Boys Soccer – What to Watch For in the Shore Conference Tournament
The players on the Shore Regional boys soccer team have spent their varsity careers trying to prove they belong in the conversation with the best teams in the Shore Conference and now that the rest of the conference has acknowledged their play, there is only one more thing to prove.
The Blue Devils were tabbed as the No. 1 seed in this week’s Shore Conference Tournament Monday night thanks to a 16-0 start to the season. The No. 1 seed is an example of how far the perception of Shore from the perspective of the rest of the conference has come, but the only way to ensure that this newfound respect for the Blue Devils doesn’t waver is for Shore to live up to the billing.
In two of the past three seasons, Shore entered the conference tournament with no more than two losses, but never did better than the No. 5 seed they earned last season. With a perfect division record and wins over Class B North champion Ocean and Class B Central champion Rumson-Fair Haven, the Blue Devils were a near-unanimous choice as the top seed in the tournament this time around.
"It's flattering to be considered the number one team in the Shore, but it's not our ultimate goal," Blue Devils senior J.T. Kessler said. "We want to be able to go deep into the tournament and have a chance to win a championship and regardless of what our seeding is, we like we'll have an opportunity to do that."
Last year, the Blue Devils reached the SCT quarterfinals where they lost to Wall on the road, 2-1. They went on to win the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group I championship and with its top two scorers back in Kessler and Dante Montesinos back from a year ago, Shore entered with high expectations that it has been able to meet at every pass.
As the No. 1 seed, Shore has a bye to Saturday’s round of 16 and will host the winner of Thursday’s match between No. 17 Long Branch and No. 16 Manasquan. Should Shore reach the quarterfinals again this year, its likely opponent would be No. 8 Rumson-Fair Have or No. 9 Middletown North. Shore defeated Rumson, 5-2, on Saturday and defeated Middletown North during the early part of last season.
Respect for Class A North
Although a Class A North team did not come away with the top seed in the tournament, the five A North teams that qualified for the tournament all cracked the top 11 seeds. Christian Brothers Academy (No. 2) and Freehold Township (No. 3) both earned seeds in the top three, while Manalapan came in at No. 7, Middletown North at No. 9 and Marlboro No. 11.
Since 2006, a Class A North team has won the conference tournament in eight out of nine seasons, with five different teams from the division capturing an SCT crown. Last year, Freehold Township won the tournament as the No. 11 seed, defeating division rivals CBA (No. 6), Marlboro (No. 19) and Manalapan (No. 2) along the way.
CBA is seeded higher this season than it has been since it won the tournament in 2011, part of a 21-0 season, the second of two straight SCT championships and third of three straight appearances in the championship game. The Colts have failed to reach the quarterfinals in each of the past three seasons, losing in the round of 16 in each of the past two after failing to qualify in 2012 for the first time in program history. The Colts will have a sentimental chip on their collective shoulder as they try to rally around coach Dan Keane, who is in his 38th and final season at the helm.
If its last two games are any indication, Freehold Township is rounding into form at the right time for the second straight year. The Patriots tied unbeaten Pennington 2-2 on Saturday and turned in a dominant 3-0 win over Manalapan on Monday. Senior Jake Kennis recently returned from a 10-game absence due to a concussion and has helped revitalize the formation now that he is back in his spot in the center of the defense.
Middletown North is the other hot A North team. The Lions enter the tournament on a five-game winning streak, which includes a 2-0 win over Holmdel, a 6-0 win over Marlboro and a 2-0 win over Manalapan. After beginning the season 1-3, Middletown North is 8-3 over its last 11 and senior Anthony Chiaino and juniors Elliot De La Rosa and Ryan Harmon have helped spark the goal-scoring.
Manalapan is an A North team headed in the opposite direction, which is a surprise considering just last Wednesday, the Braves took down CBA on the road, 1-0. The Braves, however, followed up the win over CBA with a tie against Freehold Boro and losses to Middletown North and Freehold Township. Manalapan won the SCT in 2013 and captured the Central Jersey Group IV championship last year after scuffling at the end of the regular season, so it’s still too early to count out the Braves.
If not for running into eventual champion Freehold Township in the quarterfinals, Marlboro might have been last year’s Cinderella team in the SCT. The Mustangs upset both No. 14 Red Bank and No. 3 Toms River North in their first two games before falling at Freehold Township. Marlboro is coming off an up-and-down week during which it lost 6-0 to Middletown North and followed up by tying CBA, 0-0.
Wall-Ocean Part III?
Class B North rivals Ocean and Wall traded 1-0 wins this season, with Wall winning the first meeting at Ocean and Ocean taking the second meeting at Wall, which clinched the Spartans the Class B North division title. In both games, the winner scored the lone goal of the game in the sixth minute and sat on the lead. Ocean also won the most recent meeting with senior midfielder and Monmouth University recruit Wadneson Alexis out of the lineup.
Wall has allowed only two goals all season – one on an own goal against Long Branch and the other a 40-yard shot by Ocean’s Luis Araya that took an unusual bounce over the head of Wall goalkeeper Nolan Cloney in Ocean’s win on Friday. The Crimson Knights will have to beat either Jackson Memorial or Monmouth Regional in order to get a rubber match with their rivals, while Ocean will host either Donovan Catholic or Central Regional on Saturday.
This Year’s Vianney: The Candidates
One noteworthy name missing from this year’s SCT field is St. John Vianney, which rolled all to the way to the semifinals last year as the No. 26 seed – the highest seed to ever reach the tournament semifinals. It’s highly unlikely that history will repeat itself – especially with only 27 teams in this year’s field compared to the 30 that made it last year – but there are some possible sleepers in the field.
Staying in the Class A Central division in which Vianney resides, No. 16 Manasquan, No. 18 Holmdel, No. 21 Monmouth and No. 22 Matawan are all teams that could make some noise if they can survive the first round. Holmdel is the one among that group that has proven it can beat a top team and in order to get to the semifinals, that’s exactly what will have to happen. If the Hornets survive a trip to Toms River North on Thursday, No. 2 CBA awaits in the round of 16.
Part of Vianney’s run to the semifinals was a manageable draw, which is working against Holmdel more than it is for the other three A Central teams. Manasquan will play a mercurial Long Branch team at home on Thursday and will travel to play top-seeded Shore if it can get by the Green Wave. Shore has earned the No. 1 seed, but Manasquan will be playing with nothing to lose against a team feeling a little more pressure than usual coming into this particular tournament. If Manasquan can pull off one upset, either No. 8 Rumson or No. 9 Middletown North would likely be the team standing in between the Warriors and a semifinal appearance.
Monmouth and Matawan have flown under the radar, but either could be a first-round upset candidate. Both will play solid first round opponents (Monmouth vs. Jackson Memorial and Matawan vs. Marlboro), but if an upset happens, either could have a shot in the round of 16. Monmouth would play a Wall team that is hard to score on but has also had some trouble scoring lately, while Matawan would travel to play a hot Toms River South team that has also played some close games and also lost to Holmdel, 3-0, early in the season.
Although their seeds are not in the 20’s, the second-tier Class A South teams could be in for a surprise run, particularly Jackson Memorial. Toms River North is a dangerous team, but the Mariners would have to beat Holmdel, CBA and likely Manalapan or Lacey in order to reach the semifinals. The Jaguars, meanwhile would play No. 5 Wall in the round of 16, which might be a good matchup for Jackson Memorial considering Wall has typically played low-scoring games.
One more team to watch as a potential Cinderella with a manageable draw is Long Branch, which won three straight games to get into the tournament. The Green Wave will have to beat a tough Manasquan team first, but a game at Shore would be an interesting matchup considering the talent Long Branch boasts. If the Green Wave can gain some confidence, Shore could have its hands full in the round of 16 and if Long Branch can beat Shore, it can also reach the semifinals.