With the first round of this year’s Ocean County Baseball Tournament set to get underway on Friday and Saturday, here is a look at what to watch for as the tournament unfolds in the upcoming week.

Round of 16: Friday and Saturday at higher-seeded teams

Quarterfinals: Sunday at higher-seeded teams

Semifinals: May 11 at higher seeds.

Championship: May 14 at the field of a Toms River team to be determined.

The favorite: No. 1 Jackson Memorial

The contenders: No. 2 Toms River North, No. 3 Brick, No. 4 Jackson Liberty, No. 5 Toms River South.

The darkhorses: No. 6 Monsignor Donovan, No. 7 Brick Memorial, No. 8 Toms River East, No. 9 Manchester, No. 10 Central.

Tournament breakdown:

The main question is clearly, can anyone beat Jackson Memorial? The defending OCT champs, who won their first county title in 40 years last season, have not lost to a Shore Conference team all season. This tournament is usually Class A South’s playground, and the Jaguars are unbeaten division champions. However, they have had to go deep in the well a couple times to pull off last-inning wins, including a four-run rally with two outs and no one on base to beat Toms River North in an 8-7 win in the regular season.

Top-seeded Jackson Memorial is trying to win back-to-back Ocean County Tournament titles for the first time in its history after ending a 40-year drought by winning last season's championship. (Photo by Scott Stump)

Junior first baseman Matt Guarino comes in red hot after multiple game-winning hits last week. The Jaguars have a deep lineup with speed and power, led by Guarino, Virginia-bound senior catcher Matt Thaiss and senior shortstop Spencer Young. Jackson Memorial also has the quality pitching depth necessary to navigate tournaments where you can’t just ride one pitcher to glory. Senior Anthony Rocco is 4-0 with a 1.63 ERA, senior Chris Gehrsitz is 3-1 with a 2.70 ERA and senior Jake Harlinski is 2-0 with a 1.03 ERA. Jackson’s only flaw seems to be getting behind on the scoreboard early and having to dig out, but the Jaguars have proven to be the Jason Voorhees of the Shore Conference – just when you think they are dead and buried, they come back.

The rest of the Class A South pursuers have shown the potential to make a run in this tournament, so it’s just more a question of consistency. Toms River South’s pitching has been rock solid, led by the trio of Vinny Scrudato, Eric Fricks and Casey Cranmer along with sophomore newcomer Tyler Mellot. Junior outfielder Russell Messler is in the midst of another monster season, but he will be out until Monday with a minor knee injury, so the Indians will have to navigate the first round and quarterfinals without him on an offense that has struggled to put up runs against quality pitching this season.

Toms River North boasts three quality pitchers in Ron Marinaccio, Karl Blum and Steve Slagmolen, so the main question is its defense, which has been shaky in big games and cost the Mariners in some big spots. An offense led by Blum, Anthony Ferlise, Cory Cordasco and Quintin Garvin has been up and down and is coming off a 2-1 loss to Toms River South and Mellot on Thursday night. As this team showed last season in the Shore Conference Tournament, it has the talent to shake off a so-so regular season and make a run in a tournament. It’s just a question if the Mariners can tighten up the defense and get consistent offense to back up the stellar pitching.

Brick is another team that can roll out multiple quality pitchers in Trevor Mastria and Evan Lobato, a solid 1-2 punch that is a combined 7-2 this season with ERAs of 2.54 and under. Nick Zbranak and Tyler Iannarone lead an offense that has shown explosive ability at times this season, but has been a bit up and down. The Green Dragons know what it’s like to polish off this tournament, as they won it in 2011, so they have no fear about going up against the Toms River schools and Jackson Memorial.

Jackson Liberty has been pumping out consistently quality teams but hasn’t been able to get over the hump in tournaments, having lost several heartbreakers in recent seasons. The Lions have been unable to find a way to beat Jackson Memorial in their history, so that may be something that has to change for them to get their first OCT title. Senior catcher Brendan Benecke leads the offense for the Class B South champs, and they have good depth on the pitching staff with James Sofield, Tyler Pallante, Dan Serreino and Dan Naif. If they can take care of Class B South foe Barnegat in the first round, they will most likely face Toms River South on Sunday in search of the type of breakthrough win that has been just outside their grasp in recent years.

The primary darkhorses look to be Monsignor Donovan, Brick Memorial and Toms River East. The Griffins have strong pitching across the board with seniors Aidan Ryan, Rich Power and Adam Holowienka. It’s mainly a question of how an offense led by Dan McGeehan and James Meyreles will produce against quality pitching as the tournament progresses.

Toms River East has an interesting motivational factor in that head coach Bill Frank, who is third all-time in wins in the Shore Conference, is three wins shy of 500 for his career. The Raiders have shown the ability to knock off quality opponents, so it’s just a question of whether they can string a couple together. They have a lineup with good power led by Christian Danyo, Jerry Caporale, Dave Lewis and Charlie Mule’, so they are dangerous.

As for Brick Memorial, the Mustangs are one of the more schizophrenic teams in the Shore. They can bury teams one day and get buried the next. When they have senior ace Brian Cottrell on the mound, they are capable of beating anyone, but they may have a tall order just to get out of the first round because they will most likely face undefeated Central ace Andrew DiPiazza on Friday.

Among the lower-seeded teams, Manchester is a threat because of a strong pitching staff led by seniors Jeremy Carney and Ed White, so they could sting a few teams early on. If Lacey beats Lakewood in a preliminary-round game Friday, they will take on top-seeded Jackson Memorial in the Round of 16. They only lost 1-0 to the Jaguars in their last meeting thanks to a brilliant performance in defeat by Donovan Waller, who could throw again.