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The most unusual, unpredictable boys soccer season in recent memory is over and now it’s time to sort through what went down at the Shore. In a normal season, the Shore Conference Tournament would serve as a proving ground for the area’s top teams and the state tournament would offer some further clarity that the SCT could not. Over the past two seasons, the regular season even provided some big divisional crossover games once the Shore Conference reduced the number of divisional games each team played.

This year, however, the schedule was heavy on divisional games, almost completely void on inter-divisional matches and without a Shore Conference Tournament to find out which team at the Shore was best. That leaves many questions unanswered as it pertains to the Final Top 10. The state tournament cleared up a few debates – the Group IV and III brackets gave Toms River North, Southern, Toms River East and others a chance so show off the strength of Class A South. Manchester also authored a Cinderella run to its first sectional title, but with a fourth-place finish in Class B South, was it enough to land a spot in the rankings?

One of the final conclusions we could draw from this year – one that looked like a possibility heading into the season – is that Ocean County’s teams closed the gap considerably between themselves and their counterparts from Monmouth County. Last season ended with two teams from Ocean ranked in the Top 10 after none made it to the SCT final four and this year, there will be four teams from Ocean in the Final Top 10 with the top two teams from A South making a reasonable case to be No. 1.

There aren’t many definitive statements to make about the 2020 season of boys soccer at the Shore, other than it was different.

 

1. Christian Brothers Academy (13-0-1, 9-0-1) Preseason: 4

CBA’s season started with a two-week quarantine and the Colts played their opener with one day of practice coming off that hiatus. The late start did not damage CBA’s performance, as the Colts won their first 10 matches and throttled a host of teams that spent time in the Top 10 during the season: Freehold Township (twice), Long Branch, Holmdel and Rumson-Fair Haven, as well as the always competitive Class A North slate. CBA gave up only four goals all year, making the Colts the stingiest defensive team in the conference. The ending was somewhat anti-climactic, with the Colts winning a Non-Public section that was more watered down than usual due to regional limitations. A draw against winless Manalapan in the final week of the regular season put the top spot up for debate once again, but with some convincing results against a number of quality opponents, CBA had the best overall résumé in 2020.

CBA senior Shane Borenius (26) and Freehold Township's Shane O'Malley (11) and J.T. Gold (6). (Photo by Paula Lopez)

2. Wall (17-0, 14-0) Preseason: 7

There is not much more Wall could have done to climb to the No. 1 spot and for doing everything asked of them, the Crimson Knights finish No. 2. The Class B North schedule did not offer Wall any serious threats to their unbeaten mark until the final three regular-season games, which included an overtime win over Matawan and two 2-1 victories over a dangerous Colts Neck side. Those Colts Neck wins set up the possibility for Wall to finish in the top-two and while the state tournament was not a walk in the park against three Class A South programs – Toms River South, Brick, Toms River East – the Crimson Knights won three hard-fought matches and earned their spot as 2020’s top public school. They will enter 2021 with the Shore’s longest unbeaten streak, which stands at 23 straight matches.

Wall celebrates a win over Colts Neck. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

3. Toms River North (15-1-1, 12-1-1) Preseason: 3

Toms River North made an awfully compelling case to be the No. 2 team and if not for a bounce of the ball here or there, the Mariners might have given CBA are serious run at No. 1. For the first 12 games of the season, Toms River North was a force, winning all but one of its matches by multiple-goal margins. Then, the Mariners ran into Southern and came up excruciatingly short in both regular-season matches – one a 4-3 overtime loss and the other a 3-3 draw. After impressive state-tournament wins over Jackson Memorial and Freehold Township, Toms River North finally solved Southern, beating the Rams, 3-2, in a dramatic overtime game in the sectional final round. One of the Shore’s most dynamic teams on the attack, Toms River North joins Wall as a back-to-back sectional champion and joins the Crimson Knights as the top two Shore public schools in 2020.

Photo by Matt Manley

4. Southern (14-2-1, 12-1-1) Preseason: 2

Like Toms River North, Southern’s bid for the No. 1 ranking at the Shore fell through thanks to two tough-to-swallow losses. In the Rams’ case, the first loss was to a team outside the Top 10, with Brick shocking Southern, 3-2, in a game Southern outshot the Green Dragons, 19-5. From there, Southern did not lose again until Toms River North broke the Rams’ hearts with a 79th-minute equalizer and 81st-minute golden goal in the championship game. Despite the ending, Southern turned in arguably its best season ever for the program, finishing first place in Class A South for the first time since 1989 and making it to the sectional final round for the first time ever. Now, the Rams can add No. 4 at the Shore to their final draft of their 2020 résumé.

Southern senior Brandon Notte shadowed by Toms River North senior Ali Baish. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

5. Holmdel (12-1-1, 11-0-1) Preseason: Not ranked

Most teams don’t end their season with a state championship victory and in that sense, the 2020 Holmdel squad is not especially unique. Unfortunately for the Hornets, the reason they did not win a sectional championship was not because they got beat on the pitch. A COVID-19 breakout just before the quarterfinal round of the NJSIAA Tournament forced Holmdel to withdraw from the state playoffs, ending another strong season and stopping a potential title run before it could begin. Holmdel’s body of work includes an unofficial Class A Central championship, which the Hornets claimed for the fourth straight year by going unbeaten in the division. As much as what Holmdel won defines its season, what it lost made 2020 even more impressive for the Hornets. Coach Ron Poll resigned just days before the season-opener and standout goalkeeper Tommy Chyzowych went down for the season with a knee injury three weeks in. Holmdel lost its 65-game unbeaten streak in its final game but the Hornets went down swinging. Streak be damned, they picked up a late game against No. 1 CBA and got themselves properly tuned up for the postseason – one the Hornets, unfortunately, would not get to play.

Holmdel senior Connor Hinds (right) marked by Rumson senior Dylan Haley. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

6. Freehold Township (11-4-1, 11-3-0) Preseason: 1

Life as the preseason No. 1 team at the Shore is not easy, which Freehold Township learned right out of the gate with hard-earned wins over Middletown North and Manalapan to open the season. The Patriots ran into CBA at the wrong time and dropped both games to the Colts before losing to Long Branch to run the losing streak to three. Freehold Township, however, discovered something in the second half of the Long Branch loss and turned things around for the remainder of the season. They beat Long Branch, 3-0, in the rematch to kick off a run of seven straight wins, advanced past Howell in penalties to open their state tournament run and showed a fighting spirit in a 3-2 loss at Toms River North, during which the Patriots nearly erased a 3-0 deficit.

Freehold Township senior Adam Havens. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

7. Long Branch (12-3, 11-2) Preseason: 5

The Green Wave showed a lot of growth as a team this season, which was a follow-up to a breakthrough 2019. Last year, Long Branch beat CBA early in the year, then caught fire at the end of the year by beating three quality opponents during the Central Jersey Group IV Tournament. Those results ran counter to some ugly losses that blemished their final résumé and this year, the Green Wave showed that it could both win big games and take care of the teams below them in the table – no easy task in Class A North. Long Branch’s three losses came at CBA, at Freehold Township and at Southern – three top-six teams and all on the road. The Wave also picked up a dramatic win over Freehold Township and ran the table on its home field to lay the foundation for its 12-win campaign.

8. Colts Neck (15-2, 12-2) Preseason: 6

The nature of the 2020 schedule prevented the usual opportunity to play games outside of one’s division and also wiped out the Shore Conference Tournament. No team was hurt more by that reality than Colts Neck. The Cougars essentially had two chances to make a statement this season and lost both by a scored of 2-1 to Class B North rival Wall. Colts Neck eviscerated every other opponent and led the conference in goals scored (75), with a late win over Matawan in the sectional final round the only Cougars win that was remotely close in the second half. This year’s team will depart wondering what it could have done in an SCT or a more complete NJSIAA bracket, but it will also leave with the program’s first sectional title since 2000 as consolation.

9. Toms River East (7-8-2, 5-7-1) Preseason: Not ranked

This is where the chaos truly begins. Heading into this week, Rumson-Fair Haven and Raritan appeared to have a fairly firm grip on the final two Top 10 spots, with teams like Brick, Neptune, Pinelands and Jackson Memorial hoping to enter the conversation with a big win or two. Instead, it was Toms River East that stated its case with what was likely the best postseason run by a Shore team that did not win a sectional title. The Raiders beat a quality Allentown side to kick off their run, rolled through Lacey on the road, then knocked off Pinelands on penalty kicks to reach the sectional final. Despite coming up short, Toms River East gave Wall all it could handle and it took a penalty kick in the 76th to deny the Raiders a chance to win in overtime. The losing record looks off for a team in the final Top 10, but Toms River East did not get a chance to play its second game against winless Central due to Central’s issues with COVID-19 in the final days of the season. During the A South season, Toms River East scored wins over Brick, Toms River South and Jackson Memorial to beef up their final 2020 résumé.

10. Pinelands (12-1-2, 11-1-1) Preseason: Not ranked

The No. 10 spot is the hardest call to make most years and this year is as hard as it has ever been. There are at least five other teams (Jackson Memorial, Brick, Manchester, Raritan and Rumson-Fair Haven) with a real case to be in this spot, but it is Pinelands that sneaks into the final Top 10. The Wildcats did not quite finish their division schedule, but played enough to clinch no worse than an unofficial co-championship – the fourth straight division title for the program. They had a pair of head-scratching results with a loss to two-win Point Boro and draw against winless Barnegat, but also beat both Lacey and Manchester twice and added a dramatic playoff win over a surging Neptune squad. The Pinelands players should chip in for a few gift baskets to send to Manchester, whose team raised Class B South’s profile by going 6-0 outside of the division with a regular-season win over Middletown North and a sectional championship run that included playoff wins over Raritan and Monmouth.

 

Just Missed

Jackson Memorial (6-7-1, 5-6-1) – After starting 0-6-1, Jackson Memorial turned its season around with six straight wins. The Jaguars also took a two-goal lead on Southern each time the two played, only to come up short.

Brick (9-8, 7-7) – The Green Dragons posted a winning record for the first time in 12 years, which included a big win over No. 4 Southern.

Manchester (10-5-2, 4-5-2) – Although they struggled within the Class B South division, the Hawks were a perfect 6-0 outside of it, which included the program’s first ever sectional championship.

Raritan (8-4-2, 7-3-2) – A thrilling overtime win over Rumson-Fair Haven to kick off the state tournament appeared to put Raritan in position for a championship season, but the Rockets were denied by Manchester on a last-minute goal in the sectional semifinals.

Rumson-Fair Haven (7-5-2, 7-2-2) – The Bulldogs were playing like a dominant side heading into the postseason but got tripped up by Raritan after beating the Rockets, 4-1, to close out the regular season. Rumson did an admirable job picking up games to play – one at CBA and the other vs. Group IV Old Bridge.

Neptune (8-8, 7-7) – A seven-game winning streak catapulted Neptune into the sectional quarterfinal round and the Scarlet Fliers were literally one second from penalty kicks at Pinelands when Johnny Hart scored a buzzer-beating golden goal to end the streak and send Neptune home.

St. Rose (11-3, 9-0) – Although they did not play enough games to claim an unofficial Class B Central title, the Purple Roses beat every team in the division, including Ranney in a 3-0 shutout in the sectional semifinal round. St. Rose’s losses were all to quality non-public programs: St. Peter’s Prep, St. Joseph Metuchen and CBA.

Lacey (11-3-1, 11-2-1) – Lacey lost two heartbreakers to Pinelands in the middle of the season and those turned out to be the difference between finishing first and second in the division table and perhaps even finishing ranked in the Top 10.