 17 and 18-year-olds are more physically mature than 15 and 16-year-olds. On top of that, Rumson has some particularly solid athletes on the field for any age, and this has been particularly evident against Holmdel.

Six-foot-3 senior Matt Dell had key goals on headers in both of the Bulldogs wins against Holmdel this year. On top of his sheer size, he also has good leaping ability that makes it very hard to challenge him on balls in the air, which Manalapan does well.

Holmdel also physically wore down against Rumson. The Hornets lost leading scorer Jason Kyriacou to a pulled hamstring during the game and four more players are questionable for Tuesday’s state tournament opener on Tuesday after enduring 80 minutes with the Bulldogs.

Normally, surviving Class A North as Manalapan did would mean a series of physical games, but Freehold Township and CBA have their youngest teams in quite some time, and Colts Neck is more of a finesse team than a physical one. The Braves have not faced a team that can play as fast and as physical as Rumson does.

Now or never: This partially relates to senior leadership, but there is an extra element to the urgency of the Rumson seniors. The boys soccer program at Rumson has never been this far in the Shore Conference Tournament and has never won a state title.

The players in this senior class has been targeting this season since they were freshman as one that they could accomplish something special. Senior center midfielder Pete Martin played academy soccer last year, but came back as a senior just to play in a game like the one Rumson will play Saturday.

It’s hard to envision Rumson getting back to this point next year with so many starters leaving, so looking back as well as forward, this is the best chance Rumson will ever have, at least for the foreseeable future.

 

Prediction

My pick going into the tournament was Manalapan over Rumson in the final, so I have the chance to stick with my pick by picking the Braves. But the more I watch Rumson, the more I’m having trouble picking against the Bulldogs. They outshoot every opponent, they have as many scorers as Manalapan and their defense and goalkeeper Chris Tierney are playing their best soccer. The only possible issue for Rumson is that finishing comes and goes for the Bulldogs, and it could have cost them on Thursday if the opposition played with more danger.

On the other hand, Manalapan has been so tough in big games. The Braves did not play their best game Thursday against Ocean and it’s fair to say Ocean should have won the game if not for a missed chance in front of the net late in regulation. But the fact that Manalapan played a so-so game and won is a testament to their toughness. Last year, Ocean played a shaky semifinal against Middletown South and followed that up with a dominant championship performance against Holmdel.

I expect Manalapan to play a lot better on Saturday night, but is that enough to survive Rumson? I think it is, so I’m sticking with my pick.

The Pick: Manalapan, 2-1