Baseball – SSN Final Top 10
The high school baseball season is unlike any other high school season because the team you watch one day can be completely different than the team you watch another day and it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with injuries. Different pitching matchup and crammed schedules make for a wide array of results, so teams that can minimize losses and advance deep into multiple tournaments are the ones that stand out.
In this year’s Shore Conference, there were a number of teams that did either of those things, but none that did so from start to finish in order to seize an undisputed claim to the No. 1 spot in the final Shore Sports Network Top 10. Each of the top four teams in the rankings and nine out of the 10 teams won at least one of a division, county, conference or sectional championship, but only one of the teams in the top 10 won two.
With that in mind, the choice for No. 1 turned out to be relatively clear-cut in what was a pretty unclear Shore Conference landscape for most of the season.
1. Toms River North (20-7, 9-5 in A South) Preseason: 1
On entire body of work, there might be at least one team with a better case for the No. 1 spot than Toms River North, but winning championships – particularly at tournament time – has to count for a whole lot. The Mariners took the two big local trophies home, winning both the Ocean County and Shore Conference Tournaments by beating the other four teams in the final top five in final two rounds of each tournament.
The two blemishes for Toms River North are a division record that was four games worse than Toms River South and a first-round loss in the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV Tournament – albeit to a strong Lenape team that made it to the sectional final as a No. 8 seed. In a year with no obvious No. 1 winning two tournament titles gives Toms River North an edge among a field that consists mostly of teams that either stalled early or late in the schedule. With only a few key pieces graduating, the Mariners could very well be lined up for another No. 1 finish in 2018.
2. Red Bank Catholic (21-9, 7-7 in B North) Preseason: 2
Count the Caseys among the litany of Shore Conference teams that are difficult to rank. RBC was outstanding outside of Class B North play, but finished tied for fifth in the division standings with a .500 record. The Caseys also ended the season with back-to-back losses to St. Augustine and Toms River North in which they were never really in the game. Junior ace Austin Nappi went 10-1 on the season, but the rest of the staff was a more modest 11-8. They also lost twice each to Manasquan, Middletown North and Wall in divisional play.
While those are all the negative points regarding RBC, the Caseys still won the Monmouth County Tournament title and reached the Shore Conference Tournament final by beating Toms River South head-to-head. They also boast wins over Lacey and Wall during tournament play and defeated Non-Public A champion Delbarton during the regular season – and without Nappi on the mound to boot. There are some warts not typically associated with the No. 2 team in the Shore Conference, but RBC still has plenty to celebrate after 2017.
3. Toms River South (22-5, 13-1 in A South) Preseason: 3
Although Toms River South did not capture any postseason hardware, the Indians were painfully close on three occasions. Couple that with the fact that going 13-1 in Class A South is a big deal and the No. 3 spot – given the other conditions in the top 10 – is an easy choice. The Indians swept the other four top-five teams in the A South standings – Toms River North, Brick, Southern and Central – during the regular season and also beat both Brick and Central for a third time during tournament time.
All five of Toms River South’s losses were by margins of three runs or fewer, including three one-run losses. The last two losses of the season were especially excruciating, with Allentown scoring four runs in the sixth to stun the Indians, 4-3, in the Central Jersey Group III semifinals and RBC scoring the winning run in the sixth inning on what appeared to a routine fly ball in a 3-2 Caseys win in the SCT semifinals. Allentown is a strong candidate to finish No. 1 in N.J. at 26-2 overall and Toms River South was just four outs away from eliminating the Redbirds in Toms River.
4. Southern (18-10, 8-6 in A South) Preseason: Not ranked
On top of 2017 being an extraordinary year for the Southern program, the Rams also have an extraordinary set of circumstances that makes them very tricky to rank. They have a case to be No. 1 in the final top 10, but they don’t really have much of a case to be Nos. 2 or 3. The case for No. 1 centers around their run to a South Jersey Group IV championship – a section that is also home to No. 1 Toms River North. The Rams also beat Toms River North twice during the season and a relatively early exit in the Shore Conference Tournament cancels out Toms River North’s early exit in the state tournament.
In the end, though, Toms River North dominated the OCT final between the teams and, despite losing to Southern twice during the regular season, finished ahead of the Rams in the divisional standings. It might be disappointing for the Southern faithful to settle for fourth instead of first, but consider how wild that proposition would have been only a month ago, let along during the many lean years that preceded this one.
5. Wall (19-7, 10-4 in B North) Preseason: Not ranked
At one point near the start of the Shore Conference Tournament, the Crimson Knights looked like the No. 2 team in the Shore Conference behind Toms River South but some rough losses down the stretch pushed them to the fringe of the top five. Despite a first-round loss to Neptune in the Central Jersey Group III Tournament, Wall put together a 19-win campaign that carried plenty of quality wins. The Knights finished second in a grueling B North division, reached the SCT final four and scored non-divisional wins over Freehold Boro, Jackson Liberty, CBA and Pinelands. Not that it should matter in this year’s rankings, but the Crimson Knights accomplished all of that with a team loaded with underclassmen who should be dangerous heading into 2018.
6. Lacey (21-6, 12-2 in B South) Preseason: Not ranked
Like Wall, Lacey delivered an impressive resume, but didn’t make quite as much postseason noise as it would have liked. The one feather in Lacey’s cap that most teams don’t have is an outright division title and while B South was not as deep as B North, the division did have a pair of teams in Jackson Liberty and Pinelands that did damage outside the division. Both those teams also beat Lacey, as did Manchester, Toms River South, Red Bank Catholic and Highland Regional. The Lions reached the 21-win plateau thanks to an all-senior pitching staff, but will return a number of quality position players next year.
7. Freehold Boro (18-9, 10-4 in A North) Preseason: 6
With an outright Class A North championship and a trip to both the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV and Monmouth County Tournament finals, Freehold Boro had one of its better seasons under longtime coach Jon Block. Errors doomed them in the MCT final vs. RBC and the Colonials were just inches away from knocking off Hunterdon Central in the CJ IV final. Freehold Boro closed the A North schedule with a surge to nail down the division title, although the Colonials did get picked off by CBA in the SCT round of 16. Freehold dropped three out of four games to CBA over the course of the season, but still managed to tie them over the course of the series, 12-12. Although Freehold will miss its senior trio of Dan Chiusano, Tom Holdorf and Chris Cassandra, the Colonials developed some younger talent that will star next year.
8. St. Rose (24-4, 14-0 in B Central) Preseason: 10
St. Rose’s season ended at the hands of a powerful Gloucester Catholic lineup in the South Jersey Non-Public B final and in defeat, the Purple Roses showed plenty of fight by rallying from an early 4-0 deficit to tie the game before ultimately falling, 9-4. The game St. Rose will be kicking itself over more than the 9-4 loss to Gloucester Catholic is a 4-3 loss to Pinelands in the SCT round of 16. If the Purple Roses could have survived the No. 24 seed Wildcats, they would have earned a shot at top-seeded Toms River South, which would have given them a chance to finish much higher in the final rankings. As it is, St. Rose picked up some quality wins over Manasquan, Pope John and CBA, but could have used another noteworthy win or two to add to the bulk. The Roses will have a chance to build on this year with the returns of the Maypother brothers and Will Gannon.
9. Manasquan (16-10, 9-5 in B North) Preseason: 9
The Shore’s lone overall Group champion just did crack the top 10 because of the way it entered the state tournament. Manasquan lost six of its seven games prior to the start of the Group II Tournament and entered the state playoffs 10-10, one loss away from ending the season with a sub-.500 record. The Warriors, however, reversed the trend by leaning on the two-headed pitching monster of Tommy Sheehan and Connor Muly and an improved defense. On top of the strong finish to the season, Manasquan was also 9-4 at one point and finished the Class B North season 9-5 with sweeps of both Red Bank Catholic and Middletown North.
On the flip side, lopsided losses to Howell and St. Rose and a loss with Muly on the mound to a Rumson-Fair Haven team that failed to qualify for the Central Jersey Group II Tournament hurt the cause. All of that is just spit-balling over a spot in the top 10. The real prize is a state championship banner, which Manasquan earned on the field by playing its best when it mattered.
10. Monmouth (17-7, 11-3 in B North) Preseason: Not ranked
The final spot in the top 10 goes to the outright champions of the division that was most likely the best in the Shore Conference this season. Red Bank Catholic finished tied for fifth in the standings and still won the Monmouth County Tournament title and reached the Shore Conference final. Manasquan represented the division by winning the Group II title. Middletown South and Wall both beat Class A North champion Freehold Boro. The only team in the mix for the division title that did not do much outside the division was the team that actually won the division title. Monmouth outlasted the entire field to win the Class B North championship and looking back on the Falcons’ season, their best non-divisional win turned out to be a win over Neptune at the Strike Out Autism Challenge. Although the Falcons came up short of postseason glory and were somewhat limited in non-divisional wins over quality opponents, winning the B North title is a significant achievement.
Best of the Rest
Jackson Liberty (17-10, 10-4 in B South) – Wins over Toms River South, Steinert, Toms River North and Lacey give Jackson Liberty a really compelling case to be entrenched in the top 10 and with much of the team back, the Lions will likely kick down the door next year.
Middletown North (14-10, 8-6 in B North) – While Middletown North was a competitive team with quality wins in B North, the Lions could not get over the postseason hump. With two junior standouts in Tyler Ras and Garrett French returning to the mound, there is plenty to get excited about for next year.
Christian Brothers Academy (18-10, 9-5 in A North) – Three wins in four tries over Freehold Boro gives CBA a shot, but a head-to-head loss to Middletown North with Nick Hohenstein on the mound puts the Colts behind the Lions and Monmouth. CBA is also a young team poised to challenge for championships next year.
Pinelands (13-12, 8-6 in B South) – The sophomore pitching tandem of Joey Ventresca and Noah Dean did some real damage in helping Pinelands take down the likes of Southern, Manasquan, St. Rose and Lacey.
Manalapan (17-10, 8-6 in A North) – The Braves had an up-and-down season, but 17 wins with a junior-heavy roster should make the rest of the Shore take notice.
Freehold Twp. (12-12, 8-6 in A North) – Good showings in the SCT and Central Jersery Group IV Tournaments helped salvage a season in which a Patriots team beset by pitching injuries was still one of the better teams in the Shore at keeping runs off the board.
Middletown South (14-11, 7-7 in B North) – The Eagles swung the bats this year but just couldn’t get the pitching to keep up with the run-scoring. They were solid outside the Class A North division, but also went out in the first game of both the MCT and SCT.
Colts Neck (14-12, 7-7 in A North) – With very little returning players from a year ago, the Cougars hung tough in the rugged A North division and won a game each in the MCT, SCT and Central Jersey Group IV Tournaments.
Brick (14-9, 9-5 in A South) – The Green Dragons finished tied for second in A South and beat Toms River North and Southern once apiece, but the postseason was not as kind to the Dragons as it was last year. They lost home games in the OCT and SCT first rounds and came up short, 2-1, against Toms River South in the Central Jersey Group III semifinals.
Neptune (10-13, 5-9 in A North) – The only sub-.500 team to get a shoutout, Neptune caught fire in the Central Jersey Group III Tournament, reaching the sectional final as the No. 14 seed before bowing out to Allentown – the possible No. 1 team in N.J. – in 10 innings on the road. Seven of Neptune’s 13 losses were by one-run margins and three more were by two runs.
Raritan (16-7, 10-2 in A Central) – The Rockets deserve a tip of the cap as well for winning the Class A Central championship convincingly, considering one of their divisional losses was a forfeit due to an error in logging pitch counts. The outright division crown was the first in 12 years for Raritan.