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The last time a Central Jersey Group IV champion took on a South Jersey Group IV champion with a spot in the NJSIAA championship game on the line, it was a perennial power fighting tooth and nail to fend off a team that barely qualified for the NJSIAA Tournament as a No. 16 seed in its section.

That match, of course, was the 2019 Group IV semifinal between Hunterdon Central and Toms River North, which saw Hunterdon Central rally to end the Mariners' Cinderella run with a 2-1 victory. Hunterdon Central had been a dominant force in Central Jersey and prior to Toms River North's surprise championship, it was Washington Township that owned South Jersey.

Now that Washington Township's run of five straight sectional championships is over and Hunterdon Central is now in North Jersey, Section 2, there is an opportunity for two other programs to fill the void. One of those teams could, indeed, be Toms River North in South Jersey, but Washington Township appears ready to make a serious bid to reclaim its South Group IV crown.

Central Jersey Group IV, meanwhile, is wide open, with four Shore Conference teams hoping to make 2021 a year to remember. Making a championship run in Group IV is a grind from the opening round until the very end and no game, as Toms River North showed two years ago, is totally a foregone conclusion.

Below is a closer look at the two Group IV sectional brackets that are home to Shore Conference teams, with a total of six local squads setting out to make noise in the state's toughest public school Group.

Freehold Township senior Herman Colbert. (Photo by Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)

Central Jersey Group IV

Shore Teams in the Field: No. 2 Freehold Twp., No. 9 Manalapan, No. 12 Marlboro, No. 13 Howell
Defending Champion (2019): Hunterdon Central
Top Seed: North Brunswick
Favorite: Freehold Twp. With Hunterdon Central moving north to the North Jersey Section 2 bracket, Central Jersey opens up for the rest of the field, which has found Hunterdon Central to be a problem over the years. Of all the teams in the top half of the bracket, Freehold Township appears the most battle-tested and the Patriots are even getting healthier, with senior J.T. Gold returning from a foot injury after missing a large swath of the schedule.
Darkhorse: No. 11 Montgomery. There are a few good choices here. No. 14 Northern Burlington is a live dog at No. 3 New Brunswick. No. 10 Hightstown could make a run. Manalapan, Marlboro and Howell are all capable of reaching the final. Montgomery, though, looks like it has the draw and the chops to win at least two games. The Cougars have had some eye-opening performances, not the least of which was a 3-0 win over a Gill St. Bernard team that hammered top-seeded North Brunswick.
Bracket Breakdown: With Hunterdon Central looming over the field in recent years, this bracket has been unpredictable up until the point that the Red Devils find a way to win the championship. Now, it just looks unpredictable. North Brunswick is the top seed but does not play in its conference’s best division, which means teams like New Brunswick, No. 5 Old Bridge and No. 6 Monroe might be better-suited to make a run out of Middlesex County. The wide-open nature of the bracket also bodes well for teams like Manalapan, Marlboro and Howell – all of whom cut their teeth in the Class A North division this season and have the capacity to make it to the championship game despite all three starting off on the road on Monday.
Championship Prediction: Freehold Twp. over No. 4 Princeton. These two programs are probably the most reliable in the field, with Monroe also warranting some consideration. This season, however, Freehold Township has proven to be battle-tested and build to compete with tough competition. The one concern is the Patriots have played close games against opponents all year, but maybe that helps them deal with the pressure of a close game along the way. As for Princeton, the Tigers have shown again that they will be a tough out, with a résumé that includes a win over Non-Public A contender Notre Dame.

Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com

Round-by-Round Picks

Opening Round

(1) East Brunswick over (16) Sayreville
(9) Manalapan at (8) West Winder-Plainsboro South
(12) Marlboro over (5) Old Bridge
(4) Princeton over (13) Howell
(14) Northern Burlington over (3) New Brunswick
(11) Montgomery over (6) Monroe
(7) East Brunswick over (10) Hightstown
(2) Freehold Twp. over (15) Hillsborough

Quarterfinals

(9) Manalapan over (1) North Brunswick
(4) Princeton over (12) Marlboro
(11) Montgomery over (14) Northern Burlington
(2) Freehold Twp. over (7) East Brunswick

Semifinals

(4) Princeton over (9) Manalapan
(2) Freehold Twp. over (11) Montgomery

Championship

(2) Freehold Twp. over (4) Princeton

 

South Jersey Group IV

Shore Teams in the Field: No. 5 Toms River North, No. 9 Toms River East
Defending Champion (2019): Toms River North
Top Seed: Clearview
Favorite: Toms River North. The reigning South Jersey Group IV champions won’t sneak up on anyone this time around, but this team is more fine-tuned than the one that won the section as a No. 16 seed in 2019. Still, it takes some magic to win this section and the Mariners are going to have to recover from a disheartening loss to CBA in the Shore Conference final. No game in South Jersey Group IV is ever easy and in order to make another run to a championship, Toms River North will have to remember that a whole bunch of teams will be trying to do the same thing the Mariners did two years ago.
Darkhorse: No. 11 Cherokee. Cherokee, No. 12 Gloucester Tech and No. 13 Eastern are all dangerous first-round opponents and Cherokee has the best match-up of the three, with Gloucester Tech (Toms River North) and Eastern (Egg Harbor) facing the two 2019 sectional finalists.
Bracket Breakdown: As always, the South Jersey Group IV is deep from No. 1 through No. 16, although it remains to be seen if Cherry Hill East can do what Toms River North did two years ago and make a run to the championship game as a No. 16 seed. Near the top of the bracket, Washington Township appears ready to get back to contending for championships, even if it is not the dominant outfit it was four or five years ago. Clearview and Kingsway are both solid sides as the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds and should be considered serious title contenders, but neither carries with them juggernaut status. Shawnee, meanwhile, is a very dangerous No. 7 seed, while the aforementioned double-digit darkhorses could wind up serious players if they can build some momentum.
Championship Prediction: No. 3 Washington Twp. over Toms River North. One thing Toms River North showed two years ago – when the Mariners started many of the current seniors on this year’s team – is that they can travel. That has remained the case this season, when they played CBA tougher at CBA than on neutral turf and beat Freehold Township, 4-1, at Barnegat after tying the Patriots, 0-0, in Toms River. Washington Township, however, would be a different animal, as the Minutemen’s grass pitch has been a house of horrors for so many teams that have made it there – Toms River North included. A championship win of any kind would be a monumental accomplishment for this Toms River North senior class but a win at Washington Township in the final would take this three-year run to another level.

Toms River North senior Mattia Assante (right) battles with Toms River East senior Cruz Chacon. (Photo by Ray Richardson)

Round-by-Round Picks

Opening Round

(1) Clearview over (16) Cherry Hill East
(9) Toms River East over (8) Rancocas Valley
(5) Toms River North over (12) Gloucester Tech
(4) Egg Harbor over (13) Eastern
(3) Washington Twp. over (14) Vineland
(11) Cherokee over (6) Millville
(7) Shawnee over (10) Williamstown
(2) Kingsway over (15) Bridgeton

Quarterfinals

(1) Clearview over (9) Toms River East
(5) Toms River North over (4) Egg Harbor
(3) Washington Twp. over (11) Cherokee
(7) Shawnee over (2) Kingsway

Semifinals

(5) Toms River North over (1) Clearview
(3) Washington Twp. over (7) Shawnee

Championship

(3) Washington Twp. over (5) Toms River North