Boys Basketball Final Top 10 – Still the 1: Manasquan (NJ) Completes Second Straight Wire-to-Wire Season as No. 1
At multiple points since the first day of high school basketball practice on Jan. 11, it looked like the 2021 season could be in some jeopardy. The NJSIAA was never considering cancelling the season, by all accounts, but at a very early point in the already-shortened season, teams around the state had already shut down and the Shore was hit particularly hard.
Twenty-seven of the 47 teams in the conference endured at least one shutdown that lasted at least one day, with the vast majority of those shutdowns lasting the standard two weeks. If you're looking at the glass being half-empty, only 10 of the 47 teams in the conference reached the upper limit of 15 games played for the season and the low number within the Shore Conference was seven games played.
Then again, the fact that 10 teams made it to 15 games and only one played less than half of the allowed schedule (and only by one game) is astounding considering how things started this season. The NJSIAA allowing teams to schedule two four-game weeks definitely helped make up the lost time for many teams and some additional diligence by individual teams and administrations made the difference.
Someone asked me at the beginning of the season what I thought the average number of games played by Shore Conference teams would be for the entire season. My answer was 10.8, and the gist of the response was, "Really? That many?" The final average per team wound up at 12.6 games. What was met as an optimistic guess came up a good deal short, which speaks to how much resolve so many people showed to get games played safely as COVID-19 continued to circulate throughout the state.
There were enough games to talk about scoring leaders, get a number of players milestones and crown a champion at the end of the season. It wasn't the season the seniors envisioned when they started their high school careers and it might not even be the one anyone envisioned at the onset of the pandemic. It could be the best course of action would have been to wait to conduct a season that ended in late March or early April, but for what the teams were given, they made the most of it.
For the following 10 teams, they made it extra special by finishing among the 10 best teams in the Shore for 2021. There was a big gap between No. 10 and No. 11, but if you are looking for teams that pushed up the the front of the "left out" list, think teams like Central and Toms River North, which closed their seasons with positive performances in Pod B of the Playoffs.
Congratulations to all the teams for making it to the finish line and to the following 10 for proving to be the cream of the crop in a very competitive conference.
1. Manasquan (12-0) Preseason Rank: 1
There is an obvious asterisk next to this fact, but Manasquan is the first Shore Conference team to finish undefeated since Red Bank’s 1982-83 team went 31-0. Even that Red Bank team has to be mentioned with the qualifier that the Tournament of Champions did not yet exist, which underscores the point: No matter the conditions, going undefeated is incredibly difficult. Although Manasquan’s undefeated season was only 12 games, the Warriors played an exceedingly challenging schedule that netted them wins over Montclair Immaculate, Don Bosco, Trenton Catholic, Life Center Academy, CBA, Marlboro, Wall and Neptune (three times). All eight of those teams were ranked in the NJ.com Top 20 or the Shore Sports Network Top 10 except for Life Center, which is not eligible to be ranked but has multiple Division I prospects. With a record of 43-1 over the last two seasons and 72-5 over the last three, Manasquan has established itself as the new standard in boys basketball at the Shore.
2. Ranney (9-1) Preseason Rank: 2
This ranking won’t sit well with a lot of people and that is understandable. Marlboro went into Ranney’s gym and beat the Panthers with a trip to the Shore championship game on the line, then pushed Manasquan to the limit on Friday. If the final ranking, however, is about the entire season – as it should be – then it’s hard to deny Ranney. The Panthers did beat Marlboro earlier in the year (by the same six-point margin, no less) and eight of their nine wins came against teams that finished in the final Shore Sports Network Top 10 (four of Marlboro’s nine came against the Shore Top 10, which does not include a win over a strong Colonia team). Throw in two convincing wins over a CBA team that beat Marlboro by 33 in one of their two meetings and there is too much evidence available that Ranney was the second-best team in the conference from start-to-finish. With both Ranney and Marlboro bringing back so much of their teams, it is sure to be a rivalry that carries into 2022.
3. Marlboro (9-4) Preseason Rank: 3
If the resume says Ranney is No. 2, the heart says Marlboro. For at least one night, Marlboro was better than Ranney and it was one of the two most important nights of the year for a team to be at its best. The Mustangs then had Manasquan on the ropes and to say they had it taken away from them with two questionable offensive foul calls that fouled out leading scorer Jack Seidler is not entirely unreasonable. At the end of the year, Marlboro was playing like the second-best team in the conference and it certainly feels like they earned the No. 2 spot just for enduring that championship heartbreak. Objectively, though, Ranney does have the better overall body of work, even if the Mustangs finished stronger and took on a number of regular-season challenges with games against St. Peter’s Prep, Colonia and Ranney. Seidler and Jon Spatola lead a lineup that will remain almost entirely intact next season and will be shooting for no less than No. 1 in 2022.
4. Christian Brothers Academy (9-5) Last Week: 4
Friday’s loss to Ranney was an unfitting end to an impressive showing for this CBA group, which was one of the more blue-collar outfits the Colts have produced since Geoff Billet took over the program. CBA was one of the Shore’s toughest defensive teams, which it demonstrated in impressive wins over Marlboro and Red Bank Catholic, as well as in a 45-35 Shore Conference Playoff loss at Manasquan. A year ago, the Colts had to forfeit out of the Shore Conference Tournament because they played too many games prior to the cutoff, so getting a chance to compete in this year’s top eight was an experience the senior trio of Colin Farrell, Mike White and Dane Moran deserved.
5. Red Bank Catholic (12-1) Preseason Rank: 5
Before suffering their only loss of the season Monday at CBA, Red Bank Catholic looked like a serious threat to challenge for the unofficial Shore Conference championship. After losing to the Colts, RBC barely got by Neptune and Red Bank to end the season, with the Caseys scoring the winning basket in the final minute in both games. At times, though, RBC looked like a burgeoning juggernaut, authoring blowout wins over Rumson-Fair Haven, Wall and Holmdel leading up to the playoffs and doing so with a six-man rotation that will return five players in 2021-22. With Gio Panzini set to jump into the starting lineup as a sophomore next year and three third-year starters in there with him and fellow sophomore Zach Meeks, the Caseys will be a legitimate SCT contender in 2022.
6. Holmdel (8-3) Preseason Rank: Not ranked
Despite graduating all but one starter and all but two regulars from the 2019-20 team that finished No. 2 at the Shore, Holmdel remained one of the Shore’s better teams this season thanks to the play of seniors Alex Baker and Ryan Bradley. The Hornets coasted in their six games of pod play before enduring a COVID-related shutdown that lasted all the way until the final Friday of the regular season. There is a case to be made that Neptune should be No. 6 but Holmdel has the cleaner record and won all the games it was “supposed” to win. The Hornets have a young core in the works and they will have to grow up quickly next year following another heavy loss to graduation.
7. Neptune (3-7) Preseason Rank: 8
Although Neptune finishes the year with a rather unsightly record, the Scarlet Flies played what might have been the toughest schedule in the conference – rivaled only by Manasquan’s loaded out-of-conference slate. All of Neptune’s seven losses were against teams ranked in the top-five of the final Top 10 and a whopping six of them came against the top three, including three to No. 1 Manasquan. In addition to all the high-level losses, the Scarlet Fliers also scored two wins over Wall and another over Southern – both teams that cracked the final Top 10. So, to recap, Neptune played 10 games in 2021 and all 10 were against ranked teams. In a season like this one, that’s a no-brainer Top 10 team.
8. Wall (8-7) Preseason Rank: 6
Wall’s 4-7 record at the cutoff date kept the Crimson Knights out of the top eight in the playoff seeding, but it might have actually helped Wall to play in the second tier. During that 4-7 start, Wall lost six games to Top 10 opponents, lost at Seton Hall Prep and beat three teams that were seeded in Pod D of the Shore Conference Playoffs (including St. Rose twice). In other words, hardly a Top 10 resume. In the final week of the season, however, the Crimson Knights cleaned up with double-digit wins over three solid teams in Central (9-3), Toms River North (11-4) and Rumson-Fair Haven (8-5). That gave Wall a winning record and a resume pretty clearly better than the two teams ranked below it. If not for two close losses to Neptune, Wall could have been even higher, but this was a commendable showing for a group that won three postseason championships together over the past three years.
9. Southern (10-4) Preseason Rank: Not ranked
After beginning the season as a favorite to win its pod and with an outside chance to challenge for a Top 10 spot, Southern did everything you could have asked of the Rams this season. After dropping their season-opener to Toms River North, Southern responded by becoming the first Class A South team to beat Toms River North in almost six full years. That win kicked off a 10-game winning streak that carried the Rams into the top pod in the Shore Conference Playoffs as the No. 7 seed. Going 0-3 cost them a couple spots in the final rankings, but Southern finished the 2021 season a no-doubt-about-it Top 10 team.
10. Rumson-Fair Haven (8-5) Preseason Rank: 9
While Rumson has a flawed resume – the Bulldogs did not beat a Top 10 team and lost to a Monmouth Regional squad that went 0-3 in Playoff Pod D – it is a good enough resume to easily put them in the final Top 10. Healthy wins over Mater Dei Prep and Howell got Rumson to the Pod B final, which the Bulldogs lost to No. 8 Wall. They also handily beat Barnegat and Middletown North, beat Middletown South and swept Red Bank during the season. That is more than enough for one of the last two Top 10 spots and sets the junior-led Bulldogs up nicely for a big 2022.