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A year ago, the Shore Conference had a major contender in both the Central and South Jersey Group IV brackets and as it turned out, both teams -- Freehold Township and Toms River North -- made it through and faced each other in the NJSIAA Group semifinals, with Freehold Township emerging on penalties.

It marked the first time a Shore Conference team from Group IV had reached the state final round since 2009 and this year's batch of Shore teams is hoping there will be only a one-year wait between finalists this time around. A number of Group IV sides will be in the running in both Central and South Jersey, with both brackets appearing to be relative free-for-alls.

Below is a look at the Central Jersey and South Jersey Group IV brackets, with a slant toward the Shore teams in each.

Central Jersey Group IV

Shore Teams in the Field: No. 1 Howell, No. 3 Freehold Twp., No. 6 Marlboro, No. 7 Long Branch, No. 11 Jackson Memorial, No. 12 Manalapan
Top Seed: Howell
Defending Champion: Freehold Twp.
2022 Favorite: Howell. The Rebels proved their legitimacy by making it to the Shore Conference Tournament final and those credentials are as strong as any in the CJ IV field. Old Bridge and Monroe will be tough outs on the same side of the bracket and Freehold Township is sure to put up a fight in defending its title. Throw in the nature of the game and Howell will still have to get some breaks, but the Rebels are as equipped to make the run as any team.
Darkhorse: No. 15 South Brunswick. Sayreville is a vulnerable No. 2 seed and that could be to South Brunswick’s advantage. The Vikings would have their work cut out for them in the second round against either Long Branch or East Brunswick but if they can get rolling against the second-seeded Bombers, that could be the spark that ignites a championship run. Manalapan could also be a threat at No. 13, but will have to deal with Old Bridge in the opening round.
Bracket Breakdown: There will be a heavy Shore presence in the Central Group IV bracket and just like last season, there could be two teams in the championship game. It could even be both a rematch of last season, with Howell and Freehold Township high seeds on opposite sides of the bracket. There are some spoilers, however: In addition to Old Bridge, Monroe and Manalapan on one side, there is Marlboro, Long Branch and East Brunswick on the other. Marlboro has already shown it can beat the likes of Howell and CBA, so the Mustangs should be considered especially dangerous.
Championship Prediction: No. 3 Freehold Twp. over No. 5 Old Bridge. Freehold Township got a relatively good draw, although there is no outright easy draw in Group IV. The Patriots could be looking at some combination of Marlboro, Long Branch, Jackson Memorial, East Brunswick, South Brunswick or Sayreville, but outside of the second-seeded Bombers, any of those games would be at home. Howell’s road might be a little tougher and a clash with Old Bridge could be what decides the sectional title.

Freehold Township senior Noah Jones marked by Howell senior R.J. Eckelman (11). (Photo: Tom Smith |
Freehold Township senior Noah Jones marked by Howell senior R.J. Eckelman (11). (Photo: Tom Smith |

South Jersey Group IV

Shore Teams in the Field: No. 6 Toms River North, No. 9 Southern, No. 11 Toms River East, No. 13 Central
Top Seed: Rancocas Valley
Defending Champion: Toms River North
2022 Favorite: No. 2 Cherokee. At the risk of writing off three-time sectional champion Toms River North, Cherokee is positioned for a return to the top of South Jersey Group IV. The Chiefs have a win over Rancocas Valley and bounced from a penalty-kicks loss to West Deptford by hammering both Seneca and Lenape. The foil for Cherokee is a side of the bracket that includes Washington Township and Toms River North, as well as potential sleepers Toms River East, No. 7 Cherry Hill East and No. 10 Eastern.
Darkhorse: Southern. The top-half of the bracket looks more conducive to a surprise run and Southern has had the look of a team that can pull it off. The Rams are 8-2 since starting the season 0-3 with a recent win over defending Central Group IV champion Freehold Township and an overtime loss to Shore Conference Tournament champion CBA. The Shore has two more dangerous double-digit seeds in Toms River East – which already beat first-round opponent Toms River North in a tournament setting – and Central. If Southern is not the sleeper to take advantage of the top half of the bracket, Central could step in and fill that role.
Bracket Breakdown: Toms River North will put its state tournament mojo to the test with a team that is entirely different from the one that won a third straight sectional title in 2021. The Mariners got a good collection of tests right before the tournament in Holmdel, Manasquan and Allentown and will see how that serves them against rival Toms River East and, perhaps, further down the line in the tournament. There is not a dominant team in the field, so while Rancocas Valley, Cherokee, Washington and No. 4 Egg Harbor appear to have an edge, there is room for a surprise.
Championship Prediction: No. 2 Cherokee over No. 5 Kingsway. A rematch of last year’s sectional semifinal, Kingsway would be looking to avenge a 2-0 loss to the Chiefs should this final come to pass. The Dragons have road wins over No. 3 Washington and No. 4 Egg Harbor during the course of the season, so they should be a team to watch. Ultimately, Cherokee looks primed to finish the job after falling to Toms River North in the 2021 sectional final on penalties – perhaps even going through Toms River North to get to the final.


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