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The first week of any baseball season is full of surprises and in a season that features teams that have not played an official high school game in two years, you can expect the unexpected.

One trend that seems to be taking shape is that the proven pitchers who have made their starts so far have lived up to their reputations while a lot of the deeper parts of the pitching staffs around the conference without a lot of experience have gotten caught up in some of the many early high-scoring games.

When it comes to ranking opponents off reputations earned two years ago, for three weeks last July in the Last Dance World Series and performance in three or four games this week, the performance of the top pitchers – and a lineup’s performances against those pitchers – is at the top of the list when looking for teams to rank near the top.

It has also been only a week, so there is only so much that will change, but there are a couple of teams that have been impressive enough to go from unranked to one of the 10 best.

Jackson Memorial junior Zach Crotchfelt. (Photo by Matt Manley)

1. Jackson Memorial (2-1, 0-0) Last Week: 1

Although it is not one of the remaining undefeated teams in the Shore Conference, Jackson Memorial has looked the part of No. 1 team at the Shore so far. The Jaguars coughed up a 4-0 lead in losing to St. Augustine in walk-off fashion, then responded by beating Freehold Boro and Ramapo by a combined score of 20-0. Matt Potok and Zach Crotchfelt remain an imposing duo and junior left-hander Zach McCabe turned in a very impressive debut in the win over Freehold. Throw in a lineup that has had contributors from top-to-bottom and the Jaguars are clearly the team to beat in Ocean County and the Shore Conference.

2. Red Bank Catholic (3-1, 0-0) Last Week: 3

Despite losing a slugfest at Middletown South on Thursday, Red Bank Catholic moves up a spot because of a number of encouraging signs. First of all, the Caseys have a dominant No. 1 starter, with Shane Panzini striking out 29 with four walks and three hits allowed in 14 innings so far. So once per week, or so, the Caseys will be nearly impossible to beat. Beyond that, they have started to click on offense, with a few clutch at-bats in a 2-0 win at Toms River North and 24 runs in the next three games. The pitching after Panzini is still a work in progress, but that is true of the unproven portions of just about every staff in the conference so far.

3. Manalapan (2-1, 0-0) Last Week: 2

The 2021 season got off to an ugly start for Manalapan, which got ambushed by Colts Neck, 10-0. Since then, however, the Braves have trotted out their top two starters – Tyler Kane and Joe Mazza – to steady the ship and appear to have the kind of one-two punch that was expected coming in. Both turned in scoreless outings and will make Manalapan very difficult to handle when either pitches. Throw in a few hitters who are heating up and the opening-day loss should be more of a credit to Colts Neck and ace Anthony Gubitosi than a knock on Manalapan.

4. St. John Vianney (0-0, 0-0) Last Week: 4

The Lancers will finally get their season going this week after a COVID-related pause. If losses by Red Bank Catholic and Manalapan don’t damage them too much in the rankings, then being inactive shouldn’t sink St. John Vianney either. Having to cancel games vs. St. Peter’s Prep and Toms River North is a bummer but their season finally gets underway this week, with games scheduled vs. Neptune (twice) and Colts Neck.

5. Middletown South (4-0, 0-0) Last Week: Not ranked

From unranked in the preseason to No. 5 after one week, Middletown South has assembled a new lineup, let loose a promising pitching staff and played as well as any team in the Shore Conference to start the season. The Eagles have three senior starters in Dan Keenan, Jack Shea and Matt Pontari and a special sophomore in 6-foot-5 right-hander Ben Schild (two-hit shutout, 12 strikeouts Saturday vs. Ramapo). The lineup does not have many starters back from even last summer but the mix has worked so far, particularly when Middletown South rallied from a 7-0 deficit to beat Red Bank Catholic on Thursday and in scoring 22 runs in a win over Bloomfield.

Middletown South senior Joe Stanzione. (Photo by Steve Meyer)

6. Toms River North (1-1, 0-0) Last Week: 5

Toms River North had to deal with Shane Panzini on opening day and still had chances to win that one despite coming up with only a pair of singles (one a bunt) and a pair of walks. The Mariners had to wait five days to get back out on a diamond and then showed their potential in pounding an up-and-coming Ranney team, 14-1. There are some injuries they will have to work around – ace Brandon Feigin has not yet been able to pitch – but the lineup, defense and depth should keep the Mariners in the mix.

7. Middletown North (3-0, 0-0) Last Week: 6

Speaking of injuries, Middletown North has not welcomed standout catcher Andrew Lombardi to the 2021 season yet and despite that, the Lions are 3-0. The first-week schedule wasn’t especially daunting (Holmdel, Red Bank and Mater Dei are a combined 1-8 so far) but Middletown North’s pitching staff has been sharp so far and the bats broke out in wins over both Red Bank (16-4) and Mater Dei (12-1). Like Manalapan, Middletown North has two standout starters in Danny Frontera and Colin Dowlen and so far, the entire staff beyond them has delivered.

8. Howell (3-0, 0-0) Last Week: 9

Sticking with the injury theme, Howell is still working co-ace Chris Ellison into form and despite not starting him during the season’s first week, the Rebels are 3-0 with plenty of quality pitching so far. The other side of Howell’s one-two punch – Vin Impresa – was sharp in an opening night win and in closing Saturday’s win, but the Rebels also got a strong outing from Daniel Furlong and two impressive appearances (one in relief and one start) from Ryan Bilello. It also doesn’t hurt to score 11 runs in each of the first two games.

9. Freehold Township (3-0, 2-0) Last Week: 8

Coming into the year, it was a strong trio of starting pitchers that was the source of optimism around Freehold Township. After one week, the Patriots have given up some runs, but it hasn’t mattered. The offense – which is full of players who started as sophomores and have since grown up to be seniors – has hammered the ball to the tune of 37 runs in three games, which marks the best per-game average (12.33) in the Shore Conference so far. Middletown South has scored 43 runs in four games and the two red-hot A North offenses will clash this week.

10. Rumson-Fair Haven (3-0, 0-0) Last Week: Not ranked

Like Freehold Township, the last time Rumson was together for a season, most of the players in its current lineup were varsity sophomores and they have done a lot of growing up over two years. The pitching, however, has been sparked but a pair of juniors and a sophomore, with sophomore Jackson Hinchcliffe winning the opening-day blowout over Red Bank and juniors Mike Amendola and Charlie Jones turn in strong outings in wins over Wall and Central. The offense is also clicking, with 28 runs in three wins.

 

Dropped Out

Wall (3-1, 0-0) Last Week: 7 – Wall’s bats have been very impressive so far and will be put to the test this week. The Crimson Knights are slated to face the Colts Neck duo of Gubitosi and Christian Rice, followed by a Saturday showdown with Panzini and Red Bank Catholic.

Christian Brothers Academy (1-1, 0-0) Last Week: 10 – Losses like the walk-off heartbreaker the Colts suffered in the opener at Brick Memorial will be part of the learning process for a young team and CBA already showed some resilience by bouncing back for a win over Seton Hall Prep.

 

Top 10 Watchlist

Lacey (3-0, 2-0) – The Lions’ senior one-two punch of Jacob Bowles and Nick Zarycki were awfully impressive, with Bowles throwing a no-hitter and Zarycki a one-hitter in 10-run-rule-shortened wins over Point Boro. The offense (31 runs in three games) was none too shabby either.

Colts Neck (2-1, 0-0) – Anthony Gubitosi was mighty impressive in spinning a five-inning two-hitter with nine strikeouts vs. Manalapan and the lineup has been firing out of the gate as well.

Donovan Catholic (3-1, 0-0) – A 5-1 loss to Brick Memorial notwithstanding, Donovan Catholic’s offense has been on a tear to open the season, with a talented sophomore class starting to show its potential alongside a proven group of upperclassmen.

Monmouth (3-0, 0-0) – The Falcons have the makings of a dangerous lineup, which racked up 34 runs in three wins over Henry Hudson, Manasquan and Neptune. That start gets tested this week with two games vs. St. Rose and a Friday tilt with Red Bank Catholic.

Central (2-1, 2-0) – After slugging their way to two wins over Southern (13 runs in both games), the Golden Eagles ran into Rumson and hard-throwing junior Charlie Jones.