The 2023 baseball season in New Jersey ended with non-public teams occupying four of the top five spots in the final Shore Sports Network rankings, including Red Bank Catholic and Ranney in the top two spots. That came after Howell scored one for the public schools in 2022 by finishing No. 1 in the Shore Conference and in 2023, Rumson-Fair Haven cracked the top three.

This season begins with the non-public teams again setting the pace, but the best public-school teams tend to make themselves known as the season progresses.

Beyond the trend of non-public teams topping the rankings, one common thread throughout the preseason rankings is pitching. Ten of the 16 teams in the rankings bring back a No. 1 starter and of the six others, five return at least one pitcher that looks like a clear-cut ace.

Hitting and sound defense can win games too, however, so even for teams that have some questions in their respective pitching staffs, there is an avenue to contend for championships. While the Shore is again littered with teams that should make a run at a state title, none appear to have a roster as good as Ranney or Red Bank Catholic boasted a year ago, when both were the obvious choices for the top spots in the rankings.

The Shore Spots Network rankings now go all the way up to 16, which puts six extra teams on the rankings radar to open the season.

Teams listed with 2023 record

1. Red Bank Catholic (24-6)

The loss of All-Shore right-hander and Seton Hall commit Steve Svenson for the season due to a knee injury will test Red Bank Catholic’s pitching depth, but the Caseys have enough power, athleticism and additional pitching to make it through another season at No. 1. Declan Leary and Ryan Prior to headline the rotation, with Sean Griggs and Dylan Passo leading the lineup.

2. Donovan Catholic (22-5)

While RBC’s pitching is dealing with an injury, Donovan Catholic’s is getting healthy. St. Peter’s commit Huinter Lefkus missed all of last season and returns this year as the Griffins’ No. 2 starter behind Virginia-Tech-bound, left-handed ace Jake Marciano. Donovan Catholic lost some thunder in its lineup but returns three starters on the infield – shortstop Joe Maier, third baseman David Yorke and second baseman Tyler Levine – plus senior catcher Hunter Johnson.

3. Christian Brothers Academy (19-6-1)

The Colts graduated eight starters from their starting lineup but remain a contender for the top spot in the Shore Conference thanks to their pitching. Wake Forest commit Chris Levonas leads the staff after turning in an All-Shore First Team season in 2023 and putting himself on the minds of Major League scouts. Sophomore left-hander Tommy DiTullio looks like the next great CBA pitcher and will lead an exciting group from the Class of 2026 that is ready to make an impact.

4. Southern (16-9)

The first public school to appear in the rankings is Southern, which won a share of its first Shore Conference division title since 1986 a year ago. Like the teams ranked ahead of them, the Rams (and a few ranked behind just them) are bringing back some serious firepower on the mound. Senior Brady Lesiak turned in an All-Shore season as a pitcher and hitter, while classmate Roger Dreher and junior Tyler McLeod add to an imposing top three for the Class A South favorite.

5. Middletown North (17-9)

There are some questions in the starting infield after three key starters graduation, but the Lions are coming off back-to-back Central Jersey Group III championships with their top three pitchers – Zach Hampton, Gabe Ahlemeyer and Alipio Figueroa – from last year all back as juniors. Factor in athletic, well-rounded outfielders Dylan Briggs and Jason Quardt and Middletown North has many of the ingredients necessary to defend the title yet again.

6. Matawan (15-12)

The Huskies are far from a top 10 regular and are going into the season with expectations higher than they have been in a long time, but they are also a team with a pitching staff that can match up with any team in the Shore Conference. NJIT commit Brandon Falco continues to get better as the ace of the staff and Andrew Gendi, Mark Kovach and junior Jayce Thoroughman have all been sharp to this point of their careers. The offense will have to catch up, but the pitching gives Matawan a chance to have a memorable year.

7. Ranney (27-3)

Almost all of the familiar names of the last three years are gone, but Ranney is reloaded with a slew of talented freshmen to go with a handful of big-time established talents. LSU commit Ryan Costello will star in the middle of the lineup, returning junior Curtis Chropuvka will take on a greater role and Rutgers Prep junior transfer Andrew Parisi is a quick fix at catcher and in the heart of the order. Once Rutgers-bound ace James Hare (forearm) is ready, Ranney will look more like a top-five team.

8. Rumson-Fair Haven (22-6)

After three years of bringing back loaded rosters, Rumson’s program will be put to the test this season with just three starters back in the lineup and one regular pitcher from 2023 back in the rotation. Owen O’Toole was a lights-out reliever as a sophomore and will move into the No. 1 spot in the rotation with a young group of arms behind him. Parker Shenman leads the lineup after a breakout sophomore season, during which the Bulldogs won a second straight Central Group II title.

9. Brick Memorial (17-9)

The Mustangs caught a bad break last year when 2022 All-Shore right-hander Brady Leach was unable to pitch after opening day, but his absence on the mound allowed for a series of pitchers to step up and perform. That will pay off this season, when Nick Garbooshian, Mike Gioia and Chase Cohen all return to the rotation as starters. Throw in talented bats like Nicco Maribo, Jimi Popp and sophomore Rutgers commit Tyler Garbooshian and Brick Memorial has the talent to challenge for another Class A South title after winning a share last season.

10. Middletown South (13-13)

Like Brick Memorial, Middletown South lost its ace early in the season, with current UConn freshman Ben Schild getting shut down in mid-April. The Eagles did not get a rise in performance across the board, but left-hander Mason Christopher emerged as the staff ace and will return to that role this year with a pair of talented arms behind him in Brevin Bezick and Will McCarthy. The lineup has a lot to replace, but Lou D’Alessio and Bezick are proven run-producers to build around.

11. Toms River East (12-11) – The Raiders have a young group that is ready to break out, which could come in the form of a Class A South or Ocean County Tournament title. Then again, why not both?

12. Point Pleasant Boro (12-10) – The Panthers have two tough pitchers in Bryson Kirby and left-hander Nick Kowalewski and a collection of returning hitters that should make them dangerous in B South, the OCT and in Group II.

13. Howell (7-15) – After spiraling with eight straight losses to end 2023, the Rebels are much older and more experienced heading into this season with a junior-heavy group around senior slugger Braden Walsh.

14. Ocean (19-8) – The pitching is not as deep as it was in 2023, but junior Tommy Kowaliwskyj is ready to be the staff ace and leads a talented Class of 2025 that will keep the Spartans very competitive over the next two seasons.

15. Jackson Memorial (17-8) – It has been a while since Jackson Memorial entered a season without an unquestioned ace on the mound, but there is still enough depth and athleticism for the Jaguars to contend for a sixth straight Class A South title.

16. Point Pleasant Beach (23-6) – Losing 6-foot-4 shortstop, pitcher and Sacred Heart commit Bryan Matuschat for the season puts a squeeze on Point Beach’s potential, but the Garnet Gulls are still a Group I contender and a will be a tough out in both the OCT and SCT.

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