Baseball – Shore Conference NJSIAA Tournament Preview: Group III
With 13 total teams from the conference across three sections, Group III has the most Shore flavor of any NJSIAA Group. The question is, will that mean championship hardware for some team from Monmouth or Ocean County - both on sectional final Friday (June 11) and on state championship Saturday (June 19)?
In 2019, Wall answered that question to the affirmative, becoming the first Shore Conference team to win the Group III championship since Monmouth Regional in 2005. So, while the Shore has strength in numbers when it comes to Group III, it has not yielded the number of state championship winners one might think.
This year, there is a heavy favorite in Group III, with Atlantic County's Mainland Regional occupying the No. 2 spot in the current state rankings by NJ Advance Media and featuring an ace in Chase Petty who has been clocked at 101 miles-per-hour with his fastball and is expected to go in the first round of the Major League Baseball Draft in July. The Shore could get multiple cracks at the Mustangs along the way, with four Shore teams in that South Jersey section and a number of contenders in Central Jersey that could meet up with Mainland in a potential state semifinal.
North Jersey Section 2, Group III
Shore Teams In the Field: No. 16 Matawan
Top Seed: Millburn
Defending Champion (2019): West Morris
Favorite: No. 2 Cranford
While there was no 2020 high school baseball season in New Jersey, Cranford got a chance to flex its muscles by not only winning the Last Dance World Series in July, but dominating it. After blowing out teams from Delbarton and Don Bosco Prep, Cranford capped its championship run by routing Jackson Memorial in the championship game. While it’s not the exact same team and No. 3 Somerville (9.6 runs per game; six or more runs in 16 of 17 wins) has hit the cover off the ball all year, the Cougars have some of the young talent in place and will carry their big-game pedigree into the state tournament.
Darkhorse: No. 12 Cliffside Park
The Red Raiders are a 12-seed with a pretty solid record (13-8) heading into the tournament and have been fairly steady on the mound. No. 11 Chatham, meanwhile, does not have a good record, but could be due for some better fortune after going 2-9 in games decided by three runs or fewer while playing a competitive schedule. Matawan should not be counted out either with the left-right mound duo of Tim Egan and Mike Caldon, especially if the Huskies can find ways to score runs. (No. 11 Chatham and No. 16 Matawan)
With all due respect to top-seeded Millburn, the collision-course game in this bracket is the potential semifinal between heavy-hitting teams from Cranford and Somerville. The monkey wrench could be West Morris – the 2019 runner-up who could present a problem for Cranford in the quarterfinal round.
Championship Prediction: No. 3 Somerville over No. 1 Millburn
The one rub on Cranford is the schedule has not been as stacked as one might expect for a team that entered the season as the No. 1 team in the state and Somerville should be ready to swing it against the Cougars, should that match-up happen in the semifinals. The winner of the 2-vs.-3 semifinal will have a great shot to finish the job in the final.
Central Jersey Group III
Shore Teams In the Field: No. 1 Colts Neck, No. 4 Wall, No. 8 Ocean, No. 9 Middletown North, No. 10 Neptune, No. 11 Brick, No. 12 Jackson Liberty, No. 14 Red Bank
Top Seed: Colts Neck
Defending Champion (2019): Wall
If Middletown North has two healthy aces in Danny Frontera and Colin Dowlen, the Lions might be the favorite, even as the No. 9. For now, though, Wall will challenge the adage that great pitching beats great hitting, with the Crimson Knights averaging just under 10 runs per game and putting up huge numbers throughout the lineup. Two years after riding some dominant pitching, Wall could be on the cusp of winning yet another sectional championship in a very different manner.
The Green Dragons have come on strong lately, including a win at Jackson Memorial last week behind senior right-hander John Wade. Senior left-hander Ethan Gonzalez has been out of action on the mound for most of the last month, but is primed to pitch this week, which should be a major boon to the pitching staff.
Central Jersey Group III always has sleepers, one of which was Neptune as a No. 14 seed back in 2017. With Brian Young on the mound, the Scarlet Fliers can beat anyone, but would have to find a way to advance without him at some point. No. 12 Jackson Liberty is another double-digit team from the Shore Conference to watch, but the Lions have a very difficult side of the bracket to deal with, starting with No. 5 Allentown.
The seeds don’t mean too much in this bracket, although No. 1 Colts Neck is certainly among the contenders and Steinert and Hamilton are favorites to reach the final four as the Nos. 2 and 3 seeds, respectively. In addition to Wall at No. 4 and Middletown North at No. 9 posing a threat, Ocean is a well-round team that can make a deep run as a No. 8 seed, as is Allentown at No. 5.
On the other side of the bracket, No. 6 Hopewell Valley is the Colonial Valley Conference Tournament champion and could be the favorite to make it to the final as long as the Bulldogs can avoid the first-round slip-up against Brick. As it often does, the championship could come down to how the pitching lines up for all the teams.
Championship Prediction: No. 4 Wall over No. 2 Steinert
While most teams try to figure out how to juggle their pitching, Wall is going to trot out a murderer’s row of hitters, catch the ball on defense and let the chips fall where they may. The Crimson Knights’ pitching staff, meanwhile, has been solid, if not overpowering and they can pitch knowing they will get run support. The key for Wall could be who they run into in the sectional semifinal and what pitchers that team has available.
South Jersey Group III
Shore Teams In the Field: No. 3 Central, No. 7 Lacey, No. 10 Toms River South, No. 11 Toms River East
Top Seed: Mainland
Defending Champion (2019): No. 8 Cherry Hill West
From the first day of the season, Chase Petty has been the No. 1 baseball attraction in New Jersey and that is the foremost characteristic of Mainland to date. The Mustangs, however, are more than just one pitcher throwing 100 miles-per-hour with a nasty slider and Petty himself has been more than that this year. Mainland has been a standout offensive team to go with its ace on the mound, with Mark Elliot, Cole Campbell, Brody Levin and Petty all having big years at the plate.
Darkhorse: Toms River South
Toms River South is four years removed from being the No. 1 seed in an NJSIAA section and was awfully close to winning Central Jersey Group III – and perhaps all of Group III – in 2017. This Indians team is not constructed like that one was, hence the No. 10 seed, but this one is playing extremely well heading into the tournament. The pitching has rounded into form to the point that Toms River South can throw two right-handers (Aidan Folsom and Joe Schifilitti) who are hot at the moment, which could set them up to advance multiple rounds in the side of the bracket opposite Mainland.
With recent wins over Clearview and Rancocas Valley, No. 12 Timber Creek is also a double-digit seed to watch, although there is a good chance that if the Chargers to make it to the semifinals, Petty will be on the mound to greet them.
Mainland-mania is likely to continue into next week, although it is not quite a given. The Mustangs will have to get through the winner of the 8-vs.-9 game between Triton and Cherry Hill West, which is a rematch the classic 2019 sectional final between the two teams, won by Cherry Hill West. The good news for the Shore Conference teams in this field is that all four of them are on the side of the bracket opposite the No. 1 seed, with Central the highest among them and with the best chance to make it to the final. Cam Leiter has been locked in on the mound and at the plate for a Golden Eagles team that has boasted a dangerous lineup all year and has the makeup to make the run to the final, although No. 6 Hammonton and No. 2 Ocean City would be major roadblocks and No. 14 Seneca is dangerous first-round opponent.
Lacey, meanwhile, will have to deal with a tough draw, but the Lions have two senior pitchers in Jacob Bowles and Nick Zarycki, plus a senior core in the field, to give them a shot. Toms River East made a semifinal run two years ago as a No. 12 seed and while this is just about a completely different group, the Raiders have some recent history upon which to fall back.
Championship Prediction: Mainland over Ocean City
While Mainland has the firepower to storm to the final, Ocean City is also no joke. The Red Raiders have two standout pitchers in Gannon Brady and Matt Nunan and have taken on plenty of state-tournament contenders throughout the year. The bottom-half of the bracket is going to be intense and with four Shore teams in the mix, there is a pretty good chance one ends up in the final, but Ocean City should still be considered the best bet to survive the battle royale leading up to the sectional final.