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Shore Conference Tournament Semifinals

Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021

At Barnegat High School

 

No. 2 Freehold Township (13-2-1) vs. No. 3 Toms River North (11-1-1), 4 p.m.

For the first part of the regular season, Toms River North was closer to being the No. 1 team in the Shore Conference than the No. 3 team. Once the Mariners last at Christian Brothers Academy, 4-2, on Oct. 2, it unlocked the door for a debate for the No. 2 spot and Freehold Township has been shoving it open ever since. Neither team has lost since that day (Freehold Township lost, 3-2, at Elizabeth) and a head-to-head match was supposed to settle the No. 2 seed, but the two sides played to a scoreless draw in Toms River on Oct. 12. With a tougher schedule from start to finish, Freehold Township inched up to the No. 2 seed for the Shore Conference Tournament.

Freehold Township senior Josh Hocheiser. (Photo by Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)

Its schedule has certainly made Freehold Township a battle-tested team, but Toms River North has been the more dominant one. The Mariners have had just one win decided by one goal, while Freehold Township has won a whopping eight games by a one-goal margin while also losing two by a single goal. Throw in all the injuries the Patriots have dealt with and it’s the kind of season that has prepared them for any situation.

While Toms River North might not have played in as many pressure situations as Freehold Township has this season, the Mariners have a senior-laden team that has been in a slew of close, meaningful games over the years. As sophomores, many of them were key contributors on the team that won the South Jersey Group IV championship as a No. 16 seed and were then part of a strong junior class on the 12-1-1 squad that won the modified NJSIAA Central East Group IV championship in 2020 on a golden goal. Toms River North beat Freehold Township, 3-2, in last year’s championship run, albeit with a different set of players on both sides.

Toms River North senior Mattia Assante (right). (Photo by Ray Richardson)

Toms River North has more of its 2020 cast back and while there is not quite as much scoring punch for a game like this one, the Mariners do just about everything else better than they did last year. The defense has been, arguably, the best in the Shore Conference and senior Mattia Assante leads, perhaps, the Shore’s best midfield. Striker Jared Brown also did not play in the first meeting vs. Freehold Township, which will be a big addition to the Toms River North starting XI. It’s hard to see either of these teams losing a big game, but Toms River North has the means by which to overpower opponents and that could come into play.

The Pick: Toms River North, 2-1

 

No. 1 Christian Brothers Academy (15-1) vs. No. 4 Manalapan (8-3-4), 6:30 p.m.

When these two Shore Conference Class A North foes met, Manalapan hung around for most of the game before a pair of late Dylan Cupo goals wrapped up a 4-1 CBA win. Manalapan managed to pull within 2-1 late in the second half, but the game flowed in CBA’s favor for the majority of the 80 minutes, despite Manalapan hosting the game on its grass pitch. In the SCT semifinals, the teams will compete on Barnegat’s turf, which would figure to play in CBA’s favor despite the fact that Manalapan has also gotten results on turf as well, including advancing past both Ocean and Marlboro on the turf at Manalapan’s Recreation Complex.

Senior Dylan Cupo (left) defended by Manalapan senior Connor Kinnucane. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com

There is not a better turnaround story in the Shore Conference in 2021 than Manalapan. The Braves were 0-10-1 in 2020 and have responded by not only reaching the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals, but doing it as a team that earned the No. 4 seed during its regular season. This is not a team that sneaked into field and got hot for three games: the Braves have done the work from day one and when they were dealt the target of being a No. 4 seed, they embraced it and fought their way past two very capable opponents in Ocean and Marlboro. On top of all that, they entered the SCT 0-2-2 and their golden-goal win over Marlboro Saturday ended a streak of five straight games without a straight-up win.

While it is also worth mentioning that Manalapan’s lone tie in 2020 was at CBA, this is a different Colts team from the one that went 13-0-1 in 2020. The strength of last year’s CBA team was its midfield and back line, while this year’s team has scary speed and even some size up front, with Cupo emerging as the Shore’s most dangerous striker. Manalapan’s 2020 strategy to sell-out to keep CBA off the board might not work as well this season given CBA is a better scoring team than it was a year ago. Middletown South tried that in 2021 and did keep the game close, but CBA got its goal in a 1-0 win.

Expect Manalapan to make this a defensive, physical game while working toward set pieces. That strategy has not worked as well against CBA this year as in past year’s because of the Colts’ size, but it is still an area in which Manalapan is comfortable and it would take CBA out of its game somewhat. It also underscores why this CBA team is so dangerous: the Colts are starting to play the soccer they want to and on top of that, they operate well in a game heavy on restarts. There are a lot of different ways for them to win and it’s a good bet they find one of them on Tuesday.

The Pick: CBA, 3-0

 

Quarterfinal Picks Record: 3-1

2021 SCT Picks Record: 16-7