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With the Shore Conference Tournament already down to eight teams, there has already been plenty of crossover between the six Shore Conference divisions just four weeks into the 2021 season. For the sake of building a Top 10, that is both good and bad news. Having a bunch of games for reference reveals how many of the teams deal with different challenges, but on the flipside, there can be plenty of misleading results when it comes to evaluating a baseball team based on one single result.

The bottom of the top 10 is likely to be a case study in that over the next several weeks, with the No. 9 and 10 spots becoming a revolving door that spins in favor of whichever unranked team had the best week. This week, that door opens up for a team that has been playing well since the start of Week 2 and another who has made an impact in the Shore Conference Tournament.

Meanwhile, spots one through eight remain pretty stable, which a few teams shifting in the pecking order without dropping out of the group entirely. With seven of the top eight seeds in the Shore Conference Tournament advancing to the quarterfinal round, there isn’t currently much room for movement.

This week is loaded with big divisional showdowns (Manalapan-Freehold Township, Middletowns North and South, Jackson Memorial-Central, Red Bank Catholic-Ocean, Lacey-Manchester, Wall-St. John Vianney, Colts Neck-Matawan) before the Shore Conference Tournament resumes on Saturday. Come this time next week, we could be looking at a much different Top 10.

Jackson Memorial sophomore Tom Kendrick. (Photo by Ray Richardson)

1. Jackson Memorial (12-2, 8-0) Last Week: 1

The Jaguars keep rolling along by any means necessary. They started the week by completing a sweep of Toms River North behind a strong pitching performance, won a 15-12 slugfest at Toms River South, then turned it over to ace Matt Potok for a two-hit shutout in a 3-0 Shore Conference Tournament win over Ocean. This will be a big week in the Class A South race, with Jackson Memorial facing Central twice before hosting Rumson-Fair Haven Saturday in the SCT quarterfinals.

2. Red Bank Catholic (13-2, 8-1) Last Week: 2

Once again, Red Bank Catholic was put to the test with its ace on the mound and this time, the Caseys pulled through. A week after dropping a 3-1 extra-inning game against Rumson-Fair Haven in a game started by Shane Panzini, RBC rallied from a 2-0 deficit in the final two innings to spoil Howell’s upset bid in the round of 16 of the Shore Conference Tournament. That sets up a critical week for the Caseys, who have two games scheduled vs. Ocean with first place in the Class A Central division race on the line. Panzini won’t be available for either, so RBC will have to show its depth as a team to get by an Ocean team that has played well since a 1-3 start.

3. Manalapan (11-2, 6-1) Last Week: 3

After completing a sweep of Middletown North to open the week, Manalapan appears to be the frontrunner in the ultra-competitive Class A North race. The Braves have gotten outstanding pitching from both Joe Mazza and Tyler Kane, the latter of whom struck out 16 in a 1-0 win over Middletown North last Monday. After a second game vs. Long Branch to open the week, Manalapan will take on second-place Freehold Township in a two-game series that could determine the winner of the Class A North title.

4. Middletown North (9-3, 5-3) Last Week: 4

The Lions had to swallow two 1-0 losses to Manalapan that put them behind the pace for the Class A North title, but the fact that they held the Braves to one run in each of those games validates how good Middletown North’s pitching is. With the Lions still playing in the Shore Conference Tournament, it will take more than just two pitchers to get through the week, which will feature three games against rival Middletown South. With the two division games preceding Saturday’s Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinal showdown, this will be the ultimate rivalry week in Middletown.

5. Rumson-Fair Haven (11-4, 5-4) Last Week: 5

Last week’s climb to No. 5 appeared to hit a rough patch for Rumson, which promptly lost its next two games against Raritan and Ocean. The Bulldogs recovered, however, by winning three straight against Ocean, Brick and Central, with the wins over Ocean and Central coming on walk-off hits. Rumson is now a perfect 6-0 outside of Class A Central and two of its wins within the division are against Red Bank Catholic and Ocean, so despite the two hiccups to start the week, the resume remains strong and the Bulldogs have the talent to match.

Wall senior Jay Bant. (Photo by Matt Manley)

6. Wall (13-3, 8-1) Last Week: 8

Wall absolutely lit up its two Shore Conference opponents over the weekend, scoring 14 runs in each win over Keyport and Neptune. The biggest wins of Wall’s week, however, came in a sweep of Matawan that puts Wall on the cusp of locking up the Class B North championship. In order to do so, the Crimson Knights will have to get by St. John Vianney in two games this week and if they can clear that hurdle, they can turn their full attention to a rematch with Shane Panzini and Red Bank Catholic on Saturday in the SCT quarterfinals.

7. Freehold Township (10-4, 8-2) Last Week: 6

It took a five-run fourth inning for Freehold Township to get in gear in the SCT first-round win over Point Beach and the slow start to that game at the plate appeared to carry over in a 2-0 Sunday loss to Manchester. The Patriots offense has been grinding lately: after scoring 37 runs in its first three games, Freehold Township’s only games with more than five runs scored have been against Long Branch and Point Beach. Still, the pitching remains strong and the Patriots did not use either of their top two starters over the weekend, so Matt Villapiano and Zach Gorman are ready to go for two huge division games against Manalapan this week.

8. Middletown South (11-4, 4-4) Last Week: 7

Middletown South’s pursuit of a Class A North title took a hit this week with losses to Marlboro and CBA, but the Eagles look like a serious contender in the Shore Conference Tournament thanks to a pitching staff that keeps coming up aces. After sophomore Ben Schild threw another dominant start in a Wednesday win over CBA, senior Matt Pontari pitched a no-hitter against Colts Neck in the SCT round of 16 on Sunday. That sets up what should be an intense week that includes three straight games against rival Middletown North, with the last of the three determining who advances to the SCT semifinals.

9. Ocean (10-5, 6-2) Last Week: Not ranked

Ocean entered last week on a six-game winning streak but was not all that close to the Top 10. The Spartans then closed this week by losing two out of three and yet, now they are finally in. So what gives? Basically, Ocean stepped up by beating No. 5 Rumson Wednesday to extend its streak to eight, lost competitive games to both Rumson and No. 1 Jackson with some inexperience on the mound, and mixed in a convincing win over St. John Vianney. Couple a good showing against a ramped-up schedule with some losses by teams that were also in the mix for a Top 10 spot, and Ocean hits the rankings just in time for its two-game showdown with Red Bank Catholic this week.

Manchester junior Mike Damato. (Photo by Nick Jensen, provided by Manchester Baseball)

10. Manchester (8-4, 5-2)

While Ocean was not particularly close to a Top 10 spot at the end of last week, Manchester was hardly on the radar at all. This past week, the Hawks soared up to the top of the Class B South pack by hammering Donovan Catholic in a Shore Conference Tournament opening-round game, then taking out Freehold Township the following day to earn a spot in the quarterfinals as a No. 23 seed. Manchester’s week also included a win over Point Boro and a loss to Barnegat and in order for Manchester to keep its spot, it will have to pay back Barnegat on Monday and come up with a good showing against Lacey later in the week.

 

Dropped Out

Donovan Catholic (8-5, 5-2) Last Week: 9 – The Griffins have prioritized the Class B South division title, so the loss to Manchester in the SCT is not a major hit in that pursuit, but the margin of defeat (13-1) is a little unnerving. Still, if Donovan Catholic does finish off the B South title, it will be a minor footnote in its season.

Central (10-5, 7-2) Last Week: 10 – A three-loss week drops Central out of the Top 10 and makes a Class A South championship even harder to win. Two games against Jackson loom on the schedule at the end of the week and the Golden Eagles will have to win both to have a chance to win A South.

 

Top 10 Watchlist

Marlboro (7-7, 5-5) – The Mustangs got cooled off by a pair of standout pitchers this week, losing to Middletown North’s Colin Dowlen, then to Neptune’s Brian Young in the SCT opening round.

Howell (7-8, 2-6) – Howell got back on track by beating Freehold Township to qualify for the SCT and pushed Red Bank Catholic to the limit before losing, 3-2, on Sunday.

Toms River North (6-6, 4-3) – The Mariners continue to beat solid teams and lose to the spectacular ones. They picked up a great win Saturday over Barnegat ace Nick Danbrowney and came up a little short at Middletown North on Sunday.

Colts Neck (10-5, 6-2) – Although they were no-hit by Middletown South on Sunday, the Cougars capped a competitive week against some quality competition and will try to hang in the Class B North race this week with two more games against Matawan after beating the Huskies in walk-off fashion on Saturday.

Ranney (11-3, 8-0) – Ranney made a statement with its 11-0 win over Jackson Liberty on Saturday and played a competitive game in losing to Manalapan in Sunday’s SCT round of 16.

Lacey (8-5, 5-2) – A 3-2 loss to Donovan Catholic in 12 innings was a tough one to swallow, but the Lions bounced back by winning at Central on Friday night before running out of pitching in a 16-8 loss to Howell in the Shore Conference Tournament opening round.

St. John Vianney (5-4, 4-3) – The Lancers won their way into the Shore Conference Tournament, although the stay was a short one after they drew a hot Ocean team in the first round. St. John Vianney still has an outside shot to win B North, but it would likely require sweeping Wall this week.