Baseball – Shore Conference NJSIAA Tournament Preview: Groups II and I
In recent years, the Shore Conference has been a major player in the NJSIAA Group II Playoffs. Manasquan won the entire Group in 2017, Raritan reached the Group II championship game in 2018 and Point Pleasant Boro followed in Raritan's footsteps in 2019, with both the Rockets and the Panthers losing heartbreakers to back-to-back champion Pascack Hills.
Point Boro would have been a favorite to return to the final with a senior-loaded team in 2020 and with the Panthers missing out on qualifying for the tournament in 2021, they deserve a tip of the hat for a stellar three-year run, even if they did not get to complete it last year.
Now that the 2021 tournament is upon us, there are a few more potential Shore Conference representatives for the Group II state final and the two teams with the best chance to get there would be new uniforms. Rumson-Fair Haven is the No. 1 seed in Central Jersey and Barnegat is a No. 4 with a shutdown ace at the top of the rotation in South Jersey.
In Group I, meanwhile, Point Pleasant Beach will try to break through in Central Jersey Group I after losing in the 2019 final with a team of sophomores and freshmen. The Shore Conference has been quiet in Group I in recent years but is only seven seasons removed from Shore Regional capturing the overall Group I championship.
Central Jersey Group II
Shore Teams In the Field: No. 1 Rumson-Fair Haven, No. 10 Holmdel, No. 11 Raritan, No. 13 Monmouth, No. 14 Manasquan, No. 15 Shore
Top Seed: Rumson-Fair Haven
Defending Champion (2019): Point Pleasant Boro
Favorite: No. 2 Governor Livingston
The Highlanders have come on strong late in the year, winning the Union County Tournament by defeating a Union team that beat them twice during the regular season before topping Westfield in the championship game. Governor Livingston is another team that scores at will, with an average of 9.9 runs per game for the season and a whopping 12.4 during its seven-game winning streak.
The Warriors entered the season saddled with inexperience and youth and those elements may be their strengths heading into the state tournament. Manasquan has beaten some quality competition over the course of the season, with wins over Colts Neck and Freehold Township, as well as competitive losses to Red Bank Catholic and Marlboro. Cullen Condon just struck out 16 in his last start and James Cosgrove has been solid at the top of the rotation all year, so perhaps there is a chance for Manasquan to make a run.
Rumson is the Shore’s best hope for a champion in this bracket and most of the other Shore teams in the field will operate on the road in the other half of the bracket. Other than Monmouth, all of the other teams from Monmouth County in the section are on the other side of the bracket, so it is unlikely Rumson’s opponents will be all that familiar with the Bulldogs’ deep lineup and diverse, capable pitching staff.
Meanwhile, Holmdel and Raritan are interesting teams on that opposite side of the bracket, particularly if Holmdel can get another pitcher to step up along with ace Jake Umans. The Hornets have shown at times they can hit the ball and to make it past Governor Livingston and into the second week, they will likely have to. Raritan, meanwhile, is always tough in May and June and has been competitive against good teams throughout the year.
Championship Prediction: Rumson-Fair Haven over Governor Livingston
If the top two teams in this section make it to the final, it is going to be a really fun game. Both can swing the bat and both have beaten some bigger schools along the road to the state tournament. Rumson has three quality pitchers, led by a legitimate shutdown arm in Charlie Jones, so the Bulldogs should be considered a serious threat, especially playing at home throughout.
South Jersey Group II
Shore Teams In the Field: No. 4 Barnegat, No. 12 Manchester
Top Seed: West Deptford
Defending Champion (2019): West Deptford
Favorite: West Deptford
It’s splitting hairs to try to pick a favorite between West Deptford and No. 2 Delran, so the tiebreaker goes to the team that will be playing home games for as long as it is around in the tournament. Neither team is a juggernaut and both will have to play well to make a deep run, but the Eagles and the Bears have well-rounded squads that should be able to advance by playing up to the levels they have established throughout the season.
The Hawks already made one deep run in tournament play this year, reaching the quarterfinals of the Shore Conference Tournament as a No. 23 seed and nearly stunning No. 2 Manalapan in the quarterfinal before losing in the bottom of the seventh inning. Manchester does not have a hammer on the mound that will scare teams, but the Hawks have a lot of pitchers who contribute, as well as a dangerous, junior-loaded lineup led by Logan Duffy, Mike Damato and Sean McAllister.
The top two seeds look like the class of South Jersey Group II, but there are some potential landmines along the way. Barnegat will be very hard to beat with senior Nick Danbrowney on the mound, so the Bengals’ chances to make a run to the final could come down to how they swing the bat and whether or not pitchers like P.J. Craig, Ryan Kulpa, Tyler DelPercio and Jared Schworn can either get hot or at least give the lineup a chance late in the game. The Bengals got a draw that could help them out, with Danbrowney throwing the opener, Craig and Kulpa to get them past the quarterfinal and Danbrowney coming back for a possible matchup with West Deptford.
Of course, Manchester could be the team standing between Barnegat and the semifinals and the Hawks will have revenge on their minds after losing two high-scoring games during Shore Conference Class B South divisional play.
Championship Prediction: Delran over Barnegat
If the Bengals can get to the semifinals with Danbrowney rested and ready to throw, he is the kind of pitcher that can put a serious scare into a top seed. It has been five years since the Bengals have been in a sectional final and this year’s group, led by Danbrowney and a host of juniors, might be best-suited to get back.
Central Jersey Group I
Shore Teams In the Field: No. 6 Point Pleasant Beach, No. 11 Keyport, No. 15 Henry Hudson
Top Seed: Middlesex
Defending Champion (2019): Middlesex
The Blue Jays have been the class of the section – and really all of Group I – since 2013 and with a 15-4 mark heading into the tournament, they are head and shoulders above the field.
Darkhorse: Point Beach
The Garnet Gulls gave Middlesex a tough game in the 2019 sectional final and that was with Point Beach boasting a roster loaded with sophomores and freshmen. That group is all grown up now and while the experience has not turned into big wins so far this year, Wednesday marks the start of a tournament Point Beach has been waiting on for two years now. It’s finally here and now, the Garnet Gulls get to prove that they are ready to rise to the challenge.
Although a No. 6 seed winning the bracket wouldn’t be all that strange, it would be a huge accomplishment for a team to dethrone Middlesex and the only two teams that appear to have anything close to the necessary firepower are the Gulls and No. 2 New Egypt. Those two are likely to run into one another in the sectional semifinal and given Middlesex’s dominance in recent years, the approach for those teams in that semifinal game is likely going to be to throw the kitchen sink just to get to the final.
Championship Prediction: Middlesex over Point Beach
If the Garnet Gulls can make it to that sectional final Friday with some options on the mound, they could have a shot. In a season that started off with a COVID-related shutdown (Point Beach was the last Shore Conference team to play its first game), the Garnet Gulls are finally through the dog days and can get fired up to take another shot at a sectional title after coming so close two years ago with virtually the same group.