It has been some time since Group I had a team that would rank better than the No. 6 seed in a potential six-team NJSIAA Tournament of Champions, which of course, no longer exists. That would have changed had the T of C still been around this year, because College Achieve -- the first-year charter-school program with campuses in Asbury Park and Neptune -- is the heaviest of the favorites to win a group championship.

The Knights resemble a non-public roster far more than a Group I roster, which makes sense considering coach Dave Boff left state powerhouse Roselle Catholic to start up the College Achieve program. They just knocked off St. Peter's Prep -- a top-five team in the state -- prior to the NJSIAA Tournament cutoff and will now be tasked with playing some of the state's smallest programs.

For teams like Shore Regional, Henry Hudson and Point Pleasant Beach from the Shore, as well as other Group I teams that would have otherwise entered the tournament with renewed championship expectations, the presence of College Achieve is a major deluge of cold water. It is one thing to have to beat a great team to win a championship, but the College Achieve roster is so talented and constructed by such different means than the other rosters in the Group I tournament, that it is laughable to suggest this is an even playing field.

It was one thing when the Tournament of Champions was a chance for a team like College Achieve to really test itself, but this tournament is going to be an anticlimactic finish to a successful first season for Boff and Co. -- which is a shame for College Achieve and an even greater shame for other would-be Group I contenders. Paterson Charter could be a worthy opponent in the state final and would likely have been a heavy favorite were it not for the presence of College Achieve, but the chance at a sectional title was always the pot of gold for Shore, Henry Hudson, Point Beach and other Group I programs.

Shore Regional senior Alex George. (Photo: Ray Rich Photography)
Shore Regional senior Alex George. (Photo: Ray Rich Photography)

Central Jersey Group I

Shore Teams in the Field: No. 1 Henry Hudson, No. 2 Shore, No. 11 Point Pleasant Beach, No. 15 Keyport
Top Seed: Henry Hudson
Defending Champion: No. 8 Eagle Academy
Bracket Favorite: No. 3 College Achieve Asbury Park

Bracket Dark Horse: Eagle Academy. This year’s Eagle Academy team is not as accomplished as last year’s team heading into the tournament, let alone when considering Eagle actually won the section. The draw, however, gives the defending champs a chance to make a push toward the sectional final again, even if their fate will be the same as every other team in the bracket outside of College Achieve. Point Beach is set up nicely to win in the opening round as a double-digit seed, so in that regard, the Garnet Gulls are a sectional sleeper. Their problem is that, if they win, their reward is a trip north to play College Achieve.

Bracket Breakdown: College Achieve is the heavy favorite in this bracket and of course they are: the Knights have transfers from multiple parts of the state, while the rest of the field is either traditional Group I or more conventional charter school operations. It is a discrepancy that the NJSIAA might have to address soon and if Boff continues to appeal to top players around the state – as he did at Roselle Catholic and has done in his first year in Monmouth County – the College Achieve players and coaches won’t sweat it at all. For now, the Knights are primed to not only steamroll the Central bracket, but are also likely to truck their opponents in the state semifinal and final as well.

Keyport native and College Achieve junior Nas Hart. (Photo: Ray Rich Photograpy)
Keyport native and College Achieve junior Nas Hart. (Photo: Ray Rich Photograpy)

If this were the pre-College-Achieve Era, Shore would be the favorite after coming up a possession short of a sectional championship last year. This year, though, the Blue Devils are primed to win a couple of games before taking their shot at the bracket favorites. On the other side of the bracket, Henry Hudson will host every game it plays and could find itself in the sectional final if the Admirals can hold serve. Eagle Academy and No. 4 David Brearley are going to be hard to beat, as Henry Hudson is going to see an escalation in competition after playing a soft schedule over the last month. The good news for Henry Hudson is the Admirals are set up to be a lot better next year and by then, perhaps the state will address the College Achieve issue.

Prediction: College Achieve over David Brearley. Shore has tested itself well enough that it could, possibly, mount a challenge against College Achieve, but the Knights are going to have major size and athletic advantages against every team in this field. Brearley, meanwhile, is the most battle-tested team on the other side of the bracket, which is why a 10-9 team could be a favorite to reach the final. Of all the sections in the state, with the possible exception of St. Rose in South Jersey Non-Public B, the Central Jersey Group I bracket is the likely to have the least amount of drama because of how good the favorite to win it all is compared to the rest of the field.

Henry Hudson junior Jack Fitzpatrick gets congratulations from teammate JoJo Newell (22) during their win over Monmouth. (Image: Matt Manley)
Henry Hudson junior Jack Fitzpatrick gets congratulations from teammate JoJo Newell (22) during their win over Monmouth Regional. (Image: Matt Manley)

Round-by-Round Picks

Opening Round

(1) Henry Hudson over (16) Highland Park
(8) Eagle Academy over (9) Dunellen
(5) Manville over (12) Florence
(4) Brearley over (13) Somerset Tech
(3) College Achieve over (14) Academy Charter
(11) Point Beach at (6) Perth Amboy Magnet
(7) South Hunterdon over (10) STEMCivics
(2) Shore over (15) Keyport


(8) Eagle Academy over (1) Henry Hudson
(4) Brearley over (5) Manville
(3) College Achieve over (11) Point Beach
(2) Shore over (7) South Hunterdon


(4) Brearley over (8) Eagle Academy
(3) College Achieve over (2) Shore


(3) College Achieve over (4) Brearley

More From Shore Sports Network