Here is a look at how I think this year’s divisional races will shape up in what is an always-competitive Shore Conference landscape.

Class A North

The favorite: Manalapan

The two-time defending division champions are loaded up to make school history by becoming the first Braves team to ever win three straight division crowns. With a balanced offense that returns quarterback Mike Isabella, wideouts Anthony Firkser and Saeed Blacknall and up-and-coming tailback Tyler Leonetti, the offense should be one of the Shore’s best. The defense will be led by senior defensive lineman John Appice and junior linebacker Chris Noesges and should be a stingier unit than last year. On paper, this has a chance to be the best team Manalapan has ever had. The Braves are the pick to make it three in a row.

The main contenders: Middletown South, Howell, Middletown North, Colts Neck

Middletown South returns plenty of experience up front on both sides of the line and adds versatile offensive threat Eli Smith, a transfer from St. John Vianney. The main question mark for the Eagles is producing points in big games against a team like Manalapan, which has beaten them in two straight years. Howell could be a question mark depending on the severity of a left knee injury to new starting quarterback John Quinlan, a 6-foot-5 senior who was ready to be the next star at that position for the Rebels. If he misses any extended time, that could throw a kink into their plans, but if he is healthy they will be a factor. Middletown North beat Howell last year and returns quarterback Cody Thompson and his top receivers along with a solid defense led by linebacker Dom Pedone and defensive lineman Mike Galluccio. Like Middletown South, Middletown North’s fate will depend on whether it can score 20-plus on a team like Manalapan. Colts Neck moves up to A North from a tough B North division, but has to replace nine starters on defense, a two-year starter at quarterback and a record-setting running back. How the young talent meshes with returners like senior wideout Tim Vangelas, linebacker Gio Zefferino and junior tailback/linebacker Anthony Gargiulo will determine if this team can surprise.

The sleeper: Freehold Township

As for Freehold Township, the Patriots have more than 30 seniors and look to be the surprise team in this division. It all comes down to offense. The Patriots have to do better than the 8.5 points per game they averaged last year if they are going to open some eyes.

Looking to improve: Marlboro

The Mustangs are coming off a winless season, so even getting a victory or two in a tough division would be a significant improvement. With an underrated defense and quarterback Parker Hoch returning, they look to rebuild after last year.

Class A Central

The favorite: Red Bank Catholic

The preseason No. 1 team in the Shore has won four division titles in the last five years and is the heavy favorite to make it five out of six after winning Class B North last year and moving to Class A Central this season. The Caseys lost plenty of stars, including Defensive Player of the Year Joe Coscarelli, but have a wave of talent coming down the pipeline. The defensive should again be ferocious, led by Rutgers recruit Josh Klecko at defensive tackle. The running game should again be a strength behind a mammoth line averaging 260 pounds across and several quality tailbacks, including junior Larry Redaelli and sophomore Mike Cordova. The main question mark is the passing game as the Caseys break in a new quarterback, senior Mike Corcione. Their depth and talent up front is what has separated them from the pack in the Shore, and they look to keep it that way.

The main contenders: Rumson-Fair Haven, Manasquan

Rumson is the defending division champion, but considering RBC has beaten the Bulldogs nine straight times, the Caseys have to be the favorite. Rumson graduated a stellar defensive line from one of the Shore Conference’s top units, but returns key ingredients like senior linebacker Travis Clark and senior quarterback Danny Roberto to keep the wins coming. The Bulldogs have reached two straight Central Jersey Group II finals and are a solid bet to make it three in a row. As for Manasquan, the jury is out on this team. The Warriors were 9-2 last year but played a soft schedule, and now will deal with much bigger landmines after moving from Class C Central to A Central. The Warriors should still be able to run the ball with Joe Fittin and Joe Murphy, but their passing game and defense are question marks. The whispers are that this is the year that Manasquan falls back into the pack, so it will be up to the Warriors to dispel that notion.

The sleepers: St. John Vianney, Raritan

St. John Vianney is the biggest wildcard in this division. The Lancers have some explosive offensive players, led by senior wideout Ishmael Hyman, but are also integrating numerous newcomers via transfer. While they had one of the Shore’s most high-octane units by the end of last season, they also had a defense that struggled to stop most teams. With an improved defense and quick integration of the new talent, this team could give some established programs a run for their money. St. John Vianney has not won a division title since 1982, so it would be an eye-opening run if they did it. Raritan is looking to get back into the state playoffs for the first time since 2009 and has one of the more brutal schedules in the Shore. The Rockets’ primary concern is offensive production against playoff-caliber teams. Their offense has sputtered against quality opponents in recent seasons, so that has to change behind new quarterback C.J. Pulcine and returning tailback Steve Winetsky if this team is going to become a factor in the race.

Looking to improve: Monmouth, Holmdel

Both of these teams went 1-9 last year, so before they can worry about winning a division title, the goal is to at least get back to .500 and make a state playoff run. The ingredients are there, as Monmouth returns talented senior quarterback Jeff Farrah, while Holmdel brings back do-it-all senior Robbie Cantelli, senior linebacker Brett Lambert and standout sophomore fullback/linebacker Frank Condito.

Class A South

The favorite: Southern

The defending Class A South champions won their first division title since 1972 last year, so repeating as champs would be uncharted territory. A large and talented senior class returns, including quarterback Dan Higgins, and junior wide receiver Mike Gesicki is back for another year of torturing defenses. This team needs to get healthy after missing several players in the preseason, including senior wideout Kevin Barreau, an FCS-level recruit who may be out for the season with a knee injury. The main question is whether the Rams can handle the heat of being the hunted. Whenever they have traditionally done well, they have done so as the underdog. Now we’ll see if they can deliver on high expectations.

The main contenders: Toms River North, Lacey, Brick Memorial

Toms River North suffered its first losing season under coach Chip LaBarca Jr. last year, so the Mariners will look to roar back into the picture with an offense led by dynamic junior wideout Joey Fields and an improved defense. Lacey also had a rare losing season last year but played a large group of sophomores, including quarterback Tom Kelly, who should be expected to take a big step forward this year. Lacey also returns a 1,000-yard rusher in senior Kyle Spatz and looks to make a statement in its first season in Class A South after moving up from Class B South. Brick Memorial lost several heartbreakers last year and already has lost senior fullback/linebacker Anthony Miller to a season-ending knee injury, but senior quarterback Ryan Cieplinski and junior standout Mike Basile make this team a threat.

The sleepers: Jackson Memorial, Brick

The Jaguars finished second in the division last season, but this year will be a big test of the strength of their program. They lost nine starters to graduation on defense, a two-time 1,000-yard rusher in Brandon Winston, and their starting quarterback. That’s a lot to replace, so we’ll see if the new players are up to the challenge of keeping this program among the Shore’s elite. Brick moves up to A South from B South and has a very talented sophomore class to go with some solid returning seniors like running back Doug Cuccinello and defensive end Dan Watson. If the new players make an immediate impact, this team could be a factor.

Looking to improve: Toms River East, Toms River South

Both of these teams are capable of taking a jump forward and really making this race interesting. Toms River East was a two-win team last year, but has enough to get back to its winning ways, led by junior running back Matt Gudzak. Toms River South is continuing the rebuilding process under Ron Signorino Jr. and has some explosive skill players, so the Indians could potentially be the division’s most improved team after going 3-7 last year.

Class B North

The favorite: Neptune

With last year’s champion, Red Bank Catholic, having been realigned to Class A Central, Neptune takes over the mantle as the team to beat in this division. The defending Central Jersey Group III champions lost numerous stars to graduation, including Offensive Player of the Year Jaheem Woods, but they do return plenty of talent to make another run. Senior wideout Geoff Fairbanks, running back Myles Martin, linebacker David Calderon and two-way lineman Shaquille Gittens look to get the Scarlet Fliers back to Rutgers. Senior Ajee Patterson has to fill the considerable shoes of Woods. Woods was the team’s best running threat last year, while Patterson is more of a passer, so the explosiveness of the running game is a question mark with some new faces back there.

The main contenders: Long Branch, Matawan, Red Bank Regional

Long Branch will have to overcome an ankle injury that will sideline star tailback Dwight Clark for a month, but the Green Wave have the talent to make a run at this division title. Senior fullback/linebacker Joscil Jackson looks to be one of the Shore Conference’s top all-around players. Matawan, which has reached three straight Central Jersey Group II titles and won two of them, was hit pretty hard by graduation but returns enough to be a factor in this division race. Senior running back/safety Glenn Cross, junior quarterback/defensive back Kashaun Barnes and senior linebacker Dan Incle make the Huskies a threat. The main question is depth, as this is a team that cannot afford injuries under new coach John Kaye. As for Red Bank, this is a season the Bucs have been building toward for three years. They should have one of the Shore Conference’s top defenses, led by Garrett Sickels, Isaac Coates, Dillon Stambaugh and Ross Gisondi, so the primary X-factor is an offense that has struggled against playoff-caliber opponents.

The sleepers: Ocean, Freehold, Wall

Ocean is coming off a losing season but has offensive weapons like Andrew Mehr and Royal Moore to try to turn things around. The main question is whether a team with not much depth can withstand the pounding rigors of playing in this division without any key injuries. Freehold also is coming off a losing season, but returns its entire offensive line and some dynamic skill players, including running back Cequan Smith-Rush. Offense was its Achilles’ heel last year, so if Freehold makes a dramatic improvement in that area, watch for the Colonials to be right in the hunt in this division. As for Wall, the Crimson Knights are a complete unknown. They won the Class C Central title last season, but graduated almost the entire starting lineup on both sides of the ball. They have a new head coach in Nick Gregorio, but may have some tough sledding with so much inexperience in a rugged division.

Class B Central

The favorite: None

Honestly, I think this will be the most hotly-contested of all the divisional races. There are about four teams that have a legitimate shot, without any particular team really standing out of the pack.

The main contenders: Shore Regional, Point Beach, Asbury Park, Keyport

Shore Regional was banged up last year but returns a solid backfield and adds junior quarterback Matt Muh, a Holmdel transfer, to give it balance in its Wing-T attack. The Blue Devils are always a contender in this division and have as good a shot as any team to win it. Point Beach might have its highest preseason expectations in 30 years after winning its first state playoff game since 1982 last year. The Garnet Gulls return plenty of talent up front on offense as well as punishing fullback Kyle Samaritano. Defending champion Asbury Park lost all of its All-Shore selections to graduation, so we’ll see if the Blue Bishops take a step back or load up for another run. They have a talented quarterback in junior Robert Barksdale and size up front on both sides of the line. The production of their offense will determine if the titles keep on coming. As for Keyport, much will rest on the shoulders of junior quarterback Alex Thomson. If he takes a big leap forward and an improved offensive line can protect him, the Red Raiders should be right in the mix.

The sleeper: Keansburg

The Titans went 1-9 last season but gave some playoff-bound teams a good fight. They return almost their entire starting lineup on both sides of the ball, so they are equipped to make a jump in the win column. With three-year starter Ryan Kurtz at quarterback, newcomer Danny Markulin at wideout and a host of solid linemen led by senior Brad Baker, the Titans might surprise some people.

Looking to improve: Mater Dei Prep

The Seraphs also went 1-9 last season, but it was a victory in the Thanksgiving game over Keansburg that they help continues the momentum of an ongoing rebuilding program. Their participation numbers are up and they return everyone on both sides of the line, led by senior Shane Sullivan, so they look to make strides in the win column.

Class B South

The favorite: Barnegat

The Bengals won their first division title in program history when they captured Class B South last year, and they have the goods to rule this division for a few years. Senior wide receiver/defensive back/kicker Pat Moran, one of the Shore’s better all-around players, returns along with an imposing line on both sides of the ball. Barnegat should be tough to defend because of its ability to make plays in the air while also mashing teams with the run game behind that big line. Add sophomore quarterback Cinjun Erskine to that mix, and you have a team that will only improve as the season progresses and Erskine becomes eligible after he sits out four games for transferring from Holy Spirit.

The main contenders: Point Boro, Monsignor Donovan, Central

Point Boro has a new quarterback in Chris Oliphant, a good all-around athlete who will have senior Kyle McGarry as a deep threat to keep defenses honest against the Panthers’ triple option attack. If the Panthers’ defense can do a better job of limiting big plays and the offense uses McGarry to attack, Point Boro should be a threat to Barnegat’s supremacy after losing a wild, 35-31 playoff game to the Bengals last year. Monsignor Donovan is a senior-laden team led by Virginia-bound lineman Brad Henson. The Griffins have some speed at the skill positions in their triple option attack and look to be improved on defense. Central lost 2,000-yard rusher Kalyph Hardy to graduation but has a strong-armed new quarterback in Marcus Drumright and some key returners on defense like linebackers Ernie Ropas and Blake Jambor who should keep the Golden Eagles in the hunt.

The sleepers: Jackson Liberty, Lakewood

Jackson Liberty is still in search of its first state playoff berth in program history and will have to replace dynamic running back Justin Billups as well as one of the Shore’s top defensive linemen in Remy Martin. The Lions are going back to a physical run game to set up deep shots in play action. The main X-factor is their defense, which has to improve from last year for the Lions to make a serious run. Lakewood has one of the Shore Conference’s best all-around players, senior quarterback/safety Tyrice Beverette, as well as a host of offensive weapons like Manchester transfers Anthony Cook and his sophomore brother, Chapelle, at wide receiver and running back, respectively. The defense looks improved from the unit that got shredded by opposing running games last year, so the main question mark is an almost entirely new offensive line. If that unit can protect Beverette long enough for him to make plays, this team will make an improvement on its 2-8 season of a year ago.

Looking to improve: Pinelands, Manchester

Pinelands can only get better after a winless season in which it allowed more than 50 points per game. Almost everyone returns, so the Wildcats look to be more competitive. Manchester has an almost entirely new team thanks to graduation losses as well as some top returners transferring to other schools. The Hawks will groom a young group that includes several sophomores to make a return to prominence sooner rather than later.

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