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Update, Friday, Nov. 13, 10:20 p.m.: Middletown South has withdrawn from the tournament, giving Manalapan a bye into the quarterfinals. This post has been edited to reflect the change.

Group IV

Central East – South

Opening Pairings

(9) Jackson Memorial at (8) Marlboro, winner at (1) Toms River North

(5) Howell at (4) Freehold Twp.

(6) Brick Memorial at (3) Long Branch

(10) Manalapan at (2) Southern

Withdrew: No. 7 Middletown South

The Favorite: Toms River North

Upon the release of the state tournament brackets, it was apparent that the southern end of the Central East region would be a four-way showdown between four teams that began the season ranked in the top-five of the Shore Sports Network rankings. Freehold Township was the No. 1 team to finish last year and open this year, plus the Patriots have a championship pedigree after winning the 2019 Shore Conference Tournament. Long Branch is one of the Shore’s most skilled teams and reached the championship game of the grueling 2019 Central Jersey Group IV bracket – with Freehold Township the first of its three wins. Southern has the Shore Player of the Year front-runner in Kevin Kiernan and pulled out one of the biggest wins in program history this past week.

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

Ultimately, however, Toms River North has to be considered the favorite. The Mariners are the reigning South Jersey Group IV champions following their improbable run to the 2019 title as a No. 16 seed. They entered the week undefeated and suffered their first loss of the season Monday against Southern on a golden goal and despite outshooting the Rams, 18-10. Toms River North is deep, fast and diverse in how it can attack, so while the difference between the four teams is small, the Mariners should be considered the one with the slight edge.

Darkhorse: Jackson Memorial

The first-round match between No. 8 Marlboro and No. 9 Jackson Memorial is between two teams that had big 2019 seasons, graduated a strong senior class, still opened the season in the SSN Top 10, then had disappointing starts to the season. The difference is Jackson Memorial has started to win recently, with the Jaguars sweeping both Toms River South and Brick heading into Saturday’s first round. Marlboro has been competitive during the same stretch, but is 1-3 with a split vs. Middletown North and two losses to Freehold Township that should have the Mustangs ready to take on their draw.

Jackson Memorial junior Steve Bado. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Jackson Memorial gets the nod as the most likely higher-seed to make a run based on that four-game winning streak, but also based on the way the Jaguars played two of the better teams in the bracket. They had Southern on the ropes twice before losing both games by squandering two-goal leads, then played Toms River North tougher than any A South team other than Southern, losing by margins of 2-1 and 2-0. If the Jaguars get by Marlboro on the road (far from a given), they could give top-seeded Toms River North an uncomfortable game on Tuesday, especially considering the Mariners shocked Jackson Memorial in the South Jersey Group IV semifinals last year.

Round-by-Round Predictions

Opening Round

(9) Jackson Memorial over (8) Marlboro

Jackson Memorial is red-hot right now and while Marlboro could be on the verge of an overdue hot streak, the Jaguars are foaming at the mouth to get another shot at Toms River North. Middletown South had to withdraw from the tournament just one day before it was to begin, which give Manalapan a pass into the quarterfinals to play Southern.

Quarterfinals

(1) Toms River North over (9) Jackson Memorial

(4) Freehold Twp. over (5) Howell

(3) Long Branch over (6) Brick Memorial

(2) Southern over (10) Manalapan

All four home teams will be heavy favorites in this round, but Jackson Memorial and Howell have been scrappy enough this season to think they can hang close with their opponents and that is not a reach because it has already happened in divisional play. Brick Memorial and Middletown South are harder teams to pinpoint and the matchups are inter-divisional, so there is not the same history. Southern has had a habit of letting opponents hang around, while Long Branch has put teams away fairly consistently.

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

Semifinals

(1) Toms River North over (4) Freehold Twp.

(3) Long Branch over (2) Southern

The two semifinal games will be two of the better matches in the entire tournament and whichever teams prevail could possibly be playing for the top ranking among Shore Conference public schools. Toms River North has yet to play since losing to Southern so this will be a chance to see how the Mariners respond to a bump in the road, while Freehold Township has the reigning SSN Player of the Year in Zach Orrico champing at the bit to author another memorable postseason run. The two teams last met on opening night of last year in a wild game won by Toms River North, 5-4.

Southern clocked Long Branch, 3-0, in a regular-season game in Manahawkin last season and there will be a lot of the same players on the field for that potential rematch, especially on the Southern side. Long Branch, however, is a completely different team compared to the middle of 2019 and will have the talent to match any team in this bracket.

Championship Prediction

(1) Toms River North over (3) Long Branch

For the sake of variety, a championship game pitting Class A South vs. Class A North would be the most interesting scenario, especially after both semifinals are also likely to pit those two divisions against one another. On the other hand, after Long Branch and Freehold Township split during the regular season and Toms River North and Southern played a classic overtime game on Monday, feel free to sign me up for a third meeting of either rivalry.