Baseball – Who is No. 1? Who Made the Cut? The Final Thrive Shore Sports Network Top 10 of 2023
The 2023 Baseball season opened with two teams headlining the Shore Conference rankings and over the course of the season, those two teams proved their superiority. Along the way, however, both of them battled one another for supremacy and after the early part of the season suggested there was a clear No. 1, the final month suggested otherwise. Now that we have reached the end of the 2023 campaign, it is time for a final judgement.
The No. 1 spot was a weighty decision in the final Top 10, but it was not the hardest. Once a decision is made at No. 1, the rest of the top five spots played out in a fairly straight-forward manner, which set up a very difficult call at No. 6 between two teams with nearly identical résumés.
A pair of head-to-head results helped separate the teams at Nos. 7, 8 and 9, which set up the last harrowing decision: which team gets the final spot. There was a significant drop-off from No. 9 to No. 10, but somebody had to occupy that last spot and sorting through that collection of teams does not provide an obvious selection. Nevertheless, a selection has been made.
Coming off a 2022 season in which the Shore Conference won three of the six NJSIAA Group championships, the bar was high and although the zero group championships would seem to represent a failure to live up to that standard, the process of getting to the finish line featured plenty of memorable performances and quality baseball from a conference that was, perhaps, not as deep this season by very strong at the top.
Without further ado, let’s recognize the Shore’s best teams in 2023.
1. Red Bank Catholic (24-6, 10-2) Preseason Rank: 2
Ranney spent all season in the SSN Top 10’s No. 1 spot, but the Caseys caught the Panthers when it counts. With an impressive 2-0 win over Ranney in the Shore Conference Tournament championship game and a run to its first ever NJSIAA Non-Public A championship game, RBC did enough to prove it was the top team at the Shore by the end of the year. Of course, a win in the state final over Don Bosco would have hammered that point home, but with Ranney losing the South Non-Public B final to a Gloucester Catholic team that RBC beat (albeit not with ace Tanner Nolan on the mound), one of the Caseys’ wins became the magic bullet.
Looking Ahead: RBC’s No. 1 finish is its second ever No. 1 finish in the SSN Top 10 – both of which have come in the last three seasons. The Caseys will graduate three three-year starters in Alex Stanyek, Shane Andrus and Frank Scrivanic, but are set up to make another run at No. 1 and a state title next year. Alabama commit Sean Griggs and Notre Dame commit Dylan Passo will return to the lineup along with two up-the-middle players in centerfielder Matt Brunner and shortstop Max Dantoni. On the pitching staff, RBC brings back the Class B North Pitcher of the Year in Declan Leary and two other Division I arms in Steve Svenson (Seton Hall) and Ryan Prior (Virginia).
2. Ranney (27-3, 14-0) Preseason Rank: 1
Had the Panthers pulled out a win at Gloucester Catholic and finished off a Non-Public B championship, it would have been too difficult to pluck them from the No. 1 spot to end the season, even with RBC beating Ranney in the more recent of their two meetings. It was a disappointing way to end what has been an incredible stretch of seasons for the Ranney program, which went from a middle-of-the-standings team in Class B Central to a team that won its first overall state title in 2022, its first Monmouth County Tournament championship this season, spent a significant amount of time as the No. 1 team in the state and won 53 games over the past two seasons.
Looking Ahead: Where the program goes from here is unclear, but coach Pat Geroni has expressed his expectation to keep the Panthers competing with the Shore’s top teams. That will be a challenge next year after graduating the likes of Duke commit A.J. Gracia, two other top pitchers in Marcello Mastroianni and Nick Coniglio and most of the starting lineup in the field (infielders Diego Tavarez, Jack Tallent, Brett Wehringer, Enrique Beltra, catcher Lou Spadafora and outfielder Glen Cantalupo). Ryan Costello and Curtis Chropuvka will be the lineup centerpieces returning, James Hare showed a lot of potential on the mound and the relaxed transfer rules are sure to benefit Ranney as it attempts to ride its momentum built over the past two years into 2024.
3. Rumson-Fair Haven (22-6, 9-3) Preseason Rank: 4
Over the past three seasons, Rumson has become a mainstay near the top of the SSN rankings, with the Bulldogs finishing in the top five for the third straight season. The No. 3 finish matches the 2021 team for the highest in program history and considering the two non-public powers in the top two spots, a No. 3 finish is a huge accomplishment for the Bulldogs – especially considering Rumson beat RBC and suffered two one-run losses to Ranney. Rumson won 22 games for the third straight season and reached the Group II championship game for the first time ever, all while playing the season without fifth-year season Charlie Tallman, who underwent season-ending shoulder surgery before playing a game.
Looking Ahead: The Bulldogs are preparing for a lot of turnover to the roster between 2023 and 2024 with its two top starting pitchers – Jackson Hinchcliffe and John Goodes – both graduating along with two of its three standout relievers in Matt Bruno and Cal Champeau. The lineup will also have to replace six hitters, but will bring back two productive outfielders in Parker Shenman and Jack Riva, plus a three-year starter in Aaron Del Tin. Throw in a pair of proven pitchers returning in Owen O’Toole and Jackson Gallagher and the Bulldogs figure to remain competitive, with a reasonable shot at another top-five finish.
4. Christian Brothers Academy (19-6-1, 10-3-1) Preseason Rank: 6
The season opened with disappointment when the Colts learned prominent senior pitchers Luke Rocessano and Tony DeJohn would be unable to play in 2023 due to injury and it ended with heartbreak when St. Augustine rallied from a 4-2 deficit in the bottom of the seventh inning and won the South Jersey Non-Public A quarterfinal in eight innings. In between, CBA again proved itself as an upper-level Shore Conference team, with the Colts winning the always-challenging Class A North division with an outright title while reaching the semifinals of both the Monmouth County and Shore Conference Tournaments. A win over Donovan Catholic in the SCT quarterfinals cemented CBA a top-four finish.
Looking Ahead: CBA loses some impact from a lineup that fell off after a hot start to the season, but will still miss the likes of Harrison Campi, Hunter DelGuercio, Zaine Toneske, Wyatt Hunt, James Nitti and Matt DiFeo. The rotation, meanwhile, loses Nick Harnisch and Brennan O’Keefe, but brings back A North Pitcher of the Year and Wake Forest commit Chris Levonas, plus breakout freshman Danny DiTullio. Factor in a talented sophomore catcher in Danny Tsimbinos, as the Colts will have some significant building blocks in place for 2024, despite the heavy graduation losses in the lineup.
5. Donovan Catholic (22-5, 12-0) Preseason Rank: 5
The Griffins continued their ascension to the upper echelon of the Shore Conference and the state during the 2023 season by winning their first outright Class B South championship and winning the Ocean County Tournament title for the first time while also making their first ever trip to the championship game. The Griffins also scored a road win over Gloucester Catholic to beef up its regular-season résumé before disappointing losses to CBA in the SCT and Notre Dame in the South Non-Public A final. With a school-record 22 wins and a tournament championship though, those are just footnotes in a huge season for the Donovan Catholic program.
Looking Ahead: The Griffins bid farewell to one of their all-time great players in Gavin Degnan, plus fellow lineup stalwarts Anthony Mursko, Ryan Butchko and Rocco Scarpitti. On the pitching side, ace Shaun O’Keefe will head to George Mason after spending his bridge year at Donovan Catholic, while Jason Basilicata will also be a big loss in the rotation. The pitching should remain strong in 2024 with the return of hard-throwing lefty Jake Marciano, Nick Lovacco, Kade Kulpinski and Hunter Lefkus, while the lineup brings back shortstop Joe Maier, catcher Hunter Johnson and proven hitters in Dave Yorke, Tyler Levine and John Busco.
6. Jackson Memorial (17-8, 10-4) Preseason Rank: 7
The first of two extremely difficult decisions in this final Top 10 is at No. 6. Jackson Memorial and Southern finished with almost identical résumés: both went 10-4 in Class A South, they both went 2-2 against one another, 1-1 against fellow Class A South co-champion Brick Memorial and both lost twice to Toms River East. Southern advanced one round further in both the OCT and the NJSIAA Tournament, while Jackson Memorial beat the Rams to reach the SCT quarterfinals. Jackson Memorial gets a very half-hearted nod for the No. 6 spot due to the best overall out-of-conference wins – over St. Joseph Metuchen and Kingsway – and for avoiding a loss like the one Southern suffered vs. Pinelands late in the season. Jackson Memorial’s best days came in April, but those days still count and they were enough to secure the No. 6 ranking.
Looking Ahead: There has been a talent drop-off for Jackson Memorial over the past two seasons, particularly in the pitching staff, where the Jaguars did not boast the kind of refined power arms that they had during a dominant stretch of 2018 to 2022. Still, the Jaguars will miss standout pitchers Anthony Mehmet and Dean Daddio, while replacing star third baseman Charlie Meglio will be a gargantuan task. Jackson Memorial will also miss catcher Aidan O’Donnell, shortstop Nick Mellino and outfielders Matt Koblos and Mike Arent. Next year, the Jaguars will turn to Julian Caruso, Tyler Huzzy, Nick Izzo, Jackson Osmond and Brady Wendell to carry the lineup.
7. Southern (16-9, 10-4) Preseason Rank: Not ranked
The case for Jackson Memorial as the highest-ranked Class A South is laid out above, so here is the case for Southern: the Rams made it one round deeper into the NJSIAA Tournament than Jackson Memorial did by upending South Jersey No. 2 seed Vineland and, outside of a season-ending loss to Eastern in the sectional semifinals, the Rams did not suffer any especially lopsided losses. As for the head-scratching loss to a 5-14 Pinelands team, that was a rivalry game that fell in the heat of Southern’s tournament run. With all that in mind, 2023 was another big one for Southern, which made it to the OCT final for the second time in seven years and won a share of the Class A South title for the first time since 1986.
Looking Ahead: Southern will have to replace a collection of impact seniors that includes Dom Miranda – a Manhattan commit who was relegated to DH duties due to an arm injury – centerfielder Brandon Brown, first baseman Niko Diamantopoulos, two-way players Mike Nasti and Steve Miller and second baseman Kyle Serino. With that being said, the outlook for 2024 is exciting with Brady Lesiak and Roger Dreher set to head up the starting rotation that also figures to include current sophomore Tyler McLeod, plus key bats Gabe Tomei, Ray Mulhern, Brian Harper and Lesiak also coming back. It is still too early to definitively declare a 2024 Class A South favorite, but Southern looks like the early favorite to be the favorite.
8. Point Pleasant Beach (23-6, 13-1) Preseason Rank: Not ranked
Over the last dozen years or so, Point Beach has risen to prominence as an annual contender for the Class B Central championship and after years banging on the door, the Garnet Gulls are now two-time defending Central Jersey Group I champions. One accolade, however, that has eluded Point Beach during that time is a Top 10 ranking. That wait is now over as well, with Point Beach surging to the No. 8 spot to close out the year thanks to a second straight sectional championship, plus a head-to-head win over fellow sectional champion Middletown North (Central Group III) that came on the day of the NJSIAA Tournament cutoff with both teams pitching top starters.
Looking Ahead: Pitchers Kyle Kolans and James Larsen were central to Point Beach’s success over the past two seasons, while second baseman Colin Reinhard was the coaches’ pick for B Central Hitter of the Year. Outside of those three players, though, Point Beach brings back most of its impact talent from this season, headlined by two-way talent Bryan Matuschat. Catcher Nate Clayton will be a third-year starter, Danny Lubach and Tommy Conroy are coming off huge freshman seasons and Ryan Doyle will be a pitcher to watch for the Garnet Gulls as they try to reconfigure their rotation heading into 2024.
9. Middletown North (17-9, 9-5) Preseason Rank: Not ranked
For the second straight season, Middletown North shook off a rough April and rallied together to make a sectional-championship run. While fifth-year senior Colin Dowlen got hot on the mound to lead the Lions to the 2022 Group III championship, this year’s parade to the Central Jersey Group III title has an even more well-rounded effort – one that required a sharp defense to back contact pitchers Zach Hampton and Gabe Ahlemeyer, plus a relentless lineup that has come to define the Middletown North program. On top of the postseason success, Middletown North also finished as the top public school in the competitive Class A North division.
Looking Ahead: The Lions will have to replace a trio of talented players and outstanding leaders in shortstop Ryan Frontera, first baseman R.J. Kernan and second baseman Colby McMahon, but outside of that, they are positioned for another big season in 2024. Hampton, Ahlemeyer and fellow sophomore Alipio Figueroa will be back to headline the pitching staff, while Hampton, centerfielder Dylan Briggs, leftfielder Jason Quardt and catcher Mike Hallard will hold it down on offense and in the field.
10. Middletown South (13-13, 7-7) Preseason Rank: 3
The first tough call to make in this final Top 10 was which Class A South team to rank first, but the hardest call is picking a team to make the cut at No. 10. Marlboro and Manasquan were holding on to back-end spots in the last set of rankings, but both did so while having to overcome some résumé shortcomings. Ocean and Brick Memorial have good overall records, but Ocean lacks impact wins and Brick Memorial has some critical losses to Marlboro and Manasquan, as well as an early exit in the NJSIAA Tournament. Middletown South, for its part, also has its share of warts this season, but a few elements work in the Eagles’ favor: they swept Marlboro during the regular season, beat Ocean, 8-0, in a Monmouth County Tournament game, reached the quarterfinals of the MCT and semifinals of the Central Group III playoffs, and played a chunk of the year with UConn commit Ben Schild unable to pitch.
Looking Ahead: The Eagles were a wildly inconsistent team in 2023, showing some real potential at times, while looking lost at others. With that in mind, it is hard to project what the immediate future holds, particularly with Schild, Matt Sliva and Will Christopher graduating with multiple years under their respective belts as impact players. The key for Middletown South will be the left-handed pitching duo of Mason Christopher and Brevin Bezick. If those two pitchers round into form for 2024, the offense has plenty of firepower – centerfielder Lou D’Alessio, shortstop Brendan Sliva, Bezick and catcher Andrew Marquis – to get the Eagles back into the top-half of the rankings.
The Next 10
Ocean (19-8, 10-4) – With 19 wins, the Spartans made a solid Top 10 bid, but needed one big win to push the over the top. They almost got it in closes losses to both Ranney and Rumson-Fair Haven, but ultimately came up just a hair short.
Marlboro (12-11, 8-6) – A first-round loss to nine-win Manalapan in the NJSIAA Central Group IV final sealed Marlboro’s fate. Getting swept by Middletown South and losing to Manasquan in the Monmouth County Tournament also proved damaging in the Mustangs’ pursuit of a Top 10 ranking to finish off the season.
Manasquan (12-12, 7-7) – Quality wins over Brick Memorial, Marlboro and Governor Livingston had the Warriors in the mix late in the season, but finishing three games behind Ocean in the Class B North standings made it difficult to prioritize a .500 Warriors team over the Spartans, who also did not make the Top 10 cut.
Matawan (15-12, 6-8) – Matawan went 5-3 in tournament games this season and only one of those games was a home game, which would have been enough to get the Huskies into the Top 10 had they not finished four games behind Ocean in the division standings and been swept by the Spartans. That’s a tough pill to swallow considering those two Ocean games came in early April, but it necessitated an even deeper tournament run that did not quite materialize for Matawan.
Brick Memorial (17-9, 10-4) – The Mustangs delivered in Class A South play by winning a share of their first division championship since 1995, but it was the games outside of A South – losses to Manasquan, Marlboro and in the first round of the state tournament to Northern Burlington – that cost Brick Memorial a spot in the Top 10.
Toms River East (12-11, 8-6) – With regular-season sweeps over both Jackson Memorial and Southern, the Raiders have a résumé bullet worthy of that No. 10 spot. In the postseason, though, Toms River East did not make enough noise, losing in the first round of the OCT and South Jersey Group IV Tournaments, with a 3-2 loss at CBA in the SCT round of 16 its best tournament showing.
Raritan (14-11, 5-7) – The Rockets were on fire to end the season after a poor start, with the lineup hitting from top to bottom and the pitching staff finally falling into place. One off day at the plate ended that in the form of a 2-0 loss to Delran. If Raritan could have stayed hot into the NJSIAA Tournament, the Rockets might have cracked the rankings.
Wall (13-14, 5-7) – An extra-inning loss to Central Group II runner-up Spotswood ended Wall’s season and if the Crimson Knights could have pulled that one out, they might have gotten a third shot at Rumson-Fair Haven in the sectional final. With three losses to RBC, two each to Rumson and Raritan and a failure to qualify for the SCT, Wall essentially needed a sectional title to pull itself into the Top 10.
Shore (13-13, 4-8) – Class A Central is a difficult division to play in when you are a Group I school like Shore and while the Blue Devils only had a 4-8 record within divisional play, one of those wins was over No. 1 Red Bank Catholic. That might be the best win any Shore team outside the top three has all year, but the Blue Devils needed more out of the rest of their schedule to surge into the Top 10.
St. Rose (16-9, 13-1) – The Purple Roses played Point Beach to a stalemate during the season, splitting the regular-season series and settling for an even split of the Class B Central championship with the Garnet Gulls. St. Rose picked up three non-divisional wins and played some quality competition, but not enough to make a serious Top 10 push.