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With no 2020 season as a frame of reference, it was inevitable that there would be some surprise teams in the 2021 Shore Conference baseball season. Still, it was hard to see this coming: six teams that started the season unranked finished in the final Shore Sports Network Top 10, two teams in the top five finished outside the Top 10 and the top two teams in the preseason both finished outside the top five. To put it slightly more succinctly, this season was predictably unpredictable.

Despite that, the No. 1 team should not be much of a surprise – not now, nor if we had a crystal ball back in April. After that, though, there are some teams that were either unproven as programs or proven programs with unproven players that seized the moment in 2021. Three Shore Conference teams won an NJSIAA sectional championship, the two county champions return most of their rosters, and the Shore Conference has a Group IV champion for the first time since 2014.

It was a wild ride to get from March 12, 2020 to June 19, 2021, but Shore Conference Baseball is back and in good hands.

Photo by Paula Lopez

1. Red Bank Catholic (24-5-1, 11-2-1) Preseason Rank: 3

Red Bank Catholic opened the season as a team with one of the state’s best pitchers and a lot of questions beyond that. Shane Panzini lived up to every expectation as the team’s ace, but it was how RBC played without Panzini on the mound and in support of him when he was that landed the Caseys at No. 1 for the 2021 season. They went 10-1 in games in which Panzini appeared on the mound and 14-4-1 in games he did not, with the losses coming to Middletown South, Ocean, St. Augustine and Rumson-Fair Haven. Speaking of Rumson-Fair Haven, the Bulldogs were the thorn in Red Bank Catholic’s side all year and are the one argument against RBC being the No. 1 team. Still, with a Shore Conference Tournament title, a trip to the Monmouth County Tournament final, a win over previously-unbeaten Bishop Eustace and one ground ball out away from a trip to the Non-Public A state final, RBC did plenty to lock up the top spot for 2021.

Photo by Matt Manley

2. Middletown South (22-9, 6-7) Preseason: Not ranked

Speaking of teams with questions heading into 2021, the Eagles had plenty of them. They were two years removed from winning the Class A North championship, but retained only one offensive player from that lineup and three middle-to-back-of-the-rotation pitchers who were sophomores that year. Middletown South answered those questions early on with a stellar defense, a diverse and pesky lineup and a pitching staff that had both depth and a hammer at the top in sophomore Ben Schild. With Schild emerging as one of the Shore’s top pitchers, Middletown South had both an arm to build around each week, as well as reliable arms in Matt Pontari, Evan Wood, Mike Keenan and Jack Shea to give the Eagles a chance to win every game. The result was an 16-2 record outside the Class A North division, with both losses coming to RBC in a tournament setting.

Photo by Matt Manley

3. Rumson-Fair Haven (22-6-1, 9-4-1) Preseason: Not ranked

Unlike the two teams ranked ahead of them, the Bulldogs returned a slew of starters with varsity experience in 2019, but the difference is the group had not yet experienced winning at the level of a Top 10 team. That changed quickly in 2021, with the Bulldogs scoring an early eye-opening win over Wall and taking it to another level by beating Red Bank Catholic in 10 innings after battling Panzini for the first seven. The Bulldogs wound up having Red Bank Catholic’s number, going 2-0-1 vs. the Caseys and if they could have gotten by Middletown South in the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals, they might have had a chance to add a third win – not to mention a fourth if the two teams were able to finish their five-inning game that ended in a 5-5 tie. Rumson made it to the semifinals of both the SCT and Central Jersey Group II Playoffs and won the Monmouth County Tournament for the first time ever – a banner season for a team that loses just two starters and very little pitching looking ahead to 2022.

Freehold Township celebrates Jon Olik (13) scoring the tying run at CBA. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

4. Freehold Township (16-9, 11-3) Preseason: 8

The Patriots fit into the category of a team like Rumson: they entered the season with a starting lineup full of players who played a lot as sophomores in 2019 and hoped to take the next step two years later. Freehold Township did not have Rumson’s success during the three tournaments and even lost to Rumson in a Monmouth County Tournament quarterfinal pitchers’ duel, but the Patriots did do something both Rumson and Middletown South did not do: won an outright division title. Freehold Township won the Shore’s deepest division, capturing the Class A North championship for the first time since 2006. Within that 11-3 division mark, the Patriots swept Middletown South, Marlboro and Middletown North – all teams that spent time within the top five of the Shore Sports Network rankings at some point in 2021.

Alex Jankowski (3) greets Joe Lomangino during Marlboro's 7-4 win over Manalapan. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

5. Marlboro (15-9, 8-5) Preseason: Not ranked

While the four teams ahead of Marlboro had some speedbumps out of the gate, Marlboro completely stalled over the first two weeks of the season. The Mustangs opened with a 2-5 start and looked like they might be destined for a seventh-place finish in Class A North with fading postseason prospects. That all changed once senior right-hander Mark Capell made his first start on the mound and gave Marlboro a legitimate No. 1 starter that helped the rest of the staff settle into their roles. Marlboro went 13-4 the rest of the way with two wins over Manalapan that knocked the Braves out of both the A North race and the Central Group IV Playoffs. Capell also pitched the Mustangs to a win over Middletown South, but the Eagles got them back by eliminating them in the MCT round of 16 and beating them in the Central Group IV final. The sectional final trip was the first for Marlboro since 1972 and that, plus the top-five finish will be the new bar for the Mustangs going forward.

Colts Neck celebrates its first ever NJSIAA sectional championship. (Photo by Richard O'Donnell)

6. Colts Neck (22-8, 12-2) Preseason: Not ranked

Colts Neck entered the 2021 season young but with serious potential given how talented its senior-light roster turned out to be. Pitchers Christian Rice (Wofford), Anthony Gubitosi (Delaware) and Collin Kratzer (Army) already entered the season having committed to Division I programs and all three proved instrumental – with Rice and Kratzer also doing their part at the plate and in the field. Sophomore Tyler Spencer was the breakout player of the bunch, going 6-1 with a sub-2.00 ERA on the mound and 20 RBI in the batter’s box. Throw in a heavy contribution from senior Cameron Knipp and Colts Neck broke out with a Class B North co-championship and the program’s first ever Central Group III championship. The Cougars are set to bring back seven starters in the field to go four top pitchers in 2022, when they figure to make a run at more titles.

Manalapan senior Tom Guidice. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

7. Manalapan (18-8, 9-4) Preseason: 2

The Braves had the look of a team that could win multiple championships in mid-May, but an injury to senior ace Joe Mazza threw a wrench into those plans. Manalapan remained tough with either Mazza or junior Tyler Kane on the mound all year but was more vulnerable when it had to tap into its pitching depth and were not as sharp defensively as the Braves have been in recent years. Mazza’s first start back after his injury hiatus was a loss to Marlboro but he did pitch the Braves to both the SCT semifinals before his injury and the MCT semifinals after it. Manalapan made both semifinal rounds and finished second in a rugged Class A North division, a strong showing to send off coach Brian Boyce, who resigned after 16 years running what has become of the Shore’s top public-school programs.

Jackson Memorial senior Ty Beck celebrates his third home run of 2021. (Photo by Ray Richardson)

8. Jackson Memorial (18-8, 11-3) Preseason: 1

Like Manalapan, an injury in the pitching staff significantly hindered Jackson Memorial at the end of the season. Right-handed ace Matt Potok – a Coastal Carolina commit and the top pitching performer in last summer’s Last Dance World Series – was unable to pitch down the stretch, when the Jaguars were hoping to pair Potok with junior left-hander Zach Crotchfelt to overwhelm either Group IV, Ocean County or both. Instead, the Jaguars ended the season going 4-6 over their last 10 games, bowing out in the South Group IV semifinals against top-seeded Williamstown and losing as the No. 1 seed in the quarterfinals of both the Ocean County and Shore Conference Tournaments. On the brighter side, the hot start to the season was enough to win the Class A South division and the Jaguars will bring back a number of foundational pieces in 2022, led by Crotchfelt, Charlie Meglio and Chris Cartnick.

Central Regional coach Jerry Frulio gets the Gatorade bath after winning the Ocean County Tournament. (Photo by Ray Richardson)

9. Central (19-9, 9-5) Preseason: Not ranked

A few rough losses knocked Central out of the running for a Class A South title down the stretch, but the Golden Eagles showed a feel for big games by going 7-2 in tournament play, including a run to the program’s first Ocean County Tournament title since 2014. Even their tournament losses were admirable – extra-inning losses to No. 3 Rumson-Fair Haven in the Shore Conference Tournament and to Group III champion Ocean City in the South Group III semifinals. The sunny days at Central may just be beginning, with the Golden Eagles returning an entire pitching staff led by ace Cam Leiter, promising underclassmen at catcher (Cristian Soto) and shortstop (Dom Masino) and a new home field on campus that is rumored to be top-notch.

Photo provided by Manchester Baseball.

10. Manchester (13-11, 6-6) Preseason: Not ranked

The No. 10 spot could go in several different directions and your preference probably depends on what you value. Going strictly by resume, there are probably a couple teams that should come in ahead of Manchester, namely Howell – a Class A North team that won four games against teams ranked in the top eight of the Top 10, including wins over No. 2 and No. 4. So why is Manchester the No. 10 team? The season is about championships and the Hawks not only won one by capturing their first NJSIAA sectional title in 18 years, but they also played well when they were on the line. Manchester made it to the Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinals as a No. 23 seed and took a lead on top-seeded Manalapan into the bottom of the seventh before bowing out. They also played spoiler against Donovan Catholic in the Class B South race after they, themselves had bowed out. The top-10 finish is a grand way to close the 2021 season and with just one senior in the starting lineup, the Hawks will certainly be looking forward to 2022.

 

The Next 10

Howell (16-11, 7-6) Preseason: 9 – The Rebels had a strange year, starting hot on the mound before reverting back into a team that just hit its way past opponents, but it all added up to a good showing and a serious push for the final Top 10.

Wall (19-7, 12-2) Preseason: 7 – With an inexperienced team, the Crimson Knights won a share of Class B North and boasted a better pitching staff than what most expected. After crushing Colts Neck, 13-2, early in the year, Wall could not pick up another win over a ranked opponent, which, along with a quiet postseason showing, hurt its top 10 case.

Middletown North (11-10, 6-7) Preseason: 6 – After pitching a no-hitter against Middletown South, Colin Dowlen was shut down with arm soreness and that injury halted some serious momentum for the Lions. Dowlen and Danny Frontera were, arguably, the best one-two punch in the Shore when healthy but Middletown North needed both (and then some) to contend for titles.

Ocean (15-9, 11-3) Preseason: NR – The Spartans caught fire after a 1-3 start and ran into Matt Potok and Jackson Memorial in the Shore Conference Tournament, Frontera and Middletown North in the state tournament, and a hot Colts Neck team with Anthony Gubitosi on the mound in the Monmouth County Tournament.

Brick Memorial (17-12, 8-6) Preseason: NR – Brick Memorial slipped up near the cutoff and missed the Shore Conference Tournament, but responded by going 3-0 against Central and Jackson Memorial the next week and made it all the way to the Ocean County Tournament final for the first time since 2012.

St. John Vianney (12-7, 9-4) Preseason: 4 – Losing slugging shortstop Rocko Brzezniak early in the year took away some upside for the Lancers, but St. John Vianney still had some highlights during 2021: a win over Wall in divisional play, beating No. 4 Freehold Township, winning a state-tournament thriller over CBA and nearly shocking unbeaten Bishop Eustace in the South Jersey Non-Public A quarterfinals.

Donovan Catholic (15-9, 9-3) Preseason: NR – Throughout the 2021 season, Donovan Catholic flashed its promise as an emerging contender at the top of the Shore Conference and in the Non-Public A section and even won a share of the Class B South title this year. Youth caught up to the Griffins at a few points, but the overall season was a major step heading into what could be an even better 2022.

Raritan (14-11, 9-5) Preseason: NR – The Rockets rounded into form with divisional wins over both Ocean and Rumson-Fair Haven and also took No. 1 Red Bank Catholic to extra-innings in the first of three meetings with the Caseys. Raritan closed its season with a run to the Central Group II championship game – its second trip to a sectional final in four years.

Christian Brothers Academy (11-12, 6-7) Preseason: 10 – Despite a losing record, CBA had an overall positive season in 2021 given how much the Colts have returning in 2022. During the regular season, they scored wins over Middletown South, Freehold Township and Marlboro and to close the year, CBA made it to the Monmouth County Tournament semifinals before running into Shane Panzini and Red Bank Catholic.

Ranney (16-6, 10-0) Preseason: NR – Like Donovan Catholic, Ranney laid the groundwork for a big 2022 by taking some major steps in 2021. Ranney rolled to its first ever Shore Conference division championship by going 10-0 in Class B Central and advanced in each of its three postseason tournaments – all with a team that returns all but one starter next season.