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The Class A North division of the Shore Conference regularly produces teams that advance deep into the Shore Conference Tournament, spearheaded by Christian Brothers Academy and its five trips to the SCT semifinals in the last six years. It has been 10 years, however, since two teams from A North have played in the championship game, during which time Class A Central (Raritan vs. Rumson-Fair Haven in 2011), Class B North (Neptune vs. Colts Neck in 2012) and Class B Central (Ranney vs. Mater Dei Prep in 2018) have all put two teams in the championship game.

The last time it happened for A North, CBA topped Middletown South and that was also the last time the Eagles soared all the way to the championship game of the conference tournament. With the Shore Conference as even as it has been in five years, the conditions are right for a surprise final and Middletown South has all the qualities of a team that could spring that surprise, while CBA remains one of the area’s top programs.

Throw in quality teams at Marlboro and Freehold Township and a handful of up-and-coming squads from the bottom of last year’s division and there is a good chance there is some real impact coming from the A North division in 2020.

In predicted order of finish

Middletown South

Head Coach: Jim Anderson, 10th season
2018-19 Record: 16-12 (7-7, tied third in A North)
Returners: James Anderson (Sr., 6-1, Guard), Luke Albrecht (Jr., 6-0, Guard), Jack Sheridan (Sr., 5-11, Guard), Michael Dabas (Sr., 6-1, Forward), Bobby Pirie (Sr., 6-4, Center), Richie Boyko (Sr., 6-1, Guard)
Key Losses: Dan Mitchinson (6-4, Center)
Newcomers: Jake Brown (Sr., 6-3, Center), Joe Gervase (Sr., 5-8, Guard), Tom Brown (Jr., 6-3, Forward), Julius Forte (Jr., 6-0, Forward), Joe Stazione (Jr., 6-0, Center)

Middletown South junior Luke Albrecht. (Photo by Ray Richardson)

With almost no varsity experience returning last season, Middletown South emerged as one of the 10 or so best teams in the Shore Conference, with a trip to the SCT quarterfinals and some big regular-season wins providing the evidence for that assertion. This year, the Eagles return just about everyone from last year’s group and will be out to get over the hump against some of the area’s bigger programs while also avoiding the slip-ups that plagued them during a 7-7 campaign through Class A North.

As is the case with most teams that return six players who played major minutes, Middletown South is a senior-heavy group. The Eagles are also a guard-dominant team, led by seniors James Anderson and Jack Sheridan – it’s two best perimeter threats after each finished in the Shore Conference top 10 in three-point field goals made. Sheridan and junior Luke Albrecht are the primary ball-handlers and Albrecht is coming off a season in which he dished out 4.9 assists – the fourth-highest per-game total at the Shore in 2018-19.

The Anderson-Sheridan-Albrecht trio will be backed up by a supporting cast that includes players who have proven they can take over a game. Seniors Mike Dabas and Bobby Pirie will be front-court players after both saw major minutes last year, with Pirie providing some conventional size at 6-4. Senior Richie Boyko was a spark off the bench last year and figures to reprise that role as one of the conference’s top sixth men. With all that depth and balance, Middletown South will be hard to guard and as open as the conference is heading into the season, the Eagles have a legitimate shot at their best season since 2009-10, when they reached the Shore Conference Tournament final as a No. 2 seed.

Christian Brothers Academy

Head Coach: Geoff Billet, 13th season
2018-19 Record: 20-6 (13-1, first in A North)
Returners: Ryan Mabrey (So., 6-4, Guard), Mike White (Jr., 6-3, Guard), Colin Farrell (Jr., 6-1, Guard), Ryan Cremen (Jr., 6-3, Forward), Charlie Ruoff (Sr., 6-3, Forward)
Key Losses: Josh Cohen (6-11, Center), Stephen Braunstein (6-3, Guard), Liam Kennedy (6-0, Guard), Peyton Boesch (6-4, Guard/Forward)
Newcomers: Dane Moran (Jr., 6-8, Center), John Straley (Jr., 6-0, Guard), Pat Lautato (So., 6-1, Guard), Dillon Kneucker (Jr., 6-5, Center), Will Bradley (Fr., 6-1, Forward)

CBA sophomore Ryan Mabrey. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

For the last three years, CBA built their offense around towering center Josh Cohen, who rewarded the Colts with a pair of All-Shore seasons and a Class A North championship last year. With Cohen now at St. Francis in Pa., CBA will be a much different team on both ends of the floor thanks to a more guard-oriented roster led by a trio of promising returnees.

Sophomore Ryan Mabrey leads the returning group after running the point as a freshman in 2018-19. He took a backseat to Cohen and Stephen Braunstein as an offensive option, but still found his shots while averaging a Shore-leading 5.4 assists. Backcourt-mate and junior Mike White also started last season and gave CBA a shot-maker on offense and a tough defender on the other side of the floor. Junior Colin Farrell is CBA’s third key offensive cog heading into the year after coming on strong in the second half of 2018-19, particularly with Mabrey sidelined by a knee injury over the final three weeks.

Junior Ryan Creman and senior Charlie Ruoff got varsity minutes last season and will be keys in CBA’s front court, while 6-foot-8 junior Dane Moran and 6-5 Dylan Kneucker give the Colts some legitimate size in the rotation. Freshman Will Bradley also has a chance to crack the rotation at some point this year and will certainly be a part of CBA's core over the next three years. Last year’s showdowns with Middletown South were battles that figure to better favor the more experienced Eagles this season, but with a more guard-heavy, up-tempo team, the Colts have the ability to match-up with every team in A North and are more than capable of defending their division title as one of the Shore’s best squads.

Marlboro

Head Coach: Mike Nausedas, eighth season
2018-19 Record: 14-13 (7-7, tied third in A North)
Returners: Alex Ratner (Sr., 6-0, Guard), Jon Spatola (So., 5-6, Guard), Aleksy Friedman (Jr., 6-0, Guard), Jack Seidler (So., 6-5, Forward)
Key Losses: Dylan Kaufman (6-6, Forward/Center), Kyle LaRocca (5-8, Guard), Chris Lesnik (6-2, Forward), Ramon Fontanes (Sr., 6-0, Guard)
Newcomers: Nick Malucelli (Jr., 6-3, Forward), Paul Lee (Sr., 6-0, Guard), Zack Molod (So., 5-10, Guard), Joey Paladino (Jr., 5-7, Guard)

Marlboro senior Alex Ratner drives for a layup attempt vs. CBA's Josh Cohen (33) and Stephen Braunstein (13) during 2018-19 action. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Injuries have been a major part of Marlboro’s story over the past several years and last year was no different. Star guard Alex Ratner suffered a sprained ankle early in the year and that effectively knocked the Mustangs out of the running for the Class A North division championship – both overall and public. This year, Ratner returns as a senior and third-year starter bent on leading Marlboro to the top of another competitive A North field.

Ratner averaged better than 18 points in 17 games last season and will lead the Mustangs on both ends of the floor. The supporting cast around him will be very guard-heavy, which should not be a problem in an A North division that doesn’t have a whole lot of size. Sophomore Jon Spatola made an impact as a freshman last season and will be a second scoring option in a back court that also includes junior Aleksy Friedman.

Marlboro’s front court does have some height to it, with 6-5 sophomore Jack Seidler and 6-3 junior Nick Malucelli leading the effort. The pieces are in place for the Mustangs, with their up-tempo attack, to give Middletown South and CBA a run for the Class A North title with but given the reliance on Ratner and the short supply of size, they will need to finally catch some breaks on the injury front to get there.

Freehold Township

Head Coach: Brian Golub, 25th season
2018-19 Record: 24-5 (12-2, tied second in A North)
Returners: Zach Orrico (Jr., 5-7, Guard), Jayce Schapiro (Jr., 5-7, Guard), Joe Lardaro (Jr., 6-5, Forward/Center)
Key Losses: Greg Billups (6-5, Forward), Seth Meisner (6-2, Guard/Forward), Zack Barilka (6-2, Forward), Cristian Corcione (5-9, Guard), Matt Santangelo (6-2, Guard), Kevin Kilinskas (6-2, Guard/Forward), Greg Solla (6-2, Guard), Max Gluck (6-5, Center)
Newcomers: Jason Golub (Sr., 5-10, Guard), Matt Cardone (Jr., 5-7, Guard), Bryan Potter (Jr., 6-3, Forward), Anthony Barthel (Jr., 6-2, Forward), Lorenzo Chirichella (Jr., 6-1, Guard), Jake Stern (Jr., 6-0, Guard), Bobby O’Brien (So., 6-2, Guard), Josh Ibarreta (So., 5-9, Guard), Christian Morajes (So., 5-10, Guard)

Freehold Township coach Brian Golub surrounded by his players and assistant Todd Smith. (Photo by Ray Richardson)

Two years ago, Freehold Township was in a rebuilding phase that yielded a rare losing season at 9-13 but the payoff was the program’s first ever NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV title when everyone returned one year later. This year has a similar feel to that 2017-18 rebuilding year, with the Patriots looking to replace four starters and a pair of key contributors off the bench and doing so with a group that has been successful at the lower levels of the program.

Zach Orrico leads a junior-heavy team after starting on the Patriots’ first ever sectional-championship squad. He and classmate Jayce Schapiro will form a backcourt that will make up for a lack of size with two point-men capable of scoring and distributing. Schapiro and 6-5 forward Joe Lardaro were bench players on last year’s team and saw some minutes in the Patriots’ biggest games. With Orrico leading the way, that trio figures to account for most of Freehold Township’s offensive production in 2019-20.

This year’s Patriots team will have just one senior – Jason Golub, who is the son of coach Brian Golub. The rest of the team is nearly all juniors, with sophomores Bobby O’Brien, Josh Ibarreta and Christian Morajes all poised to help a deep rotation that should sort itself out over the course of the season. Freehold Township is probably a year away from making another run at a state title but if their trio of returnees can stay healthy, the Patriots should still be a contender for a spot in the top 10 as well as the SCT quarterfinals.

Manalapan

Head Coach: Rick Garretson, 26th season
2018-19 Record: 5-19 (3-11, eighth in A North)
Returners: Ryan Knorr (Sr., 5-10, Guard), Ryan Szatkowski (Sr., 6-4, Forward), Blake Henis (Sr., 6-6, Center), Jason Junquet (Sr., 5-9, Guard), Dan Kamen (Sr., 6-1, Forward), Chris Frontera (Jr., 6-1, Guard)
Key Losses: Ryan Dawe (6-0, Guard), Nick Cusumano (6-0, Guard), Ryan Lazar (6-1, Forward)
Newcomers: Chris Clark (Sr., 6-0, Guard), Jason Hecht (Sr., 5-11, Guard), A.J. Mancusi (Jr., 6-0, Guard), Anthony Mezzina (Jr., 6-2, Forward), Will Servetah (Jr., 6-3, Forward), John Teixeira (Jr., 6-2, Forward), Tanner Szatkowski (Jr., 5-11, Guard), Gabe Blackwell (So., 6-5, Forward)

A year after finishing last in Class A North, Manalapan has the makings of a team that could surprise the Shore. The Braves return their key pieces from last year’s five-win squad that was in plenty of games but struggled to pull out wins. With a senior-heavy group this season, Manalapan is poised to make a leap in the standings and be a factor when the postseason rolls around in mid-February.

Senior guard Ryan Knorr leads the way for the Braves after putting up 16.1 points and 4.5 assists per game during a standout junior year. Knorr and senior teammate Jason Junquet will lead solid back court to go with a front court that boasts size, experience and some depth. Senior Ryan Szatkowski is a secondary scorer and a rebounder on the inside while 6-6 center Blake Henis will be tasked with protecting the rim after blocking three shots per game as a junior. Senior Dan Kamen also returns with experience and gives the Braves another versatile forward, while 6-5 sophomore Gabe Blackwell gives them even more size as a newcomer to the varsity team.

Junior Christ Frontera leads a group of up-and-coming guards who will look to compliment Knorr. With another shooter to work off Knorr, Manalapan will have the pieces in place to make a push for one of the top-four spots in another hyper-competitive Class A North division.

Long Branch

Head Coach: Sean Fitzgerald, third season
2018-19 Record: 9-14 (6-8, fifth in A North)
Returners: : Lucas Telles De Sa (Sr., 6-1, Forward), Tamir Reed (Sr., 5-10, Guard)
Key Losses: Marc Dennis (5-11, Guard), Matt Clarke (6-3, Forward), Devyn Blount (5-11, Guard), Latrell Bennett (6-0, Guard/Forward), Sir Josiah Hayes (5-10, Guard), Elijah Jenkins (6-1, Guard), Tyrone Hastings (5-8, Guard)
Newcomers: Mason Alexander (Jr., 6-2, Forward), Ivan Navarro (Sr., 5-9, Guard), Jermaine Corbett (Sr., 5-11, Guard), Qwalee Showers (Sr., 6-2, Forward), Jarell Sherin (Sr., 6-0, Guard), Josiah Evans (Jr., 6-0, Forward), Jayon Farrar (Jr., 5-10, Guard), Nick Reilly (Sr., 5-8, Guard), Christian Rodriguez (So., 5-10, Guard), Morgan Preister (Jr., 5-10, Guard), Kobe Brown (Jr., 5-9, Guard)

Coming off a nine-win season and with its top player of the last three years graduating, Long Branch will have its work cut out for it in 2019-20, especially playing in a Class A North division that could find itself with four ranked teams at some point during the season. Marc Dennis was a 1,000-point scorer and shouldered a fair amount of the load – both with regard to scoring and leadership – for the Green Wave. On top of losing Dennis, Long Branch will have to replace the Shore’s top shot-blockers and rebounders in Matt Clarke.

The Green Wave will feature plenty of quality guards on the roster, led by returning starter Tamir Reed, who took over a starting spot during last season and is the leading candidate to take over Dennis’s role in the offense. The rest of the backcourt will have to overcome some inexperience and that group will compensate with plenty of athleticism, led by a group of football standouts in senior Jermaine Corbett, junior Jayon Farrar and senior Jarell Sherin.

Long Branch once again does not have size that will stand out in the lay-up line, but has some capable front-court personnel, led by returning starter Lucas Telles De Sa. The rest of the forwards will be new to regular varsity roles, with juniors Mason Alexander and Josiah Evans working into the rotation with senior Qwalee Showers. With a rugged A North schedule there won’t be a whole lot of time to gel before this group of Green Wave newcomers will be put to the test.

Freehold Boro

Head Coach: Ben DiBiase, 10th season
2018-19 Record: 6-16 (4-10, tied sixth in A North)
Returners: Jiasion Carpenter (Jr., 6-6, Forward), Bekim Krkuti (Sr., 6-4, Forward), Ryan Neely (Jr., 6-1, Guard)
Key Losses: Quincy Davis (6-6, Forward), Lucas Bruckmann (5-11, Guard), Liam Feuster (6-2, Forward), Jack Bisaha (6-0, Guard), Makhi Theosmy (6-1, Guard)
Newcomers: Mario Rivera (Jr., 5-10, Guard), Michael Sikaras (Jr., 6-0, Guard), Tyler Ochojski (So., 6-1, Forward), Allen Rahanoff (Sr., 5-7, Guard), Sha’Kim Shuler (Jr., 5-7, Guard), Nick DeVito (Sr., 5-9, Guard)

Freehold Boro won just six games a season ago but five of them came against Class A North opponents, which might be a good sign heading into opening night 2019. Those three wins included a 3-0 mark against Manalapan, a team that figures to be improved after brining most of its impact players back from a year ago, but it also included wins over Long Branch and Middletown South. The Colonials will have to replace a number of key players but they successfully laid some important groundwork in 2018-19.

Size will be on Freehold Boro’s side with the return of 6-6 junior Jiasion Carpenter and 6-4 junior Bekim Krkuti to the front court, both of whom are primed to make strides transitioning from sophomore to junior year. Fellow junior Ryan Neely is also back from last year’s varsity squad and he was a major reason for Freehold’s biggest win of last season. Neely hit the buzzer-beating three that shocked Middletown South – a team that reached the Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinals.

Mario Rivera, Michael Sikaras and Sha’Kim Shuler are three more juniors poised to contribute to the varsity program and with sophomore Tyler Ochojski also in the mix, the Colonials are set up to dramatically improve from the beginning of this season to the end of 2020-21. The question will be how good is Freehold Boro at the start of 2019-20 and if the Colonials can build on last year’s progress, they could be headed for an exciting couple of seasons.

Howell

Head Coach: Patrick Ramsay, seventh season
2018-19 Record: 7-19 (4-10, tied sixth in A North)
Returners: Cooper Vogel (Sr., 6-2, Forward), Tommy Talbot (Sr., 5-9, Guard), Chris Acampora (Sr., 6-0, Guard), Matt Sgroi (Sr., 5-9, Guard), Dakota Connor (Sr., 6-2, Forward), Joe Dupuis (So., 6-2, Guard)
Key Losses: Matt Ganter (5-10, Guard), Nick Hornung (Sr., 6-7, Center), Jake Vesce (Sr., 6-3, Forward), Jason Tango (Sr., 5-10, Guard)
Newcomers: Jake George (Jr., 6-3, Center), Connor Carr (Jr., 6-2, Forward), Chris Ellison (Sr., 5-10, Guard), Abdull Al-Shrouf (Sr., 6-0, Guard), Dylan McVeigh (So., 5-8, Guard), Nick Gallo (So., 6-0, Guard)

Last year, the challenge for Howell was replacing a deep group of 2018 graduates and despite being led by an All-Shore guard in Matt Ganter, the Rebels could not figure out how to replace all that talent. Now Howell will have to operate without a player like Ganter, who averaged 26.2 points as the Shore’s third-leading scorer. On top of that, the Rebels will also be replacing 6-7 center Nick Hornung, who was amon the Shore’s leaders in rebounds and blocks while also averaging double-figure scoring.

Howell will be leaning on a group of returning players who will be expanding their roles this season. Seniors Cooper Vogel and Dakota Connor will each be a presence inside while seniors Tommy Talbot and Chris Acampora return to the backcourt. Sophomore Joe DuPuis will be a key piece after seeing time as a freshman and he will be joined by the next wave of young talent, led by sophomores Dylan McVeigh and Nick Gallo. Juniors Jake George and Connor Carr will also add depth to the front court for a Howell team trying to quickly reload in an unforgiving division.

 

A North Players to Watch

Alex Ratner, Marlboro – After dealing with an ankle injury in the middle of last season, Ratner is back as one of the Shore’s top guards following a strong 17 games (18.1 points, 2.9 assists, 2.4 steals) in 2018-19.

Ryan Mabrey, CBA – Mabrey was the rare freshman starter at CBA and as the point guard and third scoring option, he averaged 8.9 points and 5.4 assists as a high school rookie.

Luke Albrecht, Middletown South – Although two of his teammates scored more than he did, Albrecht was the x-factor for the Eagles’ fast-paced attack last season, in which he averaged 9.7 points and 4.9 assists.

James Anderson, Middletown South – One of the deadliest three-point shooters at the Shore, Anderson canned 86 threes and while averaging a team-high 12.7 points.

Ryan Knorr, Manalapan – While Manalapan struggled as a team, Knorr emerged as one of the Shore’s top all-around junior guards, reflected in his 16.1 points and 4.5 assists per game.

 

Breakout Players to Watch

Mike White, CBA – White was a standout perimeter defender and a dangerous shooter as a sophomore and will be even more prominent on this year’s Colts squad.

Joe Lardaro, Freehold Twp. – With so much to replace, Lardaro will be asked to take the next step after he was a bench forward as a sophomore and at an athletic 6-5, he should be raring to go.

Jayce Schapiro, Freehold Twp. – Zach Orrico returns as a starter in the backcourt and opponents might feel like they are seeing double. Like Orrico, Schapiro is another sub-six-foot guard who can handle, shoot, pass and break down a defense.

Jon Spatola, Marlboro – It’s not often freshmen make the kind of impact that Spatola was able to last year, especially at only 5-6. With defenses keying on Ratner, Spatola should have a chance to thrive for the Mustangs.

Tamir Reed, Long Branch – Now that Marc Dennis is gone, the Green Wave will turn to Rice to lead the way in the backcourt and hope a deep group of versatile players can provide support.

 

Burning Questions

Can Middletown South finish the climb back to the top tier of the Shore Conference?

It has been 10 years since Middletown South reached the Shore Conference Tournament final and 12 years since the Eagles last won an NJSIAA sectional championship. With all but one member of last year’s rotation back, Middletown South has realistic expectations to do at least one of those things this season. One more thing the Eagles would like to do that neither the 2007-08 nor the 2009-10 teams did: win an outright Class A North title.

Can Freehold Township contend for titles with a new cast?

If the timetable is over the next two years, the answer appears to be “absolutely.” With a team of almost all juniors, doing so this season is a much tougher task to tackle. The composition of this team is a lot like the one that went 9-13 two years ago before making it all the way to the Group IV final last year. An injury to returning starter Greg Billups sank the Patriots in 2018 so this year’s team will hope to have better luck with its health.

Is Ryan Mabrey ready to steer the CBA ship?

With two All-Shore seniors in Josh Cohen and Stephen Braunstein in the fold last year, Mabrey was able to fill a defined role and settle into the varsity game. Now a sophomore and with a team light on senior influence and much more guard-oriented than a year ago, Mabrey will be asked to both run CBA’s offense, score and lead on the floor. The ceiling is high for Mabrey and the Colts and this year will give an early look at the potential of both.

Will size matter for Marlboro?

Marlboro’s challenge of replacing 6-6 center Dylan Kaufman is one similar to a lot of teams around the Shore, particularly in Class A North. There is not a lot of size back in A North so Marlboro’s up-tempo, guard-heavy, pressing style should work. The bigger challenge may be doing it better than every other top team in the division.

Does the Shore’s breakout team reside in A North?

Last year, Manalapan and Freehold Boro combined to win 11 games and three of Freehold’s wins were against Manalapan. Both will try to make a significant leap this season and while Freehold owned the Braves last year, Manalapan may be better positioned for a breakout. The Braves return an all-division performer in Ryan Knorr and one of the division’s bigger front lines. With all its juniors, Freehold Boro looks to be in a similar situation to the one Manalapan was in last year, so the order of events could involve big gains for Manalapan this season and a Colonials breakthrough in 2021.

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