Baseball – NJSIAA Tournament Preview: The Shore in Group IV
Winning the Group IV championship might be the most difficult feat a team could accomplish in New Jersey High School baseball. The top tier of Non-Public A is the class of the state, but a run through Group IV almost always requires beating six quality teams, whereas Non-Public A champions often only have to win four games and one of them might be an easy one.
With that in mind, it says something about the Shore Conference that it has produced each of the last two Group IV champions and in the summer of 2020, a Group IV team made it to the last game of the Last Dance World Series -- a simulation, more or less, of the state tournament after the 2020 season was canceled. Those were three different teams as well, with Jackson Memorial's team impressing in 2020, followed by Group IV titles by Middletown South in 2021 and Howell in 2022.
This year, the Shore Conference does not have a team that could be considered a favorite to make that run, but Jackson Memorial, Southern and Marlboro are all teams that could catch fire and make a run at a title based one what those three have done throughout the season.
Here is a closer look at those three, the rest of the Group IV teams in the Shore Conference and how they all fit into the overall landscape in Central and South Jersey Group IV.
Central Jersey Group IV
Shore Teams in the Field: No. 3 Jackson Memorial, No. 4 Marlboro, No. 12 Howell, No. 13 Manalapan, No. 14 Freehold Township, No. 15 Long Branch
Top Seed: Old Bridge
Defending Champion: Howell
Favorite: No. 2 North Brunswick
Darkhorse: Howell. The Rebels have lost seven straight, but have a draw that could have them set up for a run past Memorial Day, provided the bats can heat up at the right time. No. 10 South Brunswick and No. 13 Manalapan are two other double-digits seeds with a chance to make a run as well.
Bracket Breakdown: Jackson Memorial and Marlboro are the Shore’s best hope in this bracket and both programs have some unfinished business after the past two seasons. Marlboro reached the 2021 sectional final and Jackson Memorial lost a one-run game to eventual 2022 champion Howell. Marlboro has a major weapon in Alex D’Ambrosio and enough depth to put together a run, while Jackson Memorial will lean on Anthony Mehmet and bank on the bullpen depth to deliver. Freehold Township, meanwhile, will look to discover its early-season form after finishing the regular season 1-11 in its last 12 games.
Prediction: North Brunswick over Old Bridge. Rutgers commit Zach Konstantinovsky gives North Brunswick a leg up on most of the field and with the senior ace pitching in Sunday’s GMC Tournament final, he won’t be eligible to throw a full 110 pitches until a potential sectional semifinal – which could very well be at Jackson Memorial. Old Bridge beat North Brunswick twice during the season and in order to get to the final, the Knights may have to deal with Marlboro ace Alex D’Ambrosio.
South Jersey Group IV
Shore Teams in the Field: No. 7 Southern, No. 9 Toms River East, No. 14 Toms River North, No. 15 Central
Top Seed: Cherokee
Defending Champion: Cherokee
Darkhorse: No. 10 Gloucester Tech. After starting the season 1-5, Gloucester Tech is 13-4, including 10-2 in its last 12 games. The Cheetahs have recent wins over Gloucester Catholic, Kingsway and Eastern while piecing together some quality pitching led by ace Brentin Heil. South Jersey Group IV is deep on teams that could surprise in a round or two, which includes a talented Central lineup and a Toms River North team that has been competitive in its losses. Gloucester Tech may not get past Brady Lesiak and Southern, but the Cheetahs have played well enough this season that they should be considered a threat to get to the championship game.
Bracket Breakdown: Going into the season, Kingsway and Cherokee figured to be the two best teams in the South Jersey Group IV section and they still might be. Kingsway, however, is seeded No. 8, which means the two team could be in for a quarterfinal showdown after Cherokee beat Kingsway in last year’s sectional final. That makes for a difficult challenge for Toms River East, which has the upside to make a run, but an inconsistent 2023 track record with its young roster and a difficult state-tournament road to navigate. The rest of the Shore Conference teams in South Jersey IV are on the other side of the bracket, where things are far more wide-open. Every team on that side has at least eight losses, with No. 2 Vineland boasting the best record at 17-8.
Prediction: Cherokee over Gloucester Tech. If Southern can get by Gloucester Tech, the Rams will have a great shot to make it to the sectional final. Brady Lesiak has been lights out as the team’s No. 1 starter and Roger Dreher and Mike Nasti have been sharp in recent outings, giving the Rams some options on the mound. Central might even be in play for a win or two, although the Golden Eagles have struggled late in the season. In the end, though, Cherokee remains the cream of the South Jersey crop and while the Chiefs got a tough draw for a No. 1 seed, they are still the most likely team to raise the trophy.