Baseball – Last Dance: Groups and Matchups to Watch in South Jersey
Saturday was a big day for high school baseball players in New Jersey, many of whom found out they officially have a game scheduled for July 14 – two weeks from this Tuesday. The Last Dance Tournament has come together quickly and on Saturday, the pools and brackets for the de facto high school baseball tournament were released.
The statewide tournament will be broken up into a North Jersey section and a South Jersey section and with all 36 of the teams from Monmouth and Ocean Counties seeded in the South section, that is where the focus of Shore Sports Network’s coverage will be over the next month.
With that in mind, it’s time to start asking some questions about the field. Which pool is the toughest? The most balanced? Which matchups can we look forward to down the road?
Once rosters become closer to final, we can lock in on the best players in each pool and get to the ultimate question: who is going to win? We’ll tackle those questions later in the week, but with about 24 hours to digest the tournament layout, let’s take an early look at the South Jersey landscape from a Shore Conference perspective.
The Shore Four: Top Contenders from Monmouth and Ocean Counties
Jackson Jags (Jackson Memorial)
Jackson will be at full strength and that is bad news for the rest of the South section. Coach Frank Malta was not expecting to have two of his top three starters but confirmed Sunday that Coastal Carolina commit Matt Potok and Auburn commit Zach Crotchfelt will be involved during the tournament. For a top team in the field, their draw is pretty brutal: Jackson opens with a tough Brick team, then could potentially meet teams from rival Jackson Liberty and Manalapan in the next two games and that is just in pool play.
CBA has a tight-knit group of seniors that would have given the Colts a great chance to win tournament hardware in 2020. That group will stay intact for the Last Dance, with even aces Pat Reilly (Vanderbilt) and Braedin Hunt (VCU) expected to pitch. CBA’s pitching could potentially overwhelm a lot of teams and the Colts’ draw – which puts them on their home field for two games – gives them a pretty manageable path to get to the second week.
Although RBC had some question marks heading into the spring and could be missing centerfielder Anthony Boriello – the quarterback for the football team – the Caseys got a great draw and have enough talent in key spots to take advantage. Virginia-bound ace Shane Panzini won’t be available until Wednesday or Thursday of pool play, but RBC might not need him until Thursday against the winner of the Belmar Regional.
MS Baseball (Middletown South)
Of the teams in the field from the Shore Conference, Middletown South might be best situated to make it out of South Jersey to represent the lower half of the state in the championship game in Trenton. The Eagles are expected to have a full roster at their disposal, which means a deep, talented pitching staff, a versatile lineup at the plate and in the field and a ton of senior leadership. The pool-play draw is not too bad either, although teams from Colts Neck and Ocean can definitely hang with the Eagles. On the down side, Middletown South and CBA might be the two best rosters from the Shore and if both make it out of pool play, they would have to play one another in the first round of the single-elimination round of 16.
“The Pool of Death”
Tri-County Regional (Manalapan, Allentown, Monroe, Robbinsville)
The Manalapan Recreation Complex will play host to four programs that have produced serious talent and championship-caliber teams in recent years. The lone Shore club will be Manalapan’s high school roster, playing under the name “Monmouth Monarchs.” The Braves won back-to-back Group IV championships back in 2011 and 2012 before finally reclaiming the Central Jersey Group IV title in the spring of 2019. Robbinsville – Manalapan’s first opponent in pool play – had a similarly-successful decade. The Ravens reached the sectional final round five times in the 10 seasons between 2010 and 2019, including sectional championships in 2010 and 2014.
Allentown has been the best of the four programs in recent years, winning the overall Group III championship in 2017 and finishing as the state’s top-ranked public-school team for that season. The Redbirds reached the Group III final the following year and in 2019, Allentown bowed out of the Central Jersey Group III quarterfinals in a thrilling game vs. Jackson Liberty. Monroe is the least decorated of the four programs over the last decade, but has boasted plenty of talent and last reached the sectional final in 2014.
All four teams had high hopes for 2020, with Manalapan ranking No. 6 in the Shore Sports Network Preseason Top 20. Allentown brought back impact seniors Jack Nitti and Danny McCormick, as well as junior Dan Merkel. For the second straight year, Monroe suffered a tough first-round loss to Freehold Township in the Central Jersey Group IV bracket and returned power bat Bryant Skurbe and pitcher Anthony Bruno – both as seniors – this past spring. Robbinsville lost the bulk of its 2019 CJ II runner-up club, but did bring back Chris Au, Shane Martin and Tyler Provost as its core.
Honorable Mention: Brick Regional (Jackson Memorial, Jackson Liberty, Brick Memorial, Brick); Bordentown Region (Hamilton West, Steinert, Nottingham, Bordentown); Williamstown Regional (Mainland, Williamstown, Timber Creek, Buena)
The Toss-up Pool
The TBD Regional (Freehold Township, Marlboro, Freehold Boro, Middletown North)
This pool is so up-in-the-air, we don’t even know where it is going to be played yet. Determining a site should be the easy part, because the four teams that will take the field on July 14 all have a real shot at surviving the first two days and pulling to within one win of reaching the knockout stage during week two of the tournament.
The Columbia Blue squad (Freehold Township) is the top seed and rightfully so based on the pitching depth with Zach Gorman at the top. The Patriots juniors were poised to take a big leap forward this season and it would stand to reason that any improvements due to show up in the spring will show up in July. With so little margin for error, however, that leaves the door open for good teams to pick off Columbia Blue and there are three of them in this pool.
Marlboro will play as the Blue and Gold and while talented junior Mark Capell will not be on the summer roster, the rest of the would-be 2020 lineup – including steady outfielder Ramon Fontanes, talented Class of 2022 centerfielder Julian Buchman and ace Josh Schleifman – is signed up. Throw in a Monmouth Dogfish team with a core of Freehold Boro seniors in Sean Wodell, Shaun Piotrowski, Kyle Wernich and Jackson Ballargeon, and there will be a heated battle for the top spot between three local rivals that all play in the Shore Conference Class A North.
That is to say nothing of Middletown North, a seven-win team in 2019 with just about everyone back this past spring, other than ace Sean Gardiner. While that was a substantial loss, the Lions were also due to return Class of 2021 right-hander Danny Frontera, who did not pitch in 2019 while recovering from Tommy John surgery. With a quickly-improving core, a run to Thursday’s pod championship game is a definite possibility for the Middletown North squad.
Other Toss-ups: Ocean Twp. Regional (Ocean, Rumson, Raritan, Matawan); Bayville Regional (TR East, Pinelands, Donovan Catholic, Central); Bellmawr Regional (Cherokee, Shawnee, Overbrook, Paul VI)
Dangerous No. 4 Seeds from the Shore
1. Matawan (Pool 15B, Ocean Township Regional)
Losing the 2020 baseball season was a crushing blow for the Matawan program. The Huskies were set to have an all-senior infield along, including catcher Griffin Falco, and a standout senior centerfielder in George Washington commit Jay Kalieta. The saving grace was a pair of junior pitchers to top the 2021 rotation – left-hander Tim Egan and right-hander Mike Caldon. In the Last Dance, Matawan will get to combine the two forces and if they can knock off top-seed Ocean in the first game, this run could be a nice consolation prize for a Matawan team that was really looking forward to 2020.
2. Middletown North (Pool 2B, TBD Regional)
As previously mentioned in the breakdown of South Jersey’s most balanced bracket, Middletown North has the upside and a favorable enough draw to make a surprise run. On top of Frontera, the Lions were set to bring back another capable starter and two-way talent in 2020 graduate Ryan Rozinski while also boasting key returners in 2022 catcher Andrew Lombardi and 2021 infielder and pitcher Colin Dowlen.
3. Dragons Baseball Club (Pool 1A, Brick Regional)
The Green Dragons checked in a No. 17 on the Shore Sports Network 2020 Preseason rankings but were seeded behind Brick Memorial for the last position in the pool seedings. That’s mostly a function of Brick being part of a pretty stacked bracket that includes the No. 1 team in the SSN rankings (Jackson Memorial), the No. 13 team (Jackson Liberty) and a Brick Memorial squad that was solid in 2019 and will have ace Nick Gillen and standout 2021 catcher Max Cala to offset heavy 2019 graduation losses. Brick will have an ace of its own in John Wade, but will be without key newcomer and 2021 right-hander John McFadden as part of a still-deep stable of pitchers.
4. Point Beach Gulls (Pool 8A, Barnegat Regional)
Point Beach was set to be an intriguing team in both 2020 and 2021 because of how young the Garnet Gulls were when they reached the Central Jersey Group I final in 2019. This group is growing up together and it would have been interesting to see if they could have shaken off some of the stigma of Class B Central being inferior to the rest of the Shore in order to compete with some of the better teams on the out-of-division schedule. This tournament should present that kind of opportunity and it starts right away with a showdown against crosstown rival Point Boro.
5. Central (Pool 8B, Bayville Regional)
How is a three-win team from 2019 dangerous, you ask? To start, one of those three wins two springs ago came against Jackson Memorial, which was the No. 1 team at the Shore at the time. On top of that, two of their three players who returned from an 18-win 2018 team are also back this season and this summer as well. Dan Greene and Mike Masino will be part of the picture on the mound and at the plate, with Green serving as the nominal ace of the staff and Masino playing in the middle of the infield. The Golden Eagles also have a wild card in Class of 2022 right-hander Cam Leiter, the son of Curt Leiter and nephew of former Major Leaguers Al and Mark Leiter. Fittingly enough, this region will be played on Leiter Field in Bayville, so there could be some serious family vibes working in favor of the Central team – which draws Class A South rival Toms River East in the first game on July 14.
Best Potential Shore-vs. Shore Pool Play Matchups
1. CBA Colts vs. Manasquan
This potential matchup loses a little juice with Alex Galvan already heading to Louisville and unavailable for Manasquan, but the roster is still good enough to win an opener vs. East Brunswick and take on the hosts. It will be interesting to see how coaches choose to lineup up their pitching staffs and it will be especially interesting to see how Marty Kenney Jr. wants to deploy his two aces – Reilly and Hunt. It would be surprising to see either pushed all that hard considering there are headed to pitch at Vanderbilt and VCU, respectively, but they will be the two biggest weapons on a pitching staff that will also have some more quality options – namely senior Declan Hoverter – as well.
2. Jackson Jags (Jackson Memorial) vs. Liberty Lions (Jackson Liberty)
If the two Jackson teams can get by the two Brick teams on Tuesday, we will get an all-Jackson showdown (as well as an all-Brick showdown) on day two. Jackson Memorial hammered Liberty during the 2019 regular season in the Lions only loss before the Ocean County Tournament final, so the Liberty squad would love to exact its revenge by knocking the Jags out while improving to 2-0. Liberty has some championship-caliber players in Shane Hickey, Brandon Kinsman and Dan Keenan but they will be up against one of the tournament’s best rosters in a potential game against the Jags. Jackson Memorial has serious pitching depth, power and a lot of seniors hungry to win something after losing out on a promising 2020 spring season.
3. Columbia Blue (Freehold Twp.) vs. Blue and Gold (Marlboro)
It’s always a battle when teams from the Freehold Regional District square off, especially when both play in the same division. Marlboro and Freehold Township have been sharing a division for decades now and that will make a potential meeting between Columbia Blue and Blue and Gold pretty intense should it come to pass. The Freehold Township team entered the spring as the No. 12 team in the SSN Top 20 and Marlboro at No. 16, so on paper, the teams are fairly even. Freehold Township is more proven on the mound and Marlboro has more pop at the plate, so this potential matchup could come down to which team gets out of day one fresher on the mound.
4. RBI Baseball (SJV) vs. Blue and Grey (Howell)
St. John Vianney showed signs of being a team on the rise last year and was likely to take the next step this year with a team heavily reliant on juniors and sophomores. Still, the Lancers – which will play under the RBI Baseball moniker this summer – have some seniors looking forward to one last ride and this young core will go to battle on behalf of Domenic Cerniglia, John Higgins, Ryan Chin, Robert Lehan and Ryan DiPede. The Blue and Grey, meanwhile, will have its whole Howell squad, minus head coach Eric Johnson (the Freehold Regional High School District is not permitting its coaches to participate). Reigning A North Hitter of the Year Tommy Talbot and his fellow 2020 graduates will get a chance at one last run with the Blue and Grey while a talented group of juniors led by Chris Ellison and Vin Impresa transition to leaders. Either team could come out of the Belmar Regional and give RBC trouble in Thursday’s Pod 8 Final.
5. MS Eagles (Middletown South) vs. Cougars Baseball (Colts Neck)
Middletown South got a nice draw in the pools, but the trip to the knockout round will not be a total skate. Colts Neck entered 2020 with a chance to have a rejuvenated pitching staff to go with a quality lineup that boasts a pair of All-Shore sluggers in Rob Mannino and Dan Cowles. Colts Neck played spoiler to Wall in each of the past two high-school seasons and is capable of doing the same against a talented MS Eagles team.
Potential Crossover Pool Games
1. Jackson Jags vs. Monmouth Monarchs (Manalapan)
Good teams get knocked out early in tournaments all the time – including Jackson Memorial in last year’s NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV Tournament. The news here is that either Jackson Memorial or Manalapan – two of the top six teams in the SSN Preseason rankings – will be guaranteed to be going home before the knockout round of 16. The two programs have engaged in some classic battles during the tenures of both Frank Malta at Jackson and Brian Boyce at Manalapan and there is a good chance these versions add to that history, albeit without Boyce coaching due to the Freehold Regional High School District policy forbidding its high-school coaches from participating.
2. RBC vs. RBI Baseball (SJV)
RBC hasn’t been mentioned much because the Caseys got a draw that should get them to the first Thursday of pool play at 2-0. After the opener vs. Long Branch, RBC could get a challenge from Red Bank or Neptune, but both of those teams may have to burn through some pitching just to get through the first day while RBC can probably save some arms. That potentially sets the Caseys up to have Shane Panzini ready to pitch on Thursday against the winner of the Belmar Region, where RBI Baseball is the No. 1 seed. SJV’s entrant into the tournament has a lot of young talent and if RBI gets through its own pool, a showdown against RBC and, potentially, Panzini would be a great chance to see how well Vianney – ranked No. 10 in the SSN preseason rankings – is set up heading toward 2021.
3. MS Baseball (Midd. South) vs. OT Baseball (Ocean)
Getting out of its own regional will be a challenge for OT Baseball, which will have to beat a capable Matawan team and the winner or the other opener between a pair of promising clubs in RFH (Rumson) and the Hazlet Renegades (Raritan). Despite the challenging draw, Ocean is well-situated as a roster because of its depth and versatility in the lineup. The key for them will be making it to Thursday without burning too much pitching, which Middletown South has in spades and should keep in its reserves for a potential do-or-die game against the winner of the Ocean Regional. This showdown would pit the No. 5 team in the SSN Top 20 against No. 11, so this is something like a Monmouth County Tournament quarterfinal game.
4. CBA Colts vs. Columbia Blue (Freehold Twp.)
If CBA can open up with two wins, it is very likely the Colts will face a team from their Class A North division on Thursday. Freehold Township’s Columbia Blue squad is the No. 1 seed its region, but Marlboro’s Blue and Gold and Freehold Boro’s Monmouth Dogfish could also draw a matchup with CBA. All three of those programs have battled the Colts tough over the years playing in A North so the Thursday game to decide one of the spots in the knockout round should have an added dimension of intensity. CBA’s pitching depth and the balance in the TBD pool headed by Columbia Blue could mean CBA has a major advantage in pitcher availability come Thursday.
5. Point Pleasant Boro vs. TR East Baseball
This would be a fun game between two teams that have both really raised their respective levels of play in tournament settings over the past two years. Point Boro came into its own during the 2018 postseason with deep runs in the Shore Conference and South Group II Tournaments before winning the Ocean County Tournament and reaching the Group II championship game in 2019. Toms River East, meanwhile, was only 10-14 last year but reached the OCT semifinals by knocking off Jackson Memorial and also made it to the South Jersey Group III semifinals in 2019. One year prior, the Raiders made it to the OCT championship game as a No. 7 seed. Point Boro beat Toms River East in last year’s OCT semifinal so there would be some history baked into this potential matchup as well. With ace Nick Guzzi opting out of the tournament for Point Boro, it also opens the door for another team out of those two Ocean County Regionals in Bayville and Barnegat to make a deep run.
Correction: The original post stated that two Jackson Jags players - Matt Potok and Zach Crotchfelt - would not be playing in the tournament, which coach Frank Malta told NJ Advanced Media earlier this month. Malta said Sunday both players would now be on the roster and available to play in the tournament in some capacity.