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The Shore Conference Tournament begins Thursday with a 10-game slate and attempting to predict the preliminary round of the Shore Conference calendar’s most unpredictable tournaments would be a fool’s errand. While that sounds like a perfect errand for me, I am going to resist the urge to tell you who is going to win these 10 games, but there are a number of underlying elements to round one of the SCT that are worth a mention. Here is something to watch in each of the 10 games.

Battle of aces in Marlboro?

An 8-vs.-25 matchup is usually a shoo-in for the favorite, but No. 8 Marlboro could have its hands full facing No. 25 Point Boro and ace Bryson Kirby on Thursday. Kirby had a short outing in an Ocean Count Tournament loss to Central five days ago, so his mere presence on the mound guarantees Point Boro nothing, but the junior figures to give the Panthers a real shot.

The only catch is Marlboro has its own ace lined up in Alex D’Ambrosio. The senior right-hander and Seton Hall commit will be on six days of rest and since giving up eight runs in a loss to a talented Old Bridge lineup in early April, D’Ambrosio has given up one earned run or fewer while pitching at least six innings in each of his last four starts. No lineup has notched more than three hits off D’Ambrosio during that stretch and each of his last two starts – vs. Howell and CBA – were two-hit complete games.

Throw in a Marlboro offense that appears to be warming up again after its hot start to the season cooled off, and Point Boro will still have a steep challenge in front of it, even as a very dangerous underdog.

One dynamic to watch in this and other games: do coaches pull the starter before 90 pitches? This year’s SCT schedule is much more compact – not only is the round of 16 just two days after the first round, but the quarterfinals are scheduled for Monday, meaning a pitching that exceeded 90 pitches in round one will not be eligible to pitch in either of the next two rounds, as long as the tournament stays on schedule.

Division Rivals Meet Again

Most coaches prefer not to have to deal with a team for a third time during the season, especially in a early in a tournament setting and four Shore Conference coaches will be up against that challenge on Thursday.

No. 10 Ocean and No. 23 Neptune just played one another twice in the past week and will make it three times in seven days that the two Class B North rivals clash. Thursday’s tilt will be the rubber match, with Neptune winning last Friday, 7-2, and Ocean winning the return game in Neptune Tuesday, 5-3. If Ocean stays on turn, it will be sophomore Tommy Kowaliwskyj getting the ball coming off a 10-strikeout outing against Red Bank last week. Ocean could go back to Shane Garrett on five days of rest, but Neptune beat Garrett on Friday in the 7-2 win.

Neptune won’t have top starter Brennan Moloughney available after he threw 105 pitches on Monday vs. Point Boro, but senior Kevin O’Neil defeated Ocean on Friday and figures to get another crack at the Spartans on Thursday.

The other divisional clash is between No. 20 Shore and No. 13 Monmouth Regional, the latter of which will be without standout right-hander Aiden Denton, who was injured in a collision last week. The Falcons still have fellow fifth-year senior Christian Zito to turn to on the mound and Zito has already beaten Shore this season, with the Falcons beating the Blue Devils, 7-1, after losing the first meeting, 5-3.

Shore is likely to counter with senior Donovan Hughes, who last pitched on Friday in a win over a now-surging Raritan team and beat Red Bank Catholic in his prior start. Senior Christian Simonsen is also eligible to help out on the mound.

Work and Play clash in Toms River

Keith Smicklo was an assistant under Jim Rankin at Jackson Liberty before taking the Toms River East head coaching job in 2017 and he still works at Jackson Liberty High School, which means he knows the Lions players far better than most coaches know the players on the opposing team. The two teams schedule one another annually as non-divisional opponents, but Thursday night’s game under the lights is sure to be a more intense affair than usual.

No. 22 Jackson Liberty just clinched the Class B South non-public division championship behind a no-hitter with 14 strikeouts by ace Ethan Bloomfield, so No. 11 Toms River East will not have to deal with the senior left-hander. The Raiders have not the kind of consistency they would like to have out of their starting pitchers, but their arms out of the bullpen have been pretty dependable, so expect them to be able to piece together games in a tournament setting as long as they don’t fall behind early. With that being said, junior Brandon Safoschnik is still the go-to pitcher for Toms River East and he is eligible to kick things off on Thursday.

Jackson Liberty is 0-3 playing outside of Class B South this season, while Toms River East’s lone win outside of A South was a 6-5 win over Raritan on April 6.

Options Abound for Manasquan

No. 14 Manasquan heads into the first round of the SCT with all of its pitching available and a struggling opponent in the other dugout. That makes Manasquan’s moves on the mound an interesting subject in the first round, with coach Brenan Gordon holding the option of mixing and matching Thursday in order to keep options open in subsequent rounds, should the Warriors survive No. 19 Holmdel in the SCT opener.

Cullen Condon is only fourth on the Warriors in innings pitched this season, but he is still the highest-ceiling option for Manasquan whenever a high-level opponent stands in the way. That could happen as early as Saturday against No. 3 Donovan Catholic, so while Condon could get on the mound on Thursday, he would be a major weapon to throw at the red-hot Griffins. Jack O’Shea, Jack Dawson, Austin Griffiths and Keegan Hertel each have an ERA under 2.00, so the Warriors have no shortage of options to get through a challenging side of the bracket that includes CBA and Red Bank Catholic on top of Donovan Catholic.

Holmdel, meanwhile, is trying to climb out of a rough patch after getting off to a 7-2 start. The Hornets are 1-7 since, with the lone win coming over a 4-11 Group I team in Highland Park. With a sophomore-heavy roster, there is a lot to be gained from getting into the tournament, regardless of whether or not Holmdel can regroup.

The A-Game

Class A North and Class A South run a parallel rivalry every season, with both divisions claiming to be the toughest in the Shore. A North has had the upper-hand in recent years, but Class A South has some dangerous teams and none more right now than No. 9 Brick Memorial. The Mustangs are on an eight-game winning streak, but in order to keep it going, they will have to get through three more games in the next three days after already playing three in the first three days of the week.

Brick Memorial’s pitching depth has been tested from the very beginning of the season, with ace Brady Leach being shut down from pitching with a shoulder injury. After some early struggles, the Mustangs staff has rounded into form and coach Evan Rizzitello has been managing pitch counts so far this week to keep as many arms ready as possible. Expect more of the same against a No. 24 Freehold Township team that has, like Holmdel, hit a rut recently, but has enjoyed some success this season against a challenging schedule.

Freehold Township has given up at least six runs in its last five games as the depth has been tested and will now have to tangle with the Shore Conference team with the third-longest current winning streak.

Division Champs with Something to Prove

No. 15 Point Beach and No. 17 St. Rose each won a share of the Class B Central division championship, with Beach earning a home game against No. 18 Lacey and St. Rose drawing No. 16 Matawan. Point Beach’s draw has the Garnet Gulls set up nicely, with Lacey burning its top two starters – Noah Quinn and Jack Sramaty – in the last two days in the Ocean County Tournament and in a Class B South divisional game Wednesday that decided the public champion. On the other side, Kyle Kolans is eligible to take the ball for Point Beach after defeating Toms River North on Saturday in the Ocean County Tournament, with Lacey likely to counter with Zach Mohr after he threw 27 pitches on Wednesday.

St. Rose will have a tougher task in that Matawan’s pitching lines up better than Lacey’s does. The Huskies will likely go with senior Andrew Gendi with sophomore Jayce Thoroughman backing him up. The prospect of pitching Falco against No. 1 Ranney on Saturday is very exciting for Matawan and having a dependable junior like Gendi to get them there has to give the Huskies some confidence, even coming off an extra-inning loss to Red Bank and Nate Ruth.

As for St. Rose, Jack Tiernan has already proven he can beat a B North team after combining with Chris Zahlman on a Monmouth County Tournament shutout of St. John Vianney. Unlike Point Beach, St. Rose has actually tested itself with tough out-of-division opponents so the Purple Roses will be ready for what they see.

Southern a Sitting Duck?

No. 12 Southern has a lot of burners lit right now, with the Class A South race still in play and the Ocean County Tournament semifinals set for Friday. That will make for some difficult pitching decisions and one of those decisions figures to be Brady Lesiak facing Jackson Memorial Friday in the OCT semifinals. Playing Brick twice this week and handling the Green Dragons both times helped coach Ed Truitt manage the pitch counts in two of the three wins already this week and the only ineligible pitching from the top of Southern’s staff on Thursday is senior Steve Miller, who threw 57 pitches in Tuesday’s win over Point Beach.

That leaves Truitt with Mike Nasti, Roger Dreher and Owen Durnien to handle Thursday’s showdown with No. 21 Manchester. The Hawks lost their Ocean County Tournament game at Jackson Memorial on Tuesday and could hold back pitching against Donovan Catholic in the two divisional games earlier in the week, setting up Joe Inkrote to pitch on Thursday if coach Dave Beauchemin wants to go with his best performer from the jump. Frank Kern won’t be available, but Manchester will have all other hands on deck while Southern has to play with Friday’s OCT game in mind.

May Magic in Middletown

Last season, Middletown North went 5-8 in April, then went 16-2 the rest of the way to win the NJSIAA Group III champion. The Lions are again making May moves, winning their first five games of the month after going 5-6 in April. Middletown North’s turnaround actually started in April, with the Lions winning eight of nine after a 2-5 start.

Middletown North has had consistently decent pitching during its hot streak, but it has been the bats that have carried the Lions. Outside of Colin Dowlen dominating opponents from the mound, that was also the case last year when Middletown North made its run and the Lions are now averaging 8.4 runs per game during the current nine-game surge.

The winning streak figures to continue in the first round against a Henry Hudson team that is building some momentum, but will have its hands full with Middletown North.



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