Baseball – Shore Conference NJSIAA Tournament Preview: Group IV
The Group IV Playoffs routinely features some of New Jersey's best baseball talent and that talent is never limited to just the top seeds. It is rare to get through a state tournament without a double-digit seed making a deep run in Group IV, so when perusing the entrants in this year's state tournament, no one should be overlooked as a contender.
The Shore Conference has a number of teams that can be considered favorites and several more that are legitimate contenders between the Central and South Jersey sections of the Group IV field. Of the nine Shore teams in Group IV, three of them are seeded in the double-digits and two of the three - Toms River North and Southern - have won postseason tournament championships in the past five years. The other is Brick Memorial, which is arguably the hottest team in Ocean County heading into the state tournament.
To make a long story short, sleep on no one in the Group IV Tournament.
Central Jersey Group IV
Shore Teams In the Field: No. 1 Manalapan, No. 3 Middletown South, No. 6 Freehold Twp., No. 9 Marlboro
Top Seed: Manalapan
Defending Champion (2019): Manalapan
Favorite: No. 2 Hunterdon Central
Manalapan would be very hard to beat with two healthy aces atop its rotation and even without left-hander Joe Mazza – who has not pitched since May 16 – the Braves are a legitimate threat. With a healthier squad and a program that is always in the mix for sectional championships, though, Hunterdon Central has a manageable road to the championship game and a team that is well-rounded enough to navigate it.
Darkhorse: No. 12 Old Bridge
After reaching the sectional final two years ago, the Knights are hoping to orchestrate another deep run in 2021. At 7-17, it has been a rough year for Old Bridge and the Knights already lost two to first-round opponent South Brunswick, but like have been in most of their games, the Knights were competitive in both. Although not a double-digit seed, Marlboro has the team and the path to make it to the championship game and East Brunswick could be a dangerous No. 11.
If Manalapan can get through the first week of the tournament, perhaps the Braves could ride junior right-hander Tyler Kane and buy enough time to get healthy for the championship round of the tournament. If not, the lineup is still potent and there are enough arms to piece innings together in a part of the bracket that does not have an overpowering team. Marlboro already beat Manalapan, but has to get through a tough Monroe squad before getting another shot at the Braves.
In the bottom of the bracket, Middletown South and Freehold Township could meet for a third time if both win and Freehold Township has been very good when the Patriots have thrown Matt Villapiano and Zach Gorman, including two wins over the Eagles. Middletown South has sophomore Ben Schild as its hammer, who will likely pitch in the opener.
Championship Prediction: No. 2 Hunterdon Central over No. 1 Manalapan
Despite the key injury, Manalapan is a threat because of the home-field advantage, a deep lineup and the fact that Kane could possibly jump in as a closer in the quarterfinal if the Braves can score some early runs in the first-round vs. Sayreville and get him out with a low pitch count. Even if Manalapan has to piece together the championship game on the mound, once you get into the final, anything can happen.
South Jersey Group IV
Shore Teams In the Field: No. 5 Jackson Memorial, No. 7 Howell, No. 12 Brick Memorial, No. 14 Toms River North, No. 15 Southern
Top Seed: Williamstown
Defending Champion (2019): No. 9 Eastern
Favorite: Jackson Memorial
There are a lot of quality teams in the field with varying strengths and when looking for the separator, the first thing that sticks out is pitching. Losers of four out of five, Jackson Memorial has struggled heading into the tournament, with the offense putting up pedestrian numbers and the middle of the pitching staff getting hit hard. Still, the Jaguars have two legitimate aces in Matt Potok and Zach Crotchfelt. Potok has not been as dominant as he was during a near-pristine run during the Last Dance World Series in July, but the stuff has been there and he still has the big-game experience to lean.
Crotchfelt, meanwhile, has been the most dominant pitcher in the Shore Conference and that includes Red Bank Catholic ace Shane Panzini. He has allowed one earned run in 29 2/3 innings with 59 strikeouts and if it comes down to Crotchfelt or Potok on the mound with a championship on the line, Jackson Memorial will be in good shape.
Darkhorse: No. 11 Shawnee
Since starting the season 2-4, the Renegades are rolling a 10-1 over their last 11 games – stretch that includes wins over No. 2 Cherokee, defending champion Eastern and South Jersey Group III second-seed Ocean City. No. 6 Egg Harbor is a tough draw, but Shawnee is battle-tested and could pull it off.
No. 13 Millville is also a live dog up against Kingsway in round one and Shore staples Brick Memorial and Toms River North could make some noise as well. Brick Memorial is one of the Shore’s surging teams and just beat Jackson Memorial, albeit with the Jaguars throwing an array of pitchers. Brick Memorial, though, can throw its own ace in Cole Manfro, which should give the Mustangs a real shot.
With so many capable teams seeded one through 16, one game can turn the bracket upside down and open it up for an unexpected team to win it. In 2019, Jackson Memorial was stunned by No. 15 Cherokee in the first round, which paved the way for Eastern to make the run to the sectional championship.
One team that could step into that opportunistic role is Howell, which has been crushing the ball lately and has some capable pitching that has been inconsistent at times. If the Rebels can find a couple pitchers to find a groove, the lineup is going to back them up and could ignite a deep run for the Rebels as the No. 7 seed.
Championship Prediction: Jackson Memorial over No. 3 Clearview
Julian Costa is the kind of pitcher that can carry a team to a championship and he could very well get the Pioneers through a tough road. They also might need him against Jackson Memorial, who will most certainly have either Potok or Crotchfelt ready to go if the Jaguars are fortunate enough to win their way to the sectional final.