Boys Soccer – NJSIAA Tournament Preview: The Shore in Group 4
There are 10 Shore Conference teams set to compete in the NJSIAA Group IV Playoffs and nine of them have spent at least one week in the Shore Sports Network Shore 16 rankings. That is the nature of the beast when it comes to large-school programs, but now, they all have to pick on teams their own size.
The Shore Conference has had a collection of sectional champions from Group IV, with Toms River North, Freehold Township and Manalapan all claiming titles in the last decade, but no Shore Conference team has been able to complete the run to a Group IV championship since Toms River South -- now a Group III program -- did it in 2009.
There is no favorite from the Shore Conference this year in either the Central or the South Jersey fields, but there also is not an overwhelming favorite from anywhere in those sections. Getting to the state final is half the battle and while that half of the battle will be a challenging one, the Shore has some teams cut out to pull it off.
Central Jersey Group IV
Shore Teams in the Field: No. 2 Howell, No. 3 Long Branch, No. 8 Jackson Memorial, No. 9 Marlboro, No. 10 Manalapan, No. 11 Freehold Township
Top Seed: Princeton
Defending Champion: Freehold Twp.
Favorite: Princeton. The Tigers have been extremely stingy when it comes to allowing goals, something they have done just seven times this season and just twice in their 16 wins. They have, however, been beat, so getting through a CJ IV field that includes a number of quality teams from the Shore and the Greater Middlesex Conference will be no easy task.
Darkhorse: Marlboro. The Mustangs seem to be rounding into form at the right time, with the goals starting to flow more freely and goalkeeper Arnav Bitla playing at the top of his game behind a solid defense. An overtime loss at CBA was the toughest game CBA faced during its entire run to a third straight Shore Conference Tournament championship, so Marlboro has proven it can hang with elite teams.
Bracket Breakdown: Howell and Long Branch are on a collision course for the sectional semifinals, although Long Branch will have a tough first-round game against Old Bridge, despite the Knights heading into the tournament as a No. 14 seed. There is a chance Freehold Township could make a stand as defending champion after an uneven season given the playoff pedigree, while Manalapan is, perhaps, even more dangerous as the No. 10. The Braves lost to Howell on opening day, 3-2, and may get another shot at the Rebels with the season on the line. We are guaranteed at least one Shore-vs.-Shore game with Marlboro visiting Jackson Memorial in a rematch of a first-round game from last year, won by Marlboro, 4-0. The Jaguars will have the homefield edge, although not significantly so considering Marlboro also plays home games on grass.
Championship Prediction: Howell over Marlboro. At the start of the season, Marlboro was the No. 3 team in the Shore Sports Network Shore 16 rankings. Then, the Mustangs lost a heartbreaker to CBA and have been fighting an uphill battle ever since. The NJSIAA Tournament washes away the rest of the season for those that qualify and Marlboro has been through enough battles to know what it will take to beat the likes of Jackson Memorial, Princeton, Monroe and South Brunswick. Howell, meanwhile, is stirring after coming up short in the Shore Conference Tournament for a second straight year and has played its best soccer of late. The round of 16 against either Manalapan or New Brunswick will be dangerous, but if the Rebels can build up another head of steam, all the stars are aligned for this to be a special run for a program that has not won a sectional title since 1988.
(1) Princeton over (16) Montgomery
(9) Marlboro over (8) Jackson Memorial
(5) South Brunswick over (12) Sayreville
(4) Monroe over (13) Trenton
(3) Long Branch over (14) Old Bridge
(6) East Brunswick over (11) Freehold Twp.
(10) Manalapan over (7) New Brunswick
(2) Howell over (15) Northern Burlington
(9) Marlboro over (1) Princeton
(4) Monroe over (5) South Brunswick
(3) Long Branch over (6) East Brunswick
(2) Howell over (10) Manalapan
(9) Marlboro over (4) Monroe
(2) Howell over (3) Long Branch
(2) Howell over (9) Marlboro
South Jersey Group IV
Shore Teams in the Field: No. 3 Toms River North, No. 4 Central, No. 8 Southern, No. 12 Toms River East
Top Seed: Washington Township
Defending Champion: No. 10 Cherokee
Favorite: Washington Twp. The Minutemen have built perennial power that has loaded up its trophy case over the last decade. They won five consecutive sectional titles from 2014 to 2018 and reached seven straight sectional finals from 2012 to 2018. Since then, however, Washington Township has not made it past the sectional semifinals, including consecutive quarterfinal exits in each of the past two years. The Minutemen were not the No. 1 seed in those years, however, so this team has the makings of another championship outfit, although they will have to finish the job to join that kind of company.
Darkhorse: Toms River East. The Raiders already opened plenty of eyes during their run to the Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinals as a No. 20 seed and could have something similar in store for the state tournament. After a slow start to the season, Toms River East is sharing the ball well and has a dynamic goalkeeper in Bobby Calvo, which should make the Raiders a tough out. Also watch out for No. 11 Egg Harbor as a double-digit seed that can make noise. Cherokee is another one, but it is hard to call a 9-2-3 defending champion a dark horse, no matter its seed.
Bracket Breakdown: This is one of the stronger groups that the Shore Conference has sent into the South Jersey section in some time. Toms River North is one of the handful of favorites to win it all, while Southern’s 7-0 road record suggests the Rams have the chops to make a run. Central did most of its damage early in the season, but goes into the tournament on a high note after picking up a pair of wins last week. There are plenty of capable programs throughout the field – No. 2 Lenape, No. 5 Rancocas Valley, No. 6 Eastern, No. 9 Cherry Hill East – but outside of Washington Township, they have all had all shown vulnerability on multiple occasions this season.
Championship Prediction: Toms River North over Washington Twp. Even when Washington Township had its juggernaut teams of the mid-to-late 2010’s, Toms River North caused the Minutemen major headaches whenever the two clashed. Since 2019, Toms River North has become the decorated program in South Jersey, with championships in 2019 and 2021. Even last season, Toms River North knocked off Washington Township with a team of mostly comprised of first-year starters who are back this season. After getting to the sectional semifinals last year, the Mariners have all the ingredients to finish the job and a recent history of playing their best at this time of year.
(1) Washington Twp. over (16) Atlantic City
(8) Southern over (9) Cherry Hill East
(12) Toms River East over (5) Rancocas Valley
(4) Central over (13) Bridgeton
(3) Toms River North over (14) Williamstown
(6) Eastern over (11) Egg Harbor
(10) Cherokee over (7) Kingsway
(2) Lenape over (15) Millville
(1) Washington Twp. over (8) Southern
(12) Toms River East over (4) Central
(3) Toms River North over (6) Eastern
(10) Cherokee over (2) Lenape
(1) Washington Twp. over (12) Toms River East
(3) Toms River North over (10) Cherokee
(3) Toms River North over (1) Washington Twp.