At the start of the season, the top four teams in the preseason Shore Sports Network Top 10 were, in order, Holmdel, Christian Brothers Academy, Ocean and Jackson Memorial. On Friday, all four will play at home with a chance to advance to the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals and all four could justifiably called heavy favorites.

I am not telling you this to pat myself on the back but rather to explain what you are about to read. Picking the games is supposed to be a fun exercise, which is why I'll usually take a road team or two in each round. This year though, those four teams have been there from the start and it has always felt like those were the four that were going to be playing at Point Boro on Oct. 22.

There could very well be an upset in the group - Ocean and CBA have been cutting it close, Manalapan has been the comeback kids of the Shore and Southern is playing like the fifth-best team in the conference. Friday's games definitely have some intrigue, but will they have any surprises?


(8) Southern at (1) Holmdel, 2:30 p.m.

Southern has already ended one undefeated season and will look to spoil another on Friday when the Rams make the trip north to face the No. 1 team at the Shore and No. 2 team in N.J. The Rams beat Jackson Memorial, 1-0, back on Oct. 3 to halt the Jaguars’ winning streak to open the season at nine and will try to recreate that formula and make it work against Holmdel. Southern has been a tough defensive team throughout the season, allowing only 13 goals in 14 games and shutting out a Jackson team averaging 3.77 per game.

Holmdel junior Anthony Arena. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Holmdel is averaging just under what Jackson is at 3.42 but is putting up five goals per game in games started by Anthony Arena. Despite starting only six games and playing in just eight, Arena is second on the team with 10 goals and he has helped the Hornets find their groove again since returning to the lineup against CBA on Oct. 6. Despite some midseason struggles, Holmdel still has scored at least two goals in every game and even a strong Southern defense and keeper Braden Dugan is going to have trouble keeping them at one goal, which is probably a requirement against a Holmdel defense that has only conceded five all year.

The Pick: Holmdel, 3-0


(7) Manalapan at (2) Jackson Memorial, 3 p.m.

If the first match between these two teams during the first week of the season is any indication, it might not even be worth playing. Jackson Memorial dismantled Manalapan, 8-2, in the Braves’ second game of the season and that wasn’t even the worst of it. In that loss, Manalapan lost starting center midfielder D’Angelo Reyes to a torn ACL early in the match and never emotionally recovered from it during the game. Since then, however, Manalapan has righted the ship, so much so that the Braves won the always-hyper-competitive Class A North public division title race and are now one win away from getting back to the SCT semifinals for the first time since 2014.

Manalapan senior Justin Goldberg. (Photo by Matt Manley)

While it is true Jackson Memorial should expect a different Manalapan team than the one the Jaguars hammered in September, the Jaguars still have the same advantages that led to the early-season lopsided loss. Since losing to Southern to end a 9-0 start, the Jaguars have won three straight by a combined total of 11-3 – all against teams in the SCT round of 16 (Freehold Township, Toms River North and Lacey. Manalapan is dangerous enough on the attack to get on the board at least once, but Jackson’s attack appears to be humming after the Southern hiccup. This one looks like a higher-scoring affair than these two defensive-minded programs usually turn in.

The Pick: Jackson Memorial, 4-2

(11) Manasquan at (3) CBA, 3:30 p.m.

Fresh off a penalty-kicks win over Wall after 100 scoreless minutes, Manasquan is preparing for its biggest game of the season. The Warriors have played Holmdel, Ocean and Wall twice, so they have had every opportunity to prepare to play a game at the level the CBA expects to play at this stage of the season. Outside of one rain-soaked, six-goal hiccup vs. Neptune early in the season, Manasquan’s defense has been outstanding in front of junior keeper Joe Weinstein, who is developing into one of the Shore’s top keepers. Throw in a dangerous forward with a knack for the big goal in Tommy Johnson and Manasquan would appear to have the formula to get this done.

Manasquan sophomore Tommy Johnson. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

The wild card for CBA might be the memory of losing to Toms River South in last year’s quarterfinal round. On one hand, that game could serve as a source of motivation for his CBA group, most of which was not part of the 2016 team that finished No. 1 in the state. On the flip side, we just saw Freehold Township lose in the exact same scenario as it did last year. So will last year motivate the Colts or haunt them? The guess here is it is CBA’s time to move on and Manasquan might be a year away from its really big move.

The Pick: CBA, 2-0


(21) Raritan at (4) Ocean, 3:15 p.m.

Raritan senior Jake Fortune. (Photo by Matt Manley)

In last year’s SCT quarterfinals, Ocean played a 20-plus-seeded Cinderella team that just upset Freehold Township and wound up winning a wild, 4-3 game. That game was against Monmouth Regional and the difference between that game and this one, other than the fact that the opponent is Raritan, is Ocean already played Monmouth twice before that. This Raritan team will be more of a mystery for the Spartans, who are coming off a grind-it-out kind of win over Toms River North in the round of 16. The Rockets have jumped on the back of senior Jake Fortune (eight goals since Oct. 1) while getting strong play from goalkeeper Gavin Hersey and center back Zack May.

Ocean entered the season as one of the four teams on paper – Holmdel, CBA and Jackson Memorial being the other three – that looked good enough to win this tournament but to date, the Spartans are the only of the three that have not yet had a performance that validated those expectations. They have shown flashes and are one win away from potentially getting a shot at revenge against Holmdel for beating the Spartans, 7-1, in last year’s final, but are still looking to light it up on a big stage this year. This might not be a vintage Ocean performance against a scrappy Raritan team, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be a memorable one.

The Pick: Ocean, 2-1 in overtime


Round-of-16 Picks Record: 5-3

Overall Picks Record: 12-6