Baseball – NJSIAA Tournament Preview: The Shore in Group III
For the second time in three seasons, the defending Group III champion entering the NJSIAA Tournament is a Shore Conference team. Wall spend two years as the defending champ thanks to the canceled 2020 season and now, Middletown North holds the title heading into Monday's opening round after winning its first state title in controversial fashion a season ago.
The Lions might again be the Shore's best hope at a Group III finalist, although there is sure to be competition. Rival Middletown South is just two years removed from winning Group IV and the pitcher who carried them to that championship is finally back and pitching for the Eagles after being shut down for three weeks with an arm injury.
Brick Memorial is the highest-seeded of the Shore Conference teams and the only other Group III team from the Shore with as many tournament wins this year as Brick Memorial is none other than Matawan.
Central and South Jersey Group III are comprised of diverse group of teams with different strengths, not just from the Shore but beyond as well. Cranford and Millburn are juggernauts from the northern part of the state and finishing off a championship will by beating one of those two will be difficult, but someone has to represent the south of the state and the Shore has some real contenders.
Central Jersey Group III
Shore Teams in the Field: No. 2 Brick Memorial, No. 3 Middletown North, No. 7 Middletown South, No. 9 Matawan, No. 13 Colts Neck, No. 16 Neptune
Top Seed: Steinert
Defending Champion: Middletown North
Favorite: No. 5 Burlington Twp.
Darkhorse: Matawan. Colts Neck and Neptune have some very positive NJSIAA Tournament history under their current head coaches and Colts Neck has been to two straight sectional finals. With that being said, both got tough first-round draws, while Matawan, is looking at a slightly more manageable road. The Huskies have some quality pitching behind ace Brandon Falco and with Falco on the mound, they always have a shot – as they have showed with a 3-2 record in both the Monmouth County and Shore Conference Tournaments.
Bracket Breakdown: As always, the Shore has lots of participants and several contenders in the CJ III field. Middletown North does not have a horse like Colin Dowlen to ride on the mound like it did during last year’s state-title run, but the offense is just as powerful, perhaps even more so this season. Middletown South, meanwhile, has endured a disappointing season to this point, but the Eagles have played a loaded schedule and have ace Ben Schil back in the pitching fold for the first time since early April. Brick Memorial is the enigma of the three top teams from the Shore: The Mustangs lost in the first round as the No. 2 seed a year ago and are hoping the strong second-half of their season carries over into the state tournament this time around. That trio represents the Shore’s best shot against four very good out-of-area teams in Steinert, No. 4 Lawrence, No. 5 Burlington Twp. and No. 6 Allentown.
Prediction: Burlington Twp. over Middletown South. I’m buying that the Eagles are battle-tested and healthy enough to make the run to the sectional final. With four days between the sectional quarterfinals and semifinals, a lot can happen with the pitching rotation, but there is a good chance we get Middletown South at Middletown North with Schild on the mound in the semis. On the other side of the bracket, Burlington Township has been lights out on the mound, allowing two or fewer runs in its last 10 games while posting a 12-1 mark over its last 13. The Falcons have three senior starters – C.J. Adotta, Jake Doherty and Connor Parsons – with big strikeout and ERA numbers so the ingredients are there for a deep run.
South Jersey Group III
Shore Teams in the Field: No. 14 Toms River South, No. 15 Lacey
Top Seed: Shawnee
Defending Champion: No. 2 Delsea
Darkhorse: No. 11 Moorestown. The top seeds look fairly safe when it comes to making it to the late rounds of the tournament, but a battle-tested program like Moorestown could present a challenge for No. 3 Cherry Hill West and, potentially, No. 2 Delsea. Toms River South, meanwhile, is a proud program with a scrappy team and no one should put it past the Indians to go to Cherry Hill West and knock off the Lions in round one to set off an exciting push toward the sectional semifinals. As for Lacey at No. 15, the Delsea draw will make it difficult for the Lions to advance out of the first round, but they are only one year removed from upsetting Moorestown in round one and playing Delsea tough in a quarterfinal loss.
Bracket Breakdown: The top three seeds in the field look like the heavy favorites to bring home a title, with No. 3 Cherry Hill West the most likely spoiler of a Shawnee-Delsea final. No. 7 Ocean City, No. 9 Mainland and No. 10 Clearview are all programs with recent success in the tournament that could throw a wrench into the plans somewhere along the way, but the top seeds have not had many slip-ups along the way this season.
Prediction: Shawnee over Delsea. The Renegades made it to the South Group IV semifinal in 2022, losing to eventual sectional champion Cherokee. That leaves them with unfinished business and now, they are trying to finish it in Group III instead of Group IV. This field might not be that much worse than the Group IV bracket in South Jersey, if it is worse at all, but with Jackson Logar and Ben Hudson atop the rotation, Shawnee is still as primed as any team in the state win a sectional title.