Baseball – 2022 NJSIAA Tournament Preview: The Shore in Group 3
Over the past two seasons, the power teams in Group III for the Southern half of New Jersey have been in the South Jersey bracket, while the Central Jersey tournament has been a wide-open field with a handful of game-changing pitchers.
That will make things tough for three teams out of the Shore Conference -- Toms River South, Lacey and Pinelands -- that have to navigate the South Jersey Group III Tournament beginning on Wednesday, but it bodes better for the eight Shore teams in Central Jersey.
Pitching is paramount in any tournament and it might be especially so in Group III. The best pitchers in the Group stack up with the best in the state, but there are not many lineups deep enough to deal with the top-flight arms, as there might be in Group IV or on the Non-Public side. A hard-throwing No. 1 can be even more of a failsafe than it is for those larger schools.
It still comes down, however, to execution, depth in the pitching staff and some good fortune. Who will have the magic over the next two-to-three weeks?
Central Jersey Group III
Shore Teams in the Field: No. 2 Brick Memorial, No. 5 Colts Neck, No. 8 Neptune, No. 9 Jackson Liberty, No. 10 Middletown North, No. 11 Red Bank, No. 12 Ocean, No. 13 Matawan
Top Seed: Steinert
Defending Champion: Colts Neck
Darkhorse: Middletown North. The Lions are a longshot to win the section, but a run to the championship game is not hard to envision. They are red-hot heading into the state tournament, having won seven in a row with at least 10 runs scored in all seven games. They also have one of the two best pitchers in the section in Colin Dowlen, who since giving up 11 runs in less than two innings at Middletown South on April 26 has gone 20 innings without giving up an earned run and has allowed just two hits in those 20 innings. Senior Mike Weinbel has also pitched well of late and he will likely have to face off against Brick Memorial – a No. 2 seed with a 12-14 record – if Dowlen can pitch Middletown North past No. 7 Robbinsville.
There are a handful of other Shore Conference teams that could be dangerous: Red Bank has been competitive all year, Ocean is playing well heading into the tournament and Matawan is a sophomore-heavy team that has gained confidence over the last three weeks.
Bracket Breakdown: There is no powerhouse team in the Central Group III field, which bodes well for the teams that have shutdown aces. That includes Colts Neck and Middletown North, with Anthony Gubitosi serving as Colts Neck’s hammer. Tyler Spencer has had a few forgettable starts, but remains a solid No. 2 for the Cougars, but for Colts Neck, it will come down to scoring runs and finishing games. Last year, Colts Neck had a dominant closer in Collin Kratzer and this year, the Cougars may have to piece some innings together around Gubitosi and Spencer. It doesn’t help that Colts Neck is on the much tougher side of the bracket, with No. 4 Allentown posing a potential obstacle in the quarterfinals and top-seeded Steinert the likely semifinal opponent if Colts Neck gets there.
Jackson Liberty or Neptune could spoil Steinert’s plans, with Neptune leaning on ace Ryan Cole and Jackson Liberty turning to Chris Sasso – both two-way standouts likely to get the ball in round one. On the other side of the bracket, No. 3 Hamilton West has been the steadiest of the teams, although Brick Memorial did beat the Hornets during the regular season. The Mustangs are looking to shake off a six-game losing streak and make a run to the final behind junior ace Brady Leach.
Championship Prediction: Steinert over Middletown North. With Gubitosi on the mound, Colts Neck is probably the best team in the field, so the Cougars’ fortune will likely come down to how they fair in the innings not pitched by Gubitosi and whether or not they can get the bats working better than they have been lately. Since April 30, Colts Neck has scored more than five runs just twice and both were in losses. If the Cougars, though, can get by Allentown and into the sectional semifinals, they turn into the favorite to reach the final with Gubitosi lined up to face Steinert.
Middletown North, meanwhile, will have a manageable road to the final with Dowlen likely making two of those would-be starts, but while those games are winnable, they are not automatic. Robbinsville has a standout sophomore pitcher in Luke Billings and Brick Memorial may be able to save some pitching for the Lions in a possible quarterfinal matchup. Ultimately, though, Middletown North is getting hot at the right time and has a good draw, which was the opposite of last year, when they faded later in the season and got one of the tougher draws of any team in the section.
South Jersey Group III
Shore Teams in the Field: No. 7 Toms River South, No. 11 Lacey, No. 14 Pinelands
Top Seed: Ocean City
Defending Champion: Ocean City
Favorite: Ocean City
Darkhorse: Lacey. The Lions do not have an imposing lineup, but they can string rallies together and they have two pitchers who appear to be on their respective games right now in Mike Todaro and Noah Quinn. Lacey opens with a No. 6 Moorestown team that has given up plenty of runs this year, although against a quality schedule.
Another double-digit seed to watch is No. 10 Hammonton, whose 9-16 record is very deceiving. The Blue Devils have played a brutal schedule to close the regular season and while they are only 2-12 in their last 14, one of the wins is over a very good Egg Harbor team. Pinelands has been very tough with Stephen DeMilio on the mound and could pose a problem to No. 3 Delsea – which does not have a shutdown starting pitcher, but is 6-1 in one-run games – in round one.
Bracket Breakdown: For the second straight year, Ocean City and No. 2 Mainland are the favorites in South Jersey III, with Ocean City returning as the defending overall Group III champion. Ocean City boasts a one-two punch of St. John’s commit Tom Finnegan and Maryland commit Duke McCarron, which makes the Red Raiders to favorite to finish off another sectional title.
The Shore has some representation in the bracket and a chance to make a little noise, with Lacey and Pinelands both boasting some pitcher and Toms River South showing over the course of the year it can compete against tough competition. Mainland would be a difficult second-round opponent for Toms River South, but the second-seeded Mustangs have been far more beatable this season than they were last, when they got beat in the championship game. Getting Aidan Folsom back on the mound last week was a welcome development for Toms River South, which is looking to get back to a sectional final for the first time in more than a decade.
Championship Prediction: Ocean City over No. 2 Mainland. Last year’s South Jersey Group III championship came down to Ocean City and Mainland, with Ocean City knocking off the Mustangs, who were hoping to sneak past the Red Raiders so they could pitch eventual first-round draft pick Chase Petty in the group semifinals and again in the Group III final.
This year, it’s Ocean City that has the big arms in McCarron and Finnegan. Will Hoover has been very good in his own right for Mainland and Ocean City has had a couple of cold spells this season, but the Red Raiders will be at home all the way through and have the arms to make a run at another Group III championship.