Boys Soccer – NJSIAA Tournament Preview: Central and South Group III
Since 2015, the Shore Conference has been a major player in the NJSIAA Group III Tournament, with at least one sectional champion every year from 2015 to 2019. That group includes Toms River South, Ocean and Wall, with Toms River South winning three straight sectional titles from 2015 to 2017, Ocean winning the overall Group III championship in 2018 and Wall making it all the way to penalty kicks in the 2019 final before falling in the shootout.
Central Jersey remains stacked with quality teams from the Shore Conference and while Wall has moved to Group II, the Shore gained a contender with Long Branch sliding down from Group IV. Ocean will again be a serious contender to get to the state final, Toms River South looks to be getting hot at the right time, while teams like Neptune, Pinelands and Lacey hope to make this a special year.
There is a dominant Ramapo team looking to run the Group III table out of North Jersey, but with so many contenders, the Shore Conference again looks to have a good chance to make it to the last day of the season behind one of those teams.
Below is a look at the Central and South Jersey sections of Group III, which feature a total of 13 squads from the Shore Conference.
Central Jersey Group III
Shore Teams in the Field: No. 2 Ocean, No. 3 Long Branch, No. 5 Neptune, No. 7 Red Bank, No. 9 Colts Neck, No. 10 Brick Memorial, No. 11 Middletown North, No. 12 Lakewood, No. 15 Freehold Boro, No. 16 Brick
Defending Champion (2019): Wall
Top Seed: Hopewell Valley
Favorite: Hopewell Valley. The Bulldogs have flashed a high-powered attack throughout the season, although they have had trouble when the competition ramps up (one-sided losses to Notre Dame and Pennington). With Hopewell holding the homefield advantage, it will have an edge over any other team in the field, but a battle-tested team like Long Branch or a talented, tradition-rich Ocean could be serious threats in a potential championship game.
Darkhorse: Brick Memorial. Of all the teams playing on the road in round one, No. 9 Colts Neck and No. 10 Brick Memorial look like the best bets to make a run. Both will have very hard games should either win on Monday, but both have shown enough firepower to get on the board against a good team, so it will be a matter of the two defenses and keepers keeping the score close. One other wild card is Lakewood. The Piners have gotten better as the season has gone on and the Piners will have to be better against Neptune, which beat Lakewood, 4-1, during the first week of the season. If either Lakewood or No. 13 Allentown can pull off a first-round upset, a trip to the sectional semifinals would not be far-fetched.
Bracket Breakdown: CJ III is always Shore-heavy and usually pretty friendly to the higher-seeded teams, although not without exception. The top-tier contenders in this field are the top three: Hopewell Valley, Ocean and Long Branch and while it’s possible a surprise team makes a run to the semifinals, it is hard to see this bracket getting turned upside-down. Maybe there are some upsets early, but by championship Thursday, one of those three teams is highly likely to be hosting the final.
Championship Prediction: Hopewell Valley over Long Branch. The Green Wave are as battle-hardened as any team in this field, even more than Hopewell Valley. That should serve Long Branch well throughout its stay, although there are no guarantees in the state tournament. If the semifinal pits Long Branch against Ocean, that has a chance to be one of the better matches of the Shore Conference season and the winner will have a legitimate shot to walk away with a sectional title.
(1) Hopewell Valley over (16) Brick
(9) Colts Neck over (8) Robbinsville
(5) Neptune over (12) Lakewood
(4) Steinert over (13) Allentown
(3) Long Branch over (14) Burlington Twp.
(6) Lawrence over (11) Middletown North
(10) Brick Memorial over (7) Red Bank
(2) Ocean over (15) Freehold Boro
(1) Hopewell Valley over (9) Colts Neck
(4) Steinert over (5) Neptune
(3) Long Branch over (6) Lawrence
(2) Ocean over (10) Brick Memorial
(1) Hopewell Valley over (4) Steinert
(3) Long Branch over (2) Ocean
(1) Hopewell Valley over (3) Long Branch
South Jersey Group III
Shore Teams in the Field: No. 2 Pinelands, No. 3 Lacey, No. 11 Toms River South
Defending Champion (2019): No. 6 Triton
Top Seed: Hammonton
Favorite: No. 4 Moorestown. As it was two years ago, South Jersey Group III remains up for grabs. There is no obvious favorite, with Hammonton holding the No. 1 seed and defending championship Triton nestling into the middle of the bracket at No. 6. Meanwhile, there is Moorestown: a team that has gone with South Jersey Group II No. 1 seed Delran twice, as well as red-hot Cinnaminson for three of its five losses (the other two were to Notre Dame and West Deptford). Delsea and Hammonton will be tough games but Moorestown has been through the ringer this season and should be ready for a run.
Darkhorse: Toms River South. A program that is no stranger to postseason runs, Toms River South already showed it is ready for a tournament setting by winning the first ever Shore Conference Coaches’ Cup and doing so in dramatic fashion on Saturday. The Indians have a top scorer in Danny Lindov who is locked in right now and a draw that will give them a chance to play into the second week of the tournament. Although Toms River South lost at No. 3 Lacey during the regular season, it was a game that went down to the wire and Lacey was a healthier team at the time.
Bracket Breakdown: While there is an air of unpredictability within this field, it should be a fairly safe one for the home teams in the first round, with maybe one or two exceptions. Only three Shore Conference teams are in the South Jersey Group III field this season and all three are bunched together on the same side. There is a good chance all three advance to Thursday’s quarterfinal round and if that happens, two of them (Lacey and Toms River South) will play one another.
Championship Prediction: Moorestown over Pinelands. Pinelands came close to winning a sectional championship in 2018 after going 29 years between championship appearances. Since then, the postseason has been a struggle for the Wildcats and this year’s team has not been as imposing as the last several. What this year’s Pinelands team is, however, is resilient and hard-nosed, and that should serve them well in running up against teams like Ocean City or Cherry Hill West and, potentially, Lacey or Toms River South. It will help that Pinelands is the No. 2 seed and will be at home against anybody in the field other than Hammonton.
(1) Hammonton over (16) Mainland
(8) Camden Tech over (9) Westampton Tech
(5) Delsea over (12) Cumberland
(4) Moorestown over (13) Timber Creek
(3) Lacey over (14) Seneca
(11) Toms River South over (6) Triton
(7) Ocean City over (10) Cherry Hill West
(2) Pinelands over (15) Absegami
(1) Hammonton over (8) Camden Tech
(4) Moorestown over (5) Delsea
(11) Toms River South over (3) Lacey
(2) Pinelands over (7) Ocean City
(4) Moorestown over (1) Hammonton
(2) Pinelands over (11) Toms River South
(4) Moorestown over (2) Pinelands