Baseball – NJSIAA Tournament Preview: The Shore Non-Publics
Non-public programs in New Jersey have always had a built-in advantage over their public counterparts and the discrepancy at the Shore has never been greater than it has been this season. Four of the top-five ranked teams in the conference are non-public programs despite there only being six non-public baseball programs in the conference compared to 40 public schools.
All that is to say, the best teams in the Shore Conference will be competing in the South Jersey Non-Public A and B brackets and while these teams represent the best the Shore has to offer, they don't necessarily represent the Shore's best chance to win a championship now that they have to face other non-public programs from around the state. When Ranney won the Non-Public B championship last year, it marked the first time a Shore Conference team had won a non-public state championship since Christian Brothers Academy in 2015 and the first time a Shore team won Non-Public B since St. Rose won it in 2009.
This year's group of non-publics is as good as there has been at the Shore in a while, with two favorites to win it all in Red Bank Catholic (Non-Public A) and Ranney (B) to go with a pair of serious threats in CBA and Donovan Catholic. The odds of winning a non-public title are not good for any team in New Jersey because of how many good teams stand in the way, but that collection of teams gives the Shore a good chance to be home to a non-public champion again in 2023.
South Jersey Non-Public A
Shore Teams in the Field: No. 1 Red Bank Catholic, No. 3 Donovan Catholic, No. 5 Christian Brothers Academy, No. 11 St. John Vianney
Top Seed: Red Bank Catholic
Defending Champion: No. 4 St. Augustine
Favorite: Red Bank Catholic
Darkhorse: No. 7 Paul VI. CBA made it all the way to the sectional final last season, but the Colts had to scratch and claw just to get past Paul VI in the first round. This year, the Eagles will be at home in round one and are led by Tulane commit and shortstop Mike Lucarelli. No. 2 St. Joseph Metuchen has hit its stride lately and will be tough to take down, but Paul VI is capable of getting hot and pulling off a run to the final. Any team seeded below the Eagles looks like a longshot to get to the sectional semifinals, but Paul VI has a legitimate shot to get to the championship game and take its shot at the title. St. John Vianney would be a dangerous No. 11 if it could throw ace Aiden Cody in a state playoff road game, but the injured West Virginia commit has been out all season with an elbow injury. As is, the Lancers could scrap for a win behind a good day from Andrew Zottar on the mound, but a deep run in this field will be a tall order.
Bracket Breakdown: This might be the strongest field the Shore Conference has had in Non-Public A since St. John Vianney won the state championship in 2014 while CBA and Red Bank Catholic were also top-tier programs. Red Bank Catholic threw its name into the discussion for No. 1 in the state by beating Ranney on Sunday and will look to strengthen that case by winning its first sectional championship in 26 years. That won’t be easy, though, with CBA or No. 4 St. Augustine – the two teams that eliminated RBC in each of the past two seasons – likely to meet the Caseys in the sectional semifinals. With RBC not playing until Friday, the Caseys can set up senior ace Alex Stanyek to pitch the sectional semifinal on May 31 and have him ready for a potential state final eight days later. With a deep pitching staff, the Caseys are set up to make another serious bid at a state title, as long as the offense can back the best all-around pitching staff and defense RBC has had in coach Buddy Hausmann’s run as head coach.
CBA will have to decide how to deploy its pitching, with the likely outcoming being Wace Chris Levonas getting the ball at St. Augustine in round two to try and knock off the six-time defending sectional champion. Nick Harnisch turned in a solid outing against RBC in a 3-1 loss to the Caseys in the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals at Count Basie Park, so coach Marty Kenney Jr. would likely feel comfortable going back to his senior right-hander in that setting if Levonas can deliver them a win over St. Augustine. For the Colts to complete the run for their first sectional title since winning it all in 2015, the bats – particularly in the middle of the order – will have to get going again.
Donovan Catholic is the other Shore Conference contender and the Griffins are eager to get going after bowing out of the SCT vs. CBA on May 15, as well as losing in the first round last season. The Griffins have three capable, top-end pitchers to lean on during the run – left-handers Shaun O’Keefe and Jake Marciano and right-hander Jason Basilicata – plus a collection of bullpen arms that has delivered all year. The state tournament is also a chance for Gavin Degnan to finish off his bid for Player of the Year in the Conference, as well as a First-Team All-State spot in the outfield after putting together a brilliant season to date – which includes the 100th hit of his career.
Prediction: Red Bank Catholic over Paul VI. There has never been a better set of circumstances for Red Bank Catholic to win a state championship. Even when the Caseys had the state’s hottest pitcher in Shane Panzini two years ago, the road to the final was tougher and the pitching staff – while very good – was not as deep and diverse as the one the Caseys have now. The defense is also much better and the lineup is at least as good, if not a little more balanced than in 2021. CBA is a dangerous No. 5 with Levonas, St. Joe’s Metuchen is playing its best baseball, Donovan Catholic has one of the state’s best players and three good pitchers and St. Augustine has history on its side. With all that said, RBC has the road laid out and if the Caseys don’t get to the state final this year, one has to start to wonder if they ever will.
South Jersey Non-Public B
Shore Teams in the Field: No. 2 Ranney, No. 4 St. Rose
Top Seed: Gloucester Catholic
Defending Champion: Ranney
Darkhorse: Bishop Eustace. There are really only three contenders in this bracket and the discussion around this bracket for most of this season has been about Ranney and Gloucester Catholic. Bishop Eustace, however, has the talent to go toe-to-toe with either of the favorites, as the Crusaders showed by hanging tough with Ranney in a 3-0 loss in Tinton Falls in April. Rutgers commit Jack Kirchner is closing in on 100 strikeouts for the season and since losing that 3-0 game at Ranney, he is 5-0 with a 0.52 ERA, 55 strikeouts and five walks in 27 innings. Overall, Bishop Eustace has won 12 of its last 13, with the only loss in that stretch coming to Gloucester Catholic. St. Rose is next in line as a potential contender and with Jack Tiernan and Jack Lomerson heading the pitching staff and the lineup, the Purple Roses should at least get to the sectional semifinals for a shot at top-seeded Gloucester Catholic.
Bracket Breakdown: The No. 1 seed in this bracket has a huge advantage, which is why Gloucester Catholic winning the Diamond Classic was not only a great accomplishment but also a huge power-point boon that carried the Rams past Ranney for the top spot in this section. Now, Gloucester Catholic only has to beat one of Ranney or Bishop Eustace, while those two slug it out in a likely sectional semifinal on May 31. Power points aside, Ranney has been the best team among the trio all year. The Panthers have only two losses – Delbarton and Red Bank Catholic – and will have the best player on the field in A.J. Gracia every time they step on the field. With only four potential games left in a span of two weeks, Nick Coniglio, Marcello Mastroianni and Gracia are almost certainly going to cover every inning on the mound, which was the winning formula last year. Now, those three – particularly Coniglio and Mastroianni – are much more imposing pitchers a year later and will be tough on any opposing lineup.
Prediction: Ranney over Gloucester Catholic. Ranney’s road is not easy and Gloucester Catholic is going to get the Panthers away from their home field. Ultimately, though, the road has not bothered Ranney over the last three years and the Panthers pitching and defense are going to be hard to crack. It will be interesting to see how Ranney responds to losing to Red Bank Catholic in the SCT final, but if last year is any indication, expect the Panthers to bounce back and play well. The No. 1 ranking in the state is still on the table and a state title will be necessary to get Ranney to the finish line.