Boys Soccer – Final Shore Sports Network Shore 16: CBA, Howell Set Standard Again in 2023
The 2023 season marked the debut of the Shore Sports Network Shore 16 and it was indeed a fitting year to expand the Shore Conference rankings. The new format for the Shore Conference Tournament created more unique matchups throughout the year, which showcased how balanced the conference was throughout its ranks. All but three teams to finish the season ranked lost to a team that was either ranked below them in the rankings or not ranked at all.
Through it all, Christian Brothers Academy and Howell finished as the top two teams in the Shore Conference for the second straight year and there is not much of a case to argue on behalf of any other team for one of those spots. After that, however, the debate will rage on all the way until next fall. Just about every team both has an argument to be ranked higher while at the same time they could be subject to an argument for a worse ranking.
With the Shore Conference divisions set to be realigned based on performance going forward, coupled with the new Shore Conference Tournament format returning, these parity-filled seasons of Shore Conference soccer are likely to be the norm. With that will come some end-of-season rankings that are almost impossible to get right. Here is the best we could figure it for 2023.
1. Christian Brothers Academy (17-3-2, 5-1-0) Preseason Rank: 1
For the fourth straight year, CBA finishes as the No. 1 team in the Shore Sports Network rankings and for the third straight year, the Colts were a wire-to-wire No. 1. This was a unique year even by CBA standards, with the Colts winning a third straight Shore Conference Tournament championship for the first time in program history. For the second straight year, only one Shore Conference team beat CBA and the Colts’ trip to the Non-Public A championship game was their eighth in the last nine contested state tournaments. The Colts will have to replace nine starters next season and while CBA always reloads, their three-plus-year run at No. 1 could potentially come to an end in the 2024 preseason rankings.
2. Howell (13-3-2, 4-1-1) Preseason Rank: 8
After graduating four All-Shore selections from last year’s Shore Conference Tournament runner-up, Howell leaned on its loaded junior class to essentially run it back this season. For the second straight year, Howell won the Shore Conference Class A North public division championship and reached the SCT final. The Rebels also took another step toward winning a long-awaited sectional title by reaching the Central Jersey Group IV final for the second time in the last three seasons. Five senior starters are set to graduate in the spring, but there are eight juniors who started at least one game this season who are due back as seniors in 2024, when Howell will be set up for a memorable season.
3. Toms River North (15-4, 6-1) Preseason Rank: 4
Two years after graduating 10 of 11 starters from a team that had just won an NJSIAA sectional championship for a third straight season, Toms River North returned to the South Group IV final this fall after winning the outright Class A South championship for the second time in three years. The Mariners’ only losses within the Shore this season were vs. CBA, Howell and Southern – all of which were games decided by a single goal. Toms River North will say goodbye to a very strong senior core, but will have plenty of holdover talent, as well as more coming into the program.
4. Holmdel (16-3-1, 5-1-0) Preseason Rank: 2
The 2023 season was a roller-coaster ride for Holmdel – not because the Hornets lost more often than is normal for them but because when they did lose, it was consequential. Holmdel’s three losses were a 2-1 loss to Central that knocked the Hornets out of the Shore Conference Tournament, an overtime loss to Rumson-Fair Haven that cost them the Class A Central championship and a 4-2 loss to Delran in the Group II semifinal. For those keeping track, that is one loss in each month of the season, which should be considered a point of pride. Ultimately, it was another successful season for Holmdel, which won a second straight NJSIAA Central Group II title and a ninth sectional title in the last 18 years. Holmdel is graduating several impact seniors and its hopes of another title chase next year likely rest with talented junior Stepan Kapranov and whether or not he chooses to play high-school soccer in 2024.
5. Middletown North (12-6, 3-3) Preseason Rank: 7
Middletown North brought back most of its upstart 2022 squad and was a more consistent team from start-to-finish in 2023. The Lions missed out a chance to win the public division title in Class A North with a loss to six-win Freehold Township, but its other four losses within the Shore Conference came against the top three teams in the rankings: Toms River North, Howell and CBA twice. The result was a second straight trip to the SCT semifinals – a first in the history of the boys soccer program at Middletown North. The Lions will have much more graduation losses to overcome next season, but the return of top scorer Josiah Stepney should keep them in the mix of contenders.
6. Southern (10-4-3, 5-1-1) Preseason Rank: 11
Over the course of the 2023 season, Southern showed it could play with any team on its schedule. The Rams beat Toms River North and Manalapan on the road and nearly pulled off a big upset in the South Jersey Group IV quarterfinals at Washington Township, which survived a 0-0 draw with Southern via penalty kicks. With several core players in Southern’s starting lineup due back in 2024, the Rams will be among the short list of SCT championship contenders and a dark-horse pick to win a South Jersey Group IV championship heading into next fall.
7. Middletown South (9-6-2, 3-3-0) Preseason Rank: 12
The biggest regular-season win of the 2023 Shore Conference season belonged to Middletown South, which handed CBA its first loss to a team from New Jersey in over a year. The Eagles advanced in both the SCT and Central Jersey Group III Tournaments and their 9-6-2 finish marked Middletown South’s first winning season since 2019. Although Middletown South will have to deal with some graduation losses, the Eagles will ride the momentum of this year, plus a number of key returning contributors, into 2024.
8. Central (10-5-2, 4-2-1) Preseason Rank: Not ranked
The Golden Eagles continue to make progress as a program and this season was their best in seven years. Central finished third place in a competitive Class A South division, went 1-0-1 vs. a tough Toms River East side (the tie ended with a loss on penalty kicks), and stunned No. 4 Holmdel in a Shore Conference Tournament group-play game in which both teams knew a spot in the knockout round was at stake. There are a handful of impact seniors leaving, but Central is set-up well to continue competing for the top spot in Class A South.
9. Rumson-Fair Haven (12-4-1, 6-0-0) Preseason Rank: 15
The Class A Central champions overcame the return of only three starters from a year ago and showed, once again, that Rumson always reloads. The Bulldogs beat out a star-studded Holmdel team for the Class A Central championship thanks to a memorable overtime win over the Hornets in early October. Rumson also beat Group I champion Shore Regional early in the season as its next-best win. Rumson is set up for an even bigger season next year, especially if 2022 All-Shore attacker Ronan Hogg returns for his senior year after opting to play academy soccer this past fall.
10. St. Rose (12-3-4, 5-0-2) Preseason Rank: Not ranked
For the first time in more than a decade, St. Rose finishes the season as a top 10 team in the Shore Conference. Strangely enough, St. Rose did not win the Class B Central division, but the Purple Roses did rack up results against quality opponents, with a win over Manasquan and ties vs. Toms River East and Long Branch.
11. Toms River East (7-6-5, 3-3-1) Preseason Rank: Not ranked
Once the Raiders got rolling, they were a tough out during tournament time. Toms River East knocked out Central and Colts Neck to get to the Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinals, played Marlboro to two different draws and also picked up a draw vs. St. Rose. The Raiders boasted a mix of juniors and seniors, so next season should have more success in store for Toms River East.
12. Colts Neck (10-5, 5-1) Preseason Rank: 6
With 65 goals in 15 games, Colts Neck was the highest-scoring team in the Shore Conference this past season and that was with a team that started only two seniors. Keeping opponents out of their own goal was a problem for the Cougars throughout the season: in both tournament losses, they gave up five goals. If Colts Neck can shore up its defense in 2024, the Cougars will be one of the Shore’s most dangerous sides.
13. Manasquan (12-7-1, 5-1-0) Preseason Rank: 10
If not for a midseason slump, Manasquan would likely have found its way into the final top 10. The Warriors fought their way to a first-place tie in the Class B North division race with Colts Neck and picked up noteworthy wins over Long Branch and Shore. Two heartbreaking losses to Holmdel were a missed chance both to climb in the rankings and win a first ever sectional title – which Manasquan will pursue again next season with only three starters graduating.
14. Shore (17-7, 4-2) Preseason Rank: 16
Shore’s move to Group I last season led to a Blue Devils sectional championship for the first time since 2014. One year later, the Blue Devils finished the job by winning the program’s first ever group championship. Shore allowed one goal in six state-tournament games – a strong finished to a season that saw the Blue Devils lose to six Shore Conference opponents that were all ranked. With four seniors graduating, Shore is in good shape to make a bid for a repeat.
15. Ocean (8-6-3, 4-2-0) Last Week: 13
Rising to the occasion in big games is part of being a ranked team and Ocean had a habit of coming up large in big moments. The Spartans beat Long Branch on opening day, won their Shore Conference Tournament group by beating Middletown South and tying Rumson-Fair Haven, and advancing one round in both the Shore Conference Tournament and NJSIAA Tournaments. The Spartans are set to return a number of standout juniors in hopes of climbing the rankings in 2024.
16. Long Branch (12-5-2, 4-2-0) Preseason Rank: 9
Long Branch was again one of the top power-point earners in the Shore Conference, buoyed by wins over Rumson-Fair Haven, Colts Neck and North Hunterdon. Both of Long Branch’s postseason eliminations were crushing in their nature – a shootout loss to Marlboro in the SCT and an overtime loss to Old Bridge in the Central Group IV Tournament. A move into Class A North next season will be a challenge for a Green Wave team losing a top scorer in Chris Lopez.
Jackson Memorial (8-8-4, 4-3-0) Preseason: Not ranked – After a slow start, Jackson Memorial finished the season 7-3-3 and two of the three losses were against the No. 3 (CBA) and No. 4 team (Princeton) in the state.
Marlboro (7-4-5, 2-3-1) Last Week: 16 – The Mustangs tied a number of ranked teams (Howell, Toms River East, Long Branch, Jackson Memorial) and took CBA to the wire in both losses to the Colts, but did not finish with any wins over ranked opponents.
Manalapan (9-7-1, 2-4-0) Preseason Rank: 5 – Like Marlboro, Manalapan’s losses were to exclusively good teams and even had some ranked victories (Middletown South, St. Rose, Long Branch). The Braves end the season part of a long list of teams with a fair case to fall somewhere in the Shore Top 16.
Wall (10-9, 2-4) Preseason: 14 – It took Wall about seven games to get rolling, at which point the Crimson Knights went 7-5 to close out the season, with all five losses coming to ranked teams. Wall also scored rivalry wins over St. Rose and Manasquan.
St. John Vianney (10-5-2, 6-0-1) Preseason: Not ranked – The Lancers’ schedule wasn’t quite Top 16 caliber, but they won the Class B Central title and finished the year with a tough, 1-0 loss at St. Peter’s Prep. With most of the team coming back, it will be hard to keep St. John Vianney out of the rankings in 2024.