A week-and-a-half into the season, the Shore Conference looked like a league with a clear No. 1 and a clear No. 2 team and the next seven weeks would be the inevitable lead-up to a St. Rose vs. Manasquan championship game in the Shore Conference Tournament.

It didn’t work out that way last year and this year, that No. 1 and No. 2 ranking did not even last until the end of 2023.

Holiday tournament week was a reminder that matchups matter and that infallible teams are rare, if non-existent. It was also a week for a handful of teams to make a convincing case for themselves as squads that should be taken seriously as contenders, both within the Shore Conference and heading toward March and the NJSIAA Tournament.

While one noteworthy upset shakes up the rankings this week, the pecking order after No. 3 remains fairly straightforward, although as usual, there is plenty of room for debate and plenty of remaining opportunity for teams looking to make a move up or into the rankings.

1. St. Rose (7-1) Last Week: 1

Since losing the opener to the Patrick School, St. Rose has won seven in a row – all by double-digit margins. The Purple Roses relied heavily on Matt Hodge for scoring (30 points of the 59 points) in the opening-night low, but have since gotten contributions across the board. That includes the defensive end, where St. Rose was dominant in a New-Year’s-Day win over Bergen Catholic. St. Rose returns to Shore Conference play Thursday vs. Raritan before a showdown with St. Benedict’s Saturday at Brookdale Community College.

Toms River North junior Sherrod Nelson. (Photo: Ray Rich Photography)
Toms River North junior Sherrod Nelson. (Photo: Ray Rich Photography)

2. Toms River North (6-1) Last Week: 7

Through the first 10 days of the season, it looked as though the top two spots would remain constant all the way through the end of the season. Instead, the Mariners spoiled the party heading into 2024. Toms River North showed its superior athleticism, as well as its underrated basketball aptitude, in wearing down Manasquan, 63-53, in the WOBM Christmas Classic Ruhnke Bracket final on Saturday. The Mariners do have a loss to Toms River South, but they played without dynamic point guard Sherrod Nelson in the fourth quarter and overtime. Nelson was invaluable in WOBM wins over Colts Neck, Central and Manasquan.

3. Manasquan (6-1) Last Week: 2

After winning its first six games of the season in fairly convincing fashion, Manasquan met its match on Saturday against a more athletic Toms River North team that also executed throughout a 63-53 WOBM championship win. The Warriors have been hit hard by injuries, but up until Saturday, they had overcome every bit of adversity and rarely missed a beat while notching impressive wins over Red Bank, Holmdel, College Achieve, Marlboro and Red Bank Catholic. Manasquan is in the midst of a four-day layoff that ends with a road game at Freehold Boro, followed by a clash with CBA Saturday at Brookdale.

4. Red Bank (6-1) Last Week: 4

The Bucs keep lining up against ranked teams and keep beating them. With the exception of a loss at Manasquan, Red Bank has cut down four Shore-ranked teams, with the most recent win coming over Ranney in the Albert E. Martin Buc Classic final after the Panthers entered the game undefeated. The Bucs have had a home-heavy schedule so far and that continues this week with home dates vs. Lacey and Howell, followed by a game vs. Red Bank Catholic Saturday evening at Brookdale.

5. Christian Brothers Academy (3-2) Last Week: 6              

CBA inches up a spot after the Colts offense broke out in their last two games at the J.P. Flynn Tournament in Morris County. While it was respectable in the first three games, the Colts did not crack 60 points while starting 1-2. In the two games since, CBA has put up point totals of 63 and 81 to take fifth place in the tournament. CBA is enjoying a six-day layoff and will return to the court with two games in two days, with Middletown South on Friday and Manasquan Saturday in the Boardwalk Classic at Brookdale.

6. Rumson-Fair Haven (5-1) Last Week: 8

Rumson’s only loss this year is the only close game in which the Bulldogs have played. CBA beat Rumson in a game that went down to the wire and in which Rumson struggled to finish layups and free throws. The schedule does not really ramp up until next week, but a road trip to Marlboro will be another good test for Rumson as it tries to prove itself to be a top-five team in the conference.

7. Ranney (5-1) Last Week: 10

With three new starters, Ranney has kept itself in the mix for a top five spot in the rankings thanks to the play of its returning starters, Drew Buck and MeSean Williams. Ranney was sharp in wins over East Brunswick and Tottenville, then overcame an early 24-10 deficit vs. Red Bank to make it a game before falling, 63-57. The Panthers have two big road games coming up this week – first a trip to Bayville to play Central Regional, then to Holmdel to play the surging Hornets.

8. Holmdel (5-1) Last Week: 12

Speaking of Holmdel, the Hornets climb into the top 10 coming off a dominant performance while winning the Huskies Holiday Tournament in Matawan. Not only is Holmdel 5-1 with its only loss coming at Manasquan, but the Hornets have done most of that work with top 2022-23 scorer Nick Seeloch out of the lineup. Seeloch is expected back as early as later this week and it would be a good time to add to the lineup: Holmdel has games scheduled this week at No. 2 Toms River North and home against both No. 7 Ranney and (spoiler alert) No. 15 Jackson Memorial.

9. Colts Neck (4-2) Last Week: 3

Colts Neck’s week ended with a 20-point loss to Marlboro – a team the Cougars beat on the road a week prior. One reason the Cougars struggled in the rematch was the absence of Mike Belcher, who will be back this week to continue his outstanding start to the season. With Belcher on the floor, Colts Neck is 3-1 with an overtime loss to Toms River North along with a 30-point win over Red Bank Catholic and road win over Marlboro. The Cougars will try to hold their place this week with games vs. Jackson Liberty and Freehold Township.

10. Red Bank Catholic (5-2) Last Week: 9

Since a forgettable 31-point loss at Colts Neck in which the Caseys were missing imposing senior center Tyler Burnham, RBC has gone 3-1 with wins over Donovan Catholic, Middletown South and Central – all of which have been ranked this season – and a loss to No. 3 Manasquan. RBC is staring down three games this coming week against three teams that each currently have only one loss: East Orange (5-1), Northern Highlands (5-1) and Red Bank (6-1).

11. Toms River South (6-1) Last Week: Not ranked – The Indians make their first appearance in the SSN rankings in nine years after winning their first title at the WOBM Christmas Classic in 32 years. With wins over Toms River North, Freehold Township and Donovan Catholic, Toms River South has made its case for a ranking crystal clear.

12. Marlboro (3-3) Last Week: 11 – The Mustangs got back on track with wins over Middletown South and Colts Neck, giving Marlboro three wins over teams that have been ranked so far this season.

13. Central (4-3) Last Week: 5 – Central has lost to three ranked teams by a combined nine points, so the Golden Eagles are not far off from a top-five spot.

14. Southern (4-3) Last Week: 13 – Southern ran into a Lenape buzz saw in the Score at the Shore semifinals, but around that game, Southern took down defending NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV champion Trenton in the first round of the tournament and beat Fair Lawn in the third-place game.

15. Jackson Memorial (4-2) Last Week: 14 – The Jaguars went 1-1 at the Jack Stone Shootout in Rutherford and with a head-to-head win over Howell, they hold on to a spot in the rankings.

16. Howell (5-2) Last Week: 15 – The Rebels acquitted themselves nicely in the Score at the Shore Tournament last week, giving eventual Mainland its toughest game in a first-round loss, then handling both Holy Spirit and Trenton to finish off the 2023 portion of the schedule 5-2.

Dropped Out

Donovan Catholic (5-2) Last Week: 16 – With a loss to Toms River South in the WOBM Steve Gepp Bracket final, the Griffins drop out of the rankings after a one-week stay, but are not too far from getting back.

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