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The 2020 season was a welcome return to high-school sports for so many athletes, but it left a lot to be desired relative to complete soccer seasons in New Jersey. This year was pretty much a complete return to normalcy for most of the state, at least when it comes to the schedule and competitive nature of the season.

During the last two seasons, Christian Brothers Academy showed that whether it’s a short season or a full one, it remains the standard for Shore Conference soccer. The Colts opened the season as the top-ranked team in the area, played a schedule that included most of the top teams in the Shore Conference and were almost perfect all the way up to the NJSIAA Non-Public A Final.

Along with CBA, there were two other teams that emerged to the top tier of the conference and battled it out throughout the season for the No. 2 spot. The words “throughout the season” are important given that there were three separate matchups to use to figure out who should be the No. 2 team. Once No. 2 is settled, No. 3 is a no-brainer.

Beyond No. 3, there are a lot of different directions to go. The regular season matters, but the postseason results have to carry weight as well, so trying to prioritize teams 4 through 10 is awfully difficult. With that being said, the 10 teams that appear in the final Top 10 are fairly clear-cut, so the only subjectivity in choosing the Top 10 is how to order the teams that are in it and not so much choosing the 10 teams.

For the final time in 2021, let’s get to it.

Photo by Matt Manley
Photo by Matt Manley
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1. Christian Brothers Academy (20-2, 7-0) Preseason Rank: 1

The Colts were the wire-to-wire No. 1 and finish as the Shore’s top team for the second consecutive season. After going unbeaten in the shortened 2020 season, CBA lost just twice all year – once to LaSalle (Pa.), 4-3, on a goal with one second left and later to Seton Hall Prep in the NJSIAA Non-Public A championship. After the deflating loss in Pennsylvania, CBA ripped off 18 wins in a row, which included winning the Shore Conference Tournament in dominant fashion and the South Jersey Non-Public A title in wild fashion. The Colts did not concede a goal in four SCT wins and in the state playoffs, needed overtime to beat St. Augustine in the sectional final and held off Notre Dame, 5-4, to win the program’s sixth sectional title in seven years. The winning streak ended at the hands of the state’s No. 1 team, with CBA once making its case as one of the state’s top five teams during a 20-win campaign in 2021.

2. Toms River North (15-2-3, 7-0) Preseason Rank: 2

Toms River North’s season ended in heartbreak, with the Mariners going on the road to Freehold Township and playing the Patriots to a scoreless draw in the NJSIAA Group IV semifinal, only to fall on penalty kicks one game shy of the Group IV final. Despite the bitter ending, Toms River North enjoyed another outstanding season in 2021, winning an NJSIAA sectional championship for a third consecutive season with a senior core that was instrumental in all three victories. The Mariners also handled Freehold Township, 4-1, in the second of three meetings (both of the others were 0-0 draws) to reach the Shore Conference Tournament championship game for the first time since 2010. Only one team managed to beat Toms River North straight up and that was CBA – once during the regular season and again in the SCT final. Excluding the seven goals CBA scored in those two matches, Toms River North conceded just five times during the entire 2021 campaign. Most off the team will graduate but those seniors have left behind a championship culture for the returning Toms River North players to run with.

Robert Badders/Townsquare Media NJ
Robert Badders/Townsquare Media NJ
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3. Freehold Township (17-4-2, 6-1) Preseason Rank: 4

The past season was a historic one for Freehold Township, which both kept doing what it has been doing for the last 18 years as the Shore’s most consistent winner while also venturing into a part of the season not seen in nearly 40 years. The Patriots extended their active Shore Conference record with their 18th straight season qualifying for the Shore Conference Tournament and rode their SCT berth all the way to the semifinal round. In the state tournament, Freehold Township rolled to their first Central Jersey Group IV title in six years and when they outlasted Toms River North on penalties in the Group IV semifinal, the Patriots made it to the Group IV final for the first time since 1982. All four of Freehold Township’s losses this season (CBA, Elizabeth, Toms River North and Kearny) were to teams ranked in the state top 20.

4. Manalapan (8-4-6, 4-2-1) Preseason Rank: Not ranked

While Manalapan was not emphatic in taking the No. 4 spot in the Shore this season – the Braves owned a modest 20-17 goal-differential – they checked more boxes than any other team vying for this spot, particularly in the head-to-head category. Manalapan’s only losses within the Shore Conference were twice vs. CBA and once to Freehold Township on opening day, which meant the Braves scored straight-up wins over Long Branch and Howell and two against Marlboro. The marks against Manalapan are a few shaky ties and a first-round exit on penalties in the NJSIAA Tournament, but finishing third place in a loaded Class A North division, a trip to the final four of the Shore Conference Tournament plus all their head-to-head work all give the Braves a No. 4 finish one year after going 0-10-1.

5. Long Branch (12-6-2, 3-4) Preseason Rank: 8

Long Branch did look the part of a top-five ranked team for a lot of 2021, although a 3-4 record within Class A North made the Green Wave’s status somewhat uncertain at times. On the plus side, Long Branch did not have any slip-ups against lesser competition, save for maybe a tied at Lakewood close to the Shore Conference Tournament. A bonus Long Branch notched that Manalapan did not was a deep run in the NJSIAA Tournament, which ended for the Green Wave in the Central Jersey Group III final at Hopewell Valley.

6. Howell (11-7-1, 2-5) Preseason Rank: Not ranked

If this ranking were simply which team looks like the fourth-best team at the Shore as the season concludes, Howell would probably have the best case. The Rebels started 2-5, closed the season on a 9-2-1 surge, reached the Central Jersey Group IV final for the first time in 14 years and all seven of their losses were by one-goal margins to ranked teams from Class A North. Howell’s run to the sectional final included a convincing 3-0 win at Marlboro and the Rebels lost two tournament games – one in the SCT and the other in the CJ IV final – at Freehold Township in 1-0 games.

7. Marlboro (7-7-2, 4-3) Preseason Rank: Not ranked

Like Howell, Marlboro fell victim to a wave of close losses, including four by one goal. The Mustangs also swallowed a 3-1 defeat vs. CBA that was tied heading into the final five minutes of regulation and lost, 2-0, at Toms River North as the second game of a back-to-back with the second goal scoring on an own goal. The big results for Marlboro when it comes to staying in the Top 10 were a win at Rumson-Fair Haven, a penalty shootout win over Monmouth in the SCT and division wins over Howell and Long Branch. It might look odd to see a team with a .500 record sitting in the No. 7 spot in the Shore Conference, but a lot of that has to do with a stacked schedule and some high-value wins over the course of the season.

Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com
Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com
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8. Rumson-Fair Haven (11-6-3, 5-0-1) Preseason Rank: 10

There are two goals at the top of the white board going into the season for Rumson-Fair Haven and any Shore Conference team from Group II: win the division and win a sectional championship. The Bulldogs not only did both, but they won a highly-competitive Class A Central division without losing a divisional match and then went on to win the program’s first ever sectional title. In the Central Jersey Group II championship, Rumson beat Holmdel for a second time in 2021 and did so with a golden goal by junior Alec Pentikis to clinch the first Central Jersey Group II title for the program. A head-to-head loss to Marlboro and the general strong performance by Class A North as a division keeps Rumson in the second half of the Top 10, but the Bulldogs made huge strides as a program and are set up to again be in the mix for every title in 2022.

9. Holmdel (11-5-1, 4-2) Preseason Rank: Not ranked

This season was a test of Holmdel’s staying power as a Top 10 team and the Hornets passed the test. The 2021 squad had very little experience from a year ago and yet, Holmdel picked up big wins over Ocean and Monmouth during the regular season, Lacey in the Shore Conference Tournament, and a shootout win over Wall in the NJSIAA Tournament as part of a run to the Central Jersey Group II championship game. The Hornets could not figure out Rumson in two meetings – the second of which was an overtime loss in the Central Group II final – and lost a competitive game vs. Freehold Township in the Shore Conference Tournament, but there was more than enough good to slide Holmdel into a Top 10 spot to close the year.

10. Wall (10-4-3, 4-1-2) Preseason Rank: 3

Coming off a 17-0 2020 season, Wall had a lot to live up to in 2021. The Crimson Knights hit a big of a mid-season rut before hitting their stride in October following an ugly 5-1 loss to Rumson-Fair Haven. Wall later paid the Bulldogs back by beating them, 3-0, in the Shore Conference Tournament round of 16. Wall played Freehold Township tough just before the start of the postseason to help get the Knights on the right track and held Holmdel scoreless in the Central Group II quarterfinals before falling on penalty kicks. It was not the decorated season that 2020 was, but Wall fought its way into the Top 10 with some tough competition breathing down its neck.

 

Honorable Mention

Lacey (15-2-1, 7-0) – The Lions entered the postseason undefeated after winning their first Class B South title since 2011, but a first-round exit in the NJSIAA South Group III Playoffs kept the Lions out of the final Top 10.

Monmouth (10-5-6, 4-2) – It was a strong-but frustrating season for Monmouth, which not only battled injuries and absence of key players all year but was eliminated from both the Shore Conference and Central Group II Tournaments on penalties after advancing one round.

Ocean (13-6-2, 3-3) – The Spartans lost junior defender Dan Abrams to a knee injury and were never the same defensively. A more stable defense would have made Ocean very dangerous considering the ease with which the Spartans often scored.

Toms River South (10-6-2, 2-4-1) – Although they had a rough time in Class A South divisional play, the Indians got going at the end of the year and won the first ever Shore Conference Coaches’ Cup Tournament before winning two games as a No. 11 seed in the NJSIAA South Group III Playoffs.

Shore (11-5-2, 2-3-1) – After a couple of down seasons, the Blue Devils turned the corner with a young group that was buoyed by a few strong senior defenders. With a lot of scoring coming back from a team that hung tough with and beat some quality competition, Shore will be a team to watch in 2022.

Pinelands (12-6, 6-1) – For the first time since 2016, Pinelands fell short of winning a share of the Class B South title, but the 2022 campaign was a good one for a program that had to replace an First-Team-All-Shore player from 2020 and lost a starting center midfielder to injury early this fall.

Neptune (10-6-1, 5-2) – Like Pinelands, Neptune lost an All-Shore center midfielder, but the Scarlet Fliers responded by leaning on a dynamic young core that carried them to a share of a Class B North division title.

St. John Vianney (8-6-2, 3-2-2) – Led by one of the Shore’s top scorers in Johnny Troiano, St. John Vianney took a big step forward in 2021, which included wins over Colts Neck and Holmdel, a draw vs. Wall and a winning record for the first time since 2014.

Toms River East (10-6-1, 5-2) – The Raiders finished second in the Class A South standings and scored a pair of noteworthy out-of-division wins over Pinelands and Marlboro, but the postseason did not treat the Raiders kindly (first-round exits in both the Shore Conference and NJSIAA Group III Tournaments).

Ranney (11-5-1, 4-2) – Ranney lost a close game to St. Rose in the regular season to let a share of the Class B Central division title slip away, but responded by beating the Purple Roses in the NJSIAA South Jersey Non-Public B semifinals to reach the sectional final round for the first time in program history.

St. Rose (9-8-1, 6-0) – The Purple Roses deserve a shoutout for winning the Class B Central division championship while also representing the division well with a first-round road win in the Shore Conference Tournament, which came at Toms River East.