On the eve of opening day in N.J. high school baseball, there is a real debate for the No. 1 team at the Shore heading into the season. It’s even fair to say that this is more of a 1-A and 1-B situation with a whole season to figure which team is No. 1. The argument may not be limited to two teams, with at least eight teams returning a significant portion of talent from last season.

What makes this top 10 particularly interesting is the top five are all from different Shore Conference divisions and if those rankings play out, the Shore Conference Tournament could generate some interesting matchups. For now, there is a definite pecking order to start the year but those typically don’t hold up against the day-in-day-out grind.

Jackson Memorial baseball South Jersey, Group 4 champion. (Photo by Bob Badders)

1. Jackson Memorial (25-7, 11-3) Final 2018 Ranking: 1

With seven starters back in the field, three back in the starting rotation and plenty of talent coming into the program and up through the ranks, Jackson Memorial has a very compelling case to open the season considering how the Jaguars finished the last one. Jackson Memorial won the South Jersey Group IV championship with young roster last season – a strong finish to the season after the Jaguars missed a chance to close out an outright Class A South title, lost in Ocean County Tournament semifinals and fell in the Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinals. With its talented sophomore class and a few key seniors back, the bar is even higher at Jackson Memorial this season.

2. Wall (22-6, 13-1) Final 2018 Ranking: 3

If there is one team that appears to stack up with Jackson Memorial on paper, it is Wall. The main distinction is Jackson Memorial finished last year ranked No. 1 so it only makes sense the Jaguars would begin this season No. 1. Wall’s case, however, is strong. The Crimson Knights won 22 games, dominated Class B North and reached the Central Jersey Group III final with a junior-loaded team that featured a starting pitching rotation that all returns this season. With the pitching Wall has, the sky is the limit for the Crimson Knights and if the offense goes to the next level, they just might get there.

3. Red Bank Catholic (20-8, 11-3) Final 2018 Ranking: 4

Red Bank Catholic’s season got off to a rough start with the news David Glancy will miss the first handful of weeks due to a broken hamate bone, depriving the Caseys of their best power hitter and center fielder. On the bright side, Red Bank Catholic is not a top-five team in the Shore Conference because of one player. RBC still has a stacked pitching staff of hard-throwing right-handers led by John Nimeth, Shane Panzini, Ryan O’Hara and Vincent Bianchi, the latter of whom is also the standout shortstop committed to St. John’s. The pitching should carry the Caseys throughout and Glancy should be ready to contribute in time for RBC to make noise in the postseason tournaments.

4. Jackson Liberty (20-5, 13-1) Final 2018 Ranking: 5

Jackson Liberty had a season similar to Wall: the Lions dominated their division and came up short in the postseason tournaments with a team full of players who are back this year. Jackson Liberty has an ace to replace with the graduation of Matt Pickus and a pair of hitters Rich Dordas and Billy Hart, but the Lions have some quality arms coming back and a loaded lineup. The top of the rotation should be up to the task and if the depth develops, Jackson Liberty should be primed for its best season during its 12-year history.

5. Christian Brothers Academy (19-5, 13-1) Final 2018 Ranking: 6

If not for a handful of injuries to key players down the stretch of last season, we might have been talking about CBA as the Shore’s No. 1 team after last year and perhaps even heading into this year. They may be No. 5 in the opening poll but the Colts will have every opportunity to win their way into the top spot. They have a formidable pitching staff led by returnees Joe Escandaon and Braedin Hunt, the latter of whom is also the Colts top returning hitter. There is never a talent shortage a CBA, which should make replacing six position-player starters a little bit easier.

6. Manasquan (9-12, 5-9) Final 2018 Ranking: Not ranked

Manasquan is the only team ranked in the top 10 with a losing record last year but there were viable reasons for the sub-.500 mark. Talented CBA transfer Spencer Bauer never saw the field, 6-foot-6 flame-thrower Alex Galvan threw only one inning and the team was already trying to replace two aces and two top hitters from the Group II championship team. Bauer is back at the top of the rotation, Galvan is ready to break out after committing to Louisville over the summer and returning pitchers Mike Anthony, Tim McEneny and James Harmstead round out a potentially devastating pitching staff that won’t need as many runs as most teams to have a big year.

7. Point Pleasant Boro (18-9, 10-4) Final 2018 Ranking: Not ranked

Manasquan is two years removed from winning the Group II title but Point Boro is just one removed from making it all to the way to the South Jersey Group II title game with a team loaded with juniors and sophomores who are ready to lead this year. Point Boro was an underdog in the tournament season last year but with Nick Guzzi and Sam Collins back at the top of the rotation and the lineup, the Panthers won’t sneak up on anybody – and might not have to.

8. Toms River South (12-12, 7-7) Final 2018 Ranking: Not ranked

A .500 season is not newsworthy at most programs but it is at Toms River South. Ken Frank is the winningest coach in New Jersey history so there have not been many seasons that ended without more wins than losses. Last year’s team entered with some questions and injuries in the pitching staff and the injuries continued to pile up. With a healthy roster, a lot of experience and a more polished pitching staff, the Indians are due for a return to form.

9. Manalapan (22-7, 10-4) Final 2018 Ranking: 9

The Braves return just enough pitching, defense and offense to hang on to a spot in the preseason Top 10. Manalapan graduated some heavy hitters in the lineup and some reliable senior pitchers, but the return of the double-play combination of shortstop Jake Pellecchia and second baseman Billy Watters plus left-handed ace Ben Levine back at the top of the rotation give the Braves a solid foundation that few other teams around the Shore boast.

10. Howell (13-12, 6-8) Final 2018 Ranking: Not ranked

The No. 10 spot could go to anywhere between six to a dozen teams and the first few weeks of the season are sure to start the revolving door. The preseason honor goes to Howell, a team that should be as good on the mound as it has been in several years and always seems to find the offense in one form or another. The Rebels came on strong at the end of the season to qualify for the Shore Conference Tournament and carry a little momentum into 2019.

 

Top 10 Watch List

Middletown South (11-13, 6-8) 2018 Ranking: Not ranked – There is not question the offense is top-10, perhaps top-five caliber. If the pitching can just be solid, the Eagles will settle comfortably into the Top 10.

Freehold Township (14-11, 7-7) 2018 Ranking: Not ranked – Opposite of Middletown South. The Patriot pitching has a chance to be special and the defense might be the best in the Shore. With decent run support, this pitching staff can go a long way.

Pinelands (10-11, 8-6) 2018 Ranking: Not ranked – After a disappointing, injury-marred 2018 season, Pinelands and its senior core are motivated to break through with a memorable season.

Toms River North (22-8, 11-3) 2018 Ranking: 2 – No team at the Shore lost a more impactful senior class than the Mariners did, but there is still enough talent to fight for a top-10 ranking.

Raritan (21-6, 10-2) 2018 Ranking: 7 – Three very important starters graduated from last year’s Central Group II championship team but there is plenty of experience back, especially in the lineup. The pitching will have to come into greater focus, but there is a lot to work with at Raritan.