Baseball – 2022 NJSIAA Tournament Preview: The Shore in Group 4
As a general rule, the best teams in New Jersey reside in the Non-Public A group: St. Augustine, Don Bosco, Seton Hall Prep, Delbarton, St. Joseph Metuchen as statewide powers; Red Bank Catholic, Christian Brothers Academy, St. John Vianney and Donovan Catholic from the Shore Conference.
From top-to-bottom and start-to-finish, however, nothing rivals Group IV. In the state's large-school bracket, there are four 16-team sections, which means no team gets a bye and every first-round game is a grind. To win a sectional championship in Group IV, it takes more than just two good pitchers. It takes a lot of everything: pitching, good at-bats with timely base hits, quality defense, opportunistic baserunning and, of course, a little bit of luck.
All that was part of the sauce in Middletown South's run to the Group IV championship a year ago. This year, the Eagles are a No. 1 seed in Central Jersey Group IV and are hoping to put all the pieces together again in 2022. They are just one of several talented teams from the Shore Conference sprinkled through the Central and South sections of Group IV and while some may look more primed for deep runs over the next two weeks than others, there are always surprises in the state tournament, particularly in Group IV.
Below is a look at the Central and South sections of Group IV, with a special focus on the teams from the Shore hoping to make a championship run.
Central Jersey Group IV
Shore Teams in the Field: No. 1 Middletown South, No. 2 Howell, No. 3 Jackson Memorial, No. 8 Freehold Township, No. 10 Marlboro, No. 15 Manalapan
Top Seed: Middletown South
Defending Champion: Middletown South
Favorite: Middletown South
Darkhorse: Manalapan. In Central Jersey Group IV, anything can happen and anything often does happen. Even as a No. 15 seed, the Braves have a dominant No. 1 starter in Tyler Kane, some quality options behind him in the pitching staff and lineup that, while inconsistent at times, has had some big scoring outputs. The draw also helps, with Kane set to face a No. 2 Howell squad that has struggled late in the season and a chance to dodge Jackson Memorial ace Zach Crotchfelt if both Manalapan and the Jaguars make the sectional semifinals.
South Brunswick will also be a dangerous No. 12 seed, Freehold Township already has a win over Middletown South this season, and Marlboro has outperformed its seed in each of the last two state tournaments and again this year in the Monmouth County Tournament. No. 13 Montgomery and No. 14 West Windsor-Plainsboro South also have some impressive wins, so they have to be on the radar as well.
Bracket Breakdown: The top five seeds in the bracket have all had very accomplished seasons already: Middletown South is the Monmouth County champion; Howell is the Class A North division champion; Jackson Memorial is the Class A South champion and reached the finals in both the Ocean County and Shore Conference Tournaments; No. 4 Northern Burlington has one of the state’s best hitters in Stetson commit Drew Wyers; and No. 5 North Brunswick just won the Greater Middlesex Conference Tournament by beating St. Joseph Metuchen, the No. 4 team in the state.
That’s a loaded top-third of the field and yet, there are sure to be some upsets the bust the bracket. Middletown South (Ben Schild), Jackson Memorial (Crotchfelt), North Brunswick (Zach Konstantinovsky) and No. 6 Old Bridge (Justin Herbstman) have the top arms, but South Brunswick (Joey Tuttoilmondo) and Manalapan (Kane) can match up with those top arms. Ultimately, though, the championship usually comes down to the second and third pitchers and a lineup’s ability to hit top pitching and both Jackson Memorial and Middletown South look like complete teams in that regard.
Championship Prediction: Jackson Memorial over Middletown South. Both teams have manageable draws, dominant No. 1 starters, enough depth in the pitching staff and dangerous lineups. Jackson Memorial won’t be able to pitch Crotchfelt in the first round, but if the Jaguars can avoid a slip-up against West Windsor-Plainsboro South and make the run to the final, Crotchfelt would be in line to start it. Middletown South, meanwhile, is pitching Ben Schild in round one and while that would line him up to miss the final, a 10-run win or short outing could change up the rotation. Both teams are playing well enough to get there and Crotchfelt’s schedule gives the Jaguars the edge at the moment, but in baseball, a lot can change in a day, let alone a week.
South Jersey Group IV
Shore Teams in the Field: No. 4 Central, No. 8 Southern, No. 12 Toms River North, No. 15 Toms River East
Top Seed: Kingsway
Defending Champion: No. 13 Clearview
Darkhorse: No. 10 Williamstown. The Braves are a battle-tested team that enters the tournament on a seven-game winning streak. No. 2 Shawnee has two strong options on the mound, but if Williamstown can beat No. 7 Vineland and avoid Renegades ace and Rutgers commit Ethan Bowen, that could be a formula for a deep run.
Defending sectional champion Clearview remains dangerous and is a tough first-round draw for Central, which will be balancing the Ocean County Tournament final and the state tournament this week as the Golden Eagles decide how to deploy ace Cam Leiter. Southern has been a feisty team all season and should put up a fight against Kingsway if the Rams can first get by No. 9 Eastern. Toms River East has played well lately, but is likely to draw Bowen on Wednesday, making their chances to advance steep. Toms River North is one of the coldest teams in the tournament, having lost 14 of 16, but it’s a new season and the Mariners have pitched reasonably well despite their overall struggles.
Bracket Breakdown: Kingsway has been the field’s most consistent team throughout the year thanks to a deep pitching staff and balanced lineup led by senior John Rorick and Shawnee has the one-two pitching punch needed to make a deep run in the NJSIAA Tournament. No. 3 Lenape and No. 6 Cherokee are two more dangerous teams on Shawnee’s side of the bracket and both have the offense to neutralize good pitching if either gets especially hot.
Central is the Shore’s best hope, but the Golden Eagles also have one of the toughest draws of any top-four seed in a public-school section. It may take a big performance from Leiter just to get Central to the second round and the likely opponent would be an Egg Harbor team that has one of the bracket’s most imposing lineups. If Central, which has gotten quality pitching from Tyler Bell, Anthony Musso and Shane Sajewicz of late as well, can survive all of that, then No. 1 Kingsway likely awaits. If Leiter is lined up for Kingsway come June 7, the Golden Eagles could be set up for a special ride.
Championship Prediction: Kingsway over No. 6 Cherokee. The top-seeded Dragons have been so solid all season and while the South Jersey Group IV bracket can devour even the best teams, they are best positioned to survive the gauntlet, which will involve either getting through Leiter, Egg Harbor’s impressive lineup, or defending champion Clearview in the sectional semifinals. Cherokee can score runs and always goes toe-to-toe with rivals Lenape and Shawnee, so watch for the Chiefs to make a run.