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The 2020 fall scholastic sports season in New Jersey is proceeding as planned, with the NJSIAA updating its plans to start the return to game action on Oct. 1, as well as details for the winter season.

Most soccer programs around the Shore Conference have been conducting summer workouts as part of the NJSIAA's three-phase return-to-play plan and while they will have to halt practice from Aug. 29 through Sept. 13, players throughout the state can look forward to coming back to an actual season.

Of course, a pandemic-affected season comes with significant changes and those changes raise some unique questions regarding the 2020 Shore Conference soccer season. Below are some of the most pressing questions - only a few of which are actually soccer-related. There will be more time to hash out details - look for a deeper look into some of these questions in the days and weeks to come - but for now, let's pose the questions and see where things stand.

 

Will any athletic programs opt out of the season?

Now that Governor Phil Murphy has given school districts the green light to proceed with the school year and, in turn, the scholastic sports calendar, the chances of districts pulling the plug on their season are inherently lower than they were prior to the governor’s blessing. Districts in other parts of the state that cancelled their fall seasons did so before the governor weighed in and now that most of the state is moving forward, there will be more external pressure on districts to provide an athletic experience that is as close to normal as possible.

That does not, however, mean there every district will be able to make it work or be able to avoid a unique safety issue that is too great to overcome. If finances become a problem, districts are undoubtedly going to prioritize the health and safety of the entire student body and community, as well as the educational experience, in which case sports programs could get left behind.

At this point in August, with teams heading into the final week of summer practices before shutting down for two weeks, there is an air of optimism. If there is one truth about this pandemic, however, it is that things change quickly. The next week will be important but the weeks to follow will be crucial. The return to in-person learning for several districts will be closely monitored and by the time school teams return to practice in the middle of September, there is no telling whether the state will have made more progress in handling the spread of the coronavirus or if cases surge.

In many ways, September is the month in which we find out if the state is ready for sports. Can schools execute the health and safety requirements? Does remote learning work as well with more students in the building? Will enough high school kids stay away from situations in which they are likely to contract COVID-19? How will districts handle outbreaks of various scales? None of those have clear answers at this point and until there is some more clarity, we can’t just assume that there will indeed be a high-school sports season. There is, however, a rough blueprint and if everyone involved holds up their end, it will finally be time to play ball in October. That’s more than we could say a couple of weeks ago.

 

How has the pandemic affected the club-school dynamic?

One of the sources of friction between the local club teams and high school programs has been the connection of many of the academy teams to the U.S. Soccer Developmental Academy. The developmental academy prohibited its players to play for other teams, which included high school soccer, which put many local players in the unenviable position to decide between playing for a club team – which is the avenue to more college opportunities – and for their high school team.

In mid-April, U.S. Soccer announced it was closing its Developmental Academy and while that does not necessarily mean all local academy teams will drop any exclusivity requirements, it leaves the decision up to individual academies and club teams to work out arrangements with its players. Prior to the Developmental Academy instituting the restriction earlier in the decade, the vast majority of local players who chose to forgo high-school soccer were players on a Major League Soccer Developmental Academy roster, most commonly the New York Red Bulls Academy.

So as with any topic of conversation over the last five months, the question is: how does the pandemic impact the push-and-pull between club and school soccer? It will likely take until practices resume on Sept. 14 to know for sure, but many of the players who had to fight for playing time on academy clubs will have the flexibility to get supplemental minutes with their school teams.

The top player who has an opportunity to play with the Red Bulls – as Jackson Memorial standout and incoming University of Notre Dame freshman Dan Russo did last year – is still more likely to pass on high school soccer, although there is precedent to the contrary. Back in 2009 and 2010, Dan Metzger arranged to play for both Holmdel and for the Red Bulls Academy and just last year, Tiron Shatku opted to play for Freehold Township instead of the Philadephia Union Developmental Academy. Shatku left his high-school team only when he had an opportunity to play professionally in Europe.

While the burden of choosing between the two teams will be eased for some players, other sources of conflict between club and high-school soccer could arise. The most obvious potential clash could be over health and safety restrictions. High schools are far more burdened by the NJSIAA COVID-19 protocols than the relatively-lax conditions of travel sports programs.

New NJSIAA director Colleen Maguire has made it clear that one of the primary motivations for the state to restart high-school sports is to prevent private leagues from filling the potential void left behind and doing so without adequate health and safety protocols. Will those protocols make high-school sports more appealing to families concerned about safety or less appealing because of the increased in restrictions? That will be something to watch over the next five weeks.

 

Will the games look any different?

You are likely to see more personnel and officials wearing masks and the number of spectators could very well be limited, but as far as the game on the field, there is little indication that 2020 high-school soccer will be all that distinguishable from years past.

Travel soccer leagues are currently in progress and other than occasional masks and more careful hydration practices, it's hard to tell there is a dangerous airborne virus in the U.S. by looking at the action on the pitches throughout the state.

The NJSIAA games are likely to be stricter on protocols, but that is not likely to manifest itself once the games start. The idea is to take precautions before the game, on the sidelines and after the game so that the players can compete without worrying about the contact associated with the sport.

 

Does the new schedule format create any advantages?

In an effort to limit travel and exposure during the return to play during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Shore Conference has returned to a divisional schedule in which each team plays each divisional opponent twice. For the past two years, each Shore team played each of their divisional opponents only once, which allowed for more opportunities to play crossover games and, in some cases, reduce the number of three-game weeks.

The unfamiliar twist to the schedule is that the two games between divisional opponents will played in the same week. In addition, the division schedule is likely to encompass the entire schedule for each team, with the NJSIAA limiting teams in soccer and field hockey to only two three-game weeks during the season.

That means that the division schedule will either determine the seeding for whatever postseason tournament concludes the season or – in the event that there is no postseason – a division title will represent the only prize teams will play for in 2020. With even more emphasis on the division schedule and teams playing one another twice in one week, the order of games played will be even more important. Prospective division champions that might be dealing with injuries early in a season will hope their marquee games come later, when they are healthy. Other teams might play their best soccer during the beginning or end of the season, meaning that a pair of games against a rival might produce very different results depending when during the season the two teams meet.

On top of that, 2020 is a realignment year, so a number of teams in Monmouth County are shuffling into new divisions, which could create new championship opportunities.

 

What can a postseason look like? What should a postseason look like? What will a postseason look like?

There are several layers to the discussion surrounding what a soccer postseason might look like in 2020. The first hurdle to clear is what will be allowed. The NJSIAA has designated the period between Nov. 13 and Nov. 22 as the 10-day period to conduct postseason play and has not unveiled specific plans for an NJSIAA Tournament - only that it planned to hold a tournament for any teams wishing to participate and that it would be more localized than usual.

The other option is for individual conferences, counties and localities to stage a postseason. Some counties have already announced they will not be holding county or conference tournaments, but the Shore Conference is among those still examining what can be done.

The limit on three-game weeks could hamstring a number of possible formats unless the Shore Conference teams all committed to avoiding them until the postseason. Another possible limitation could be proximity, which might prevent teams from the two different counties from playing one another if individual districts object to traveling that far to play games.

There is also the lingering cloud of the virus itself, which has impacted the Major League Baseball season by shutting teams down for long stretches of games and forced four local teams to pull out of July’s Last Dance World Series – a statewide baseball tournament for makeshift high school teams.

If all of those challenges can be managed, how should the Shore proceed? The conference is expansive enough that a successful Shore Conference Tournament could be nearly as valuable – perhaps more so – as an NJSIAA Tournament run for a lot of local teams. So if the NJSIAA offers a limited version of its state tournament, it may be preferable for Shore teams to compete among themselves with the 10 days of postseason time that they have.

The one hold-up for some teams – particularly the Group I and some of the Group II and III teams – is that the NJSIAA Tournament provides an opportunity to compete with schools of similar size and makeup. The Shore Conference Tournament includes several Group IV contenders, as well as large non-public power like Christian Brothers Academy, so Group I schools with a chance to do damage during a normal November would likely get one very difficult postseason match if there were a regularly-structured SCT.

With time enough for three or four postseason games, breaking the Shore into groups based on enrollment – like the NJSIAA does – would be one way to take advantage of the size of the conference while also giving smaller schools an incentive that is both meaningful and achievable.

At the end of the 2019 season, a number of the Shore coaches advocated for a World-Cup-style Shore Conference Tournament in which the conference would set up four-team groups. Teams would play one group game per week and a set number would advance into a knockout round. The SCT pools would be separate of the Shore Conference divisions. With the onset of the pandemic and the emphasis on limited travel, the pool-play idea is on the back-burner until at least 2021.

As for what will actually happen once the regular-season ends on Nov. 12? That question will remain burning for a bit longer.

 

Is the best boys team in the Shore in 2020 from Ocean County? Will we even find out?

Not since 2005 has a team from Ocean County won the Shore Conference Tournament and while the Shore’s southern county is at a numbers disadvantage (17 Ocean County teams to Monmouth’s 29) the SCT history over the past 14 seasons skews heavily in Monmouth County’s favor. Since Toms River North captured the 2005 conference tournament title, Ocean County has had a representative in the SCT final just twice in 14 seasons and has not had a team in the championship game since Toms River North lost to CBA in 2010.

Reaching the final four of the tournament has not come easily either: from 2006 to 2012 Ocean County’s representation in the SCT semifinals was perfectly representative of a county that makes up 36 percent of the teams in the conference, with 10 of the 28 semifinalists (36 percent) over those seven seasons hailing from Ocean County. In the seven years since, however, Ocean County has had only five semifinalists and in three of those seven seasons, no Ocean County team made it to the SCT semifinals.

From left: Jake Baurerband, Nick Gonzalez, Ryan Maguire and Chris Byrd celebrate Toms River North's win over Jackson Memorial. (Photo by Matt Manley)

It’s not like this has been a recurring big-brother-little-brother relationship between Monmouth and Ocean County, either. When Toms River North won the 2005 title, that gave Ocean County a 13-11 edge on Monmouth County in SCT championships (Freehold Township and Brick Memorial shared the title in 1987 and CBA and Jackson Memorial did the same in 1988). Jackson Memorial has more SCT titles (six) than any other public school program thanks to a run of four straight championships from 1989 to 1992. Brick Memorial and Toms River North have also racked up three championships each and Monsignor Donovan won the last all-Ocean-County final in 2002 by defeating Brick Memorial.

In short, there was a real rivalry between the counties in the first 22 years of the tournament but over the last 14, no Ocean County team has really come close to finishing off a championship run.

If there is some version of a Shore Conference postseason or an NJSIAA postseason with a Monmouth-Ocean overlap, a number of Ocean County teams could be in the mix for the No. 1 spot at the end of the year. Jackson Memorial should be among that group of contenders and while the Jaguars have been a No. 1 seed in the tournament in the last decade and one of the Shore’s best teams over the past two years, they have not had this much competition for the No. 1 spot among the teams from the Class A South division in some time.

Toms River North is another traditional Ocean County power with a chance to return to the top of the conference on the heels of a historic state tournament run last fall. The Mariners won the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV championship as a No. 16 seed and are due to return eight starters with a deep bench.

The new blood among the A South contenders is Southern, which has elevated itself to new heights under coach Guy Lockwood. The Rams were tripped up in the SCT and NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV quarterfinals last year but bring back a dynamic group of playmakers and plenty of experience on the back line.

Southern senior Kevin Kiernan. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

There are a number of wild card programs from Ocean as well – namely Pinelands, Toms River East, Toms River South and Manchester. Pinelands has established itself as a perennial favorite in Class B South and is set to return All-Shore midfielder Johnny Hart. Toms River East graduated its top scorer, but will return its core from a team that started to find itself late in the year. Toms River South might have more questions in its lineup than in most years, but has a track record as strong as any public school in the Shore Conference since winning a Group IV title in 2009. Manchester is the upstart of the group, bringing back a group that was exceedingly young in 2019 and still managed to make a leap to third place in Class B South and a 10-10 overall finish.

It’s possible that Ocean County is making a comeback in soccer and one of its teams will cash in with a championship sometime in the coming years. If, however, this year is the best shot for a team like Southern, Toms River North, Jackson Memorial or Pinelands to make a statement on behalf of their county, it would be a cruel fate if the season is limited to the division schedule and an intra-county postseason.

 

How long will the state’s longest unbeaten streak last?

Since losing to Pingry in early October of 2017, Holmdel has been unbeatable during the run of play. Four teams have gone the distance by tying the Hornets through 100 minutes and three of those teams have topped Holmdel on penalty kicks. Those penalty-kick showdowns didn’t stop Holmdel from winning NJSIAA Group II championships in 2017 and 2018, but Holmdel’s SCT and Group II march both ended early via the shootout in 2019.

Despite a disappointing ending to last season, Holmdel officially finished 16-0-2 and will enter this fall with a 54-game unbeaten streak, during which the Hornets have gone 50-0-4. Even with the shortcomings in last year’s postseason, 2019 was an impressive season for a team that graduated eight starters and changed head coaches from 2018 and was still the Shore’s most dominant regular-season team.

Holmdel senior Connor Hinds. (Photo by Matt Manley)

The challenge will be much steeper this fall, with the Hornets graduating three All-Shore standouts in Mark Walier, Jack Giamanco and Eric Hinds – three players who carried the scoring load and served as leaders who played prominent roles on two decorated teams in 2017 and 2018.

Holmdel is in an unusual situation in that the Hornets open the season with a bye during the first week of the schedule – the result of playing in a Class A Central division with only seven teams. The season then opens with six straight games against the three other teams that are likely to challenge for the division: Monmouth Regional, Rumson-Fair Haven and Ocean. If Holmdel can somehow get to 60 in a row, the Hornets will have done a lot of the heavy lifting in getting through the entire regular season without a loss. With a more untested roster than they have had in at least four years, that's easier said than done.

 

If there is a Shore Conference Tournament, who is the favorite?

Southern and Toms River North return particularly-strong rosters from the Ocean County contingent, but are either worthy of being considered the preseason favorite to win a potential Shore Conference Tournament?

Perhaps a better question than “Who is the favorite?” would be “Is there a favorite?” If a champion deserves the benefit of the doubt, Freehold Township deserves the title heading into the year after winning the 2019 title on penalty kicks over Manasquan and is set to return a healthy chunk of its deep roster – including Shore Sports Network Player of the Year Zach Orrico. It’s also worth noting, however, that Freehold Township lost to Long Branch in the first round of the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV tournament, a fate not suffered by a Shore Conference Tournament champion since 2008, when Freehold Township lost to Howell in the CJ IV first round.

Freehold Township senior Zach Orrico. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Any discussion of an SCT favorite should include CBA, which has two key defenders, a smooth center midfielder, a physical striker and a goalkeeper to replace but a reliable system that has more talent on the way. Jackson Memorial has a similar profile, with the Jaguars graduating a strong group of seniors in the spring.

Wall and Manasquan are also coming off banner seasons, with Manasquan reaching the SCT final for the first time ever and Wall getting back to the NJSIAA Group III final for the first time in 15 years. Wall will bring back most of its goal-scoring while trying to replace all four members of its dominant back line. Manasquan finds itself in a similar situation, but unlike Wall, the Warriors also have to replace one of the Shore’s best goalkeepers while the Crimson Knights bring back Sebastian Campanile.

The long list of potential answers to this burning question makes this season another that should provide some surprises. The 2016, 2017 and 2018 seasons started with powerhouse teams at the top of the rankings and finished with those teams at the top, while last year saw Freehold Township ascend to the No. 1 spot after opening the year at No. 3. With no clear favorite and no crossover games, settling the No. 1 team at the Shore in 2020 will be as dumbfounding a process as ever.

 

What Shore teams would have unique opportunities in something resembling a typical NJSIAA sectional tournament?

The NJSIAA Tournament provides some of the Shore’s best teams a chance to prove themselves against the rest of the state but it also allows for New Jersey’s smaller schools to compete against a more level playing field. In recent years, some of the Shore’s best have hailed from Group II and III but there are years in which the larger-sized schools dominate the Shore scene. In those years, teams like Holmdel, Toms River South and Asbury Park have capitalized on championship opportunities in November by winning sectional championships, even in years in which they did not make deep runs in the Shore Conference Tournament.

Last year’s state-tournament darlings were sectional champions Toms River North and Wall and sectional runners-up Long Branch and Ocean. The only one of those four teams to make it as far as the SCT quarterfinals was Wall (Ocean failed to qualify for the SCT), so without the NJSIAA Tournament, those other three teams would be coming off rather forgettable seasons rather than surging toward Oct. 1 with some serious momentum.

If there is any state tournament this season, it will be a more restrained version that will limit how far teams travel – even if it means just stopping the brackets at the end of the sectional championship round. As long as there is something to that effect, teams like Point Pleasant Beach and Asbury Park in Group I and St. Rose and Ranney in Non-Public B will have a chance to make postseason noise whereas all four would be happy to win one game in a Shore Conference Tournament. For those programs, the state tournament is the focus in every season.

Pinelands senior Johnny Hart (right) battles Manchester junior Trevor Juralewicz for the ball. (Photo by Matt Manley)

In a Group III field that has been relatively even over the past several years, Wall, Ocean and Toms River South remain strong enough to add to their decorated resumes while Colts Neck, Middletown North, Pinelands and Toms River East are all poised to be improved teams that should be dangerous in a tournament setting.

Holmdel and Delran have been the dominant Group II teams in Central and South Jersey for most of the past decade, but Central Jersey Group II could be experiencing a changing-of-the-guard as Holmdel prepares to rebuild coming off last year’s quarterfinal upset loss to Governor Livingston on penalties. That opens the door for Monmouth Regional and Rumson-Fair Haven – with the Falcons in the midst of a strong four-year run and the Bulldogs of Rumson just hitting their stride after a turnaround season in 2019 with a young team

Manasquan is coming off two of its more successful seasons in program history, but this year will be a last hurrah of sorts with four-year starter Tommy Johnson suiting up for his final high-school season. The Warriors came close to winning a South Jersey Group II title in 2018 and even closer to a Shore Conference Tournament title last year, so they are hungry for one last shot with Johnson this season.

Manasquan senior Tommy Johnson. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

The usual Group IV powers and CBA always make up the bulk of the Shore Top 10, but there is one Group IV team looking to write a new narrative. Southern is looking at its best chance ever to win its first outright A South title, its first NJSIAA sectional title and at least reach the SCT final for the first time ever. Few teams would have been more crushed to lose the 2020 season and now that there appears to be one on the horizon, the Rams would like to prove their standing in the Shore and in all of New Jersey as much as possible.

All of those teams have a chance to make program history this year and that’s not to mention other teams in pursuit of a championship: decorated programs like Freehold Township, CBA and Wall trying to add to their resumes with a new group of players; Jackson Memorial and Marlboro scratching and clawing to finish off a tournament championship after several near misses in recent years; and Long Branch and Toms River North hoping to go even further than they did during Cinderella runs in 2019. There may be a limited opportunity to capture a championship in 2020 and there are a number of Shore teams hoping they don’t miss their shot at a special season.