The 2018 season was a banner one for the Shore Conference, which finished the year with three overall state champions, three teams ranked in the top-five in the state and one ranked in the top 10 or top 15 in the nation, depending on your choice of national poll.

With so many seniors graduating from those historic, championship teams, there was bound to be a drop-off of some kind this season as it relates to the Shore Conference’s place within the state. That was indeed the case, but the drop-off was not as drastic as it could have been. Five teams from the Shore made it to the sectional final round of the NJSIAA Tournament, two won sectional titles and one made it to Group Championship Sunday at Kean and lost on penalty kicks.

The defining characteristic of the Shore Conference this season was less about a lack of good teams relative to the rest of the state but rather a wealth of quality teams without a clear standout. Consider the following:

 

- There was an unbeaten team from the Shore Conference at the end of the season. That team failed to reach the quarterfinals of the Shore Conference Tournament and lost in the quarterfinals of its NJSIAA sectional tournament.

-The team that won the Shore Conference Tournament lost in the first round of its NJSIAA sectional tournament.

- Of the five Shore teams to reach the sectional finals, one made it to the SCT semifinals, one lost in the SCT quarterfinals, one lost in the round of 16, one lost in the opening round and another did not even qualify.

- One of the teams from the Shore to win a sectional title was No. 18 in its section in power points, behind Brick Memorial, and only made it because its record was .500 after 13 games.

 

There are some noteworthy accomplishments to celebrate for a lot of teams in the conference this season, even if none will be celebrating a group championship. In the same vain, it is hard to pick a No. 1 team out of the group because all of them have flaws and so many of them authored a resume similar to the team that ultimately took the No. 1 spot.

At the end of the day, two questions mattered: Did your resume stand out and did you win anything? The team at the top answered both in the affirmative better than any other squad this season and that is why they are No. 1.

Photo by Matt Manley

1. Freehold Township (14-6-1, 6-1-0) Preseason Ranking: 3

Six losses is a lot for No. 1 team, especially one that lost in the first round of the NJSIAA Tournament, but in a conference full of solid-but-flawed teams, Freehold Township has accomplished the most this season. The Patriots won two championships – the Shore Conference Tournament and Class A North – that are probably harder to win than any other team at the Shore won this season. They also picked up some quality wins along the way, including Wall, Jackson Memorial, Marlboro, Long Branch, Colts Neck and Allentown. The losses are all to quality teams as well: CBA, Elizabeth, Long Branch, Holmdel, Toms River North and Rumson-Fair Haven. Freehold Township challenged itself throughout the year, which resulted in more losses than other top teams but also more accolades.

CBA celebrates its penalty-kicks win over Jackson Memorial. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

2. Christian Brothers Academy (13-4-3, 4-2-1) Preseason: 1

CBA finished fourth in the Class A North standings but takes No. 2 in the SSN Top 10 on the back of an impressive overall resume that surpasses any other in the conference. The Colts finished the year with wins over Non-Public A champion Seton Hall Prep, Shore Conference Tournament champion Freehold Township, Group III runner-up Wall, Washington Township and Notre Dame. CBA also beat Jackson Memorial on penalties in the SCT and lost to Manasquan on penalties in the following round. Ultimately, CBA did not win any championships, which keeps the Colts out of the No. 1 spot, but the resume was worthy of consideration.

Photo by Paula Lopez.

3. Wall (17-4-2, 6-1-0) Preseason: 6

With its run to the Group III championship game and performance in what ultimately was a losing cause on penalties in the championship game, Wall ascends to the No. 3 spot in the final rankings. Wall only played five games against teams that finished in the top 10 and went 2-3 but two of those losses were to the teams ahead of them. The Crimson Knights won two championships – Class B North and Central Jersey Group III – to set themselves apart from some of the teams ranked below them. Wall also helped its case by going unscored-upon in six state tournament games and turned in a strong performance in that penalty-kick loss to Millburn on Sunday.

Holmdel senior Mark Walier. (Photo by Matt Manley)

4. Holmdel (16-0-2, 6-0-0) Preseason: 5

During 2019, Holmdel extended its unbeaten streak to 54 matches and will take that streak into game one next year after going unbeaten for the second straight season. Despite that, it was a disappointing season for the Hornets, who played only three matches between the Shore Conference and NJSIAA Group II Tournaments. They went 15-0 in regular-season games and 1-0-2 in the tournaments, with both ties ending with losses in penalty kicks at home. Although the tournaments did not treat Holmdel kindly, the Hornets still picked up some big wins along the way, including over Freehold Township, Manasquan, Marlboro and Colts Neck.

Jackson Memorial senior Connor Lucas. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

5. Jackson Memorial (15-3-2, 7-0-0) Preseason: 4

This season started with the disappointing news that Notre Dame commit Dan Russo would not be playing high school soccer this year and as far as the roster goes, the bad news did not stop there. Standout defender Ben Schnaak missed the first month of the season with a hamstring injury and fellow senior defender Ron Bantang injured his ankle at the end of September. Despite all the obstacles, the Jaguars posted the second-best winning percentage in the Shore Conference this season, won the Class A South division title with an unbeaten record, was eliminated in the SCT quarterfinals on penalties by CBA and only bowed out in the state tournament after running into one of the state’s hottest teams – Toms River North. Considering the circumstances, Jackson Memorial’s top-five finish in the Shore Conference was a significant accomplishment.

Manasquan senior Drew Greenblatt battles CBA senior Connor Anderko. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

6. Manasquan (11-6-4, 4-2-0) Preseason: 2

A slow start almost ruined Manasquan’s season. Instead, it was the prelude to a dramatic turnaround that saw the Warriors reach the level expected of them when they were the No. 2 team in the SSN Top 10 to open the season. Manasquan battled its way into the Shore Conference Tournament and made it all the way to the championship game by beating Toms River North and Marlboro, winning a penalty-kick game at Southern and winning another shootout vs. CBA in the semifinal round. Even in the final, it took penalty kicks for Freehold Township to beat them. They added two impressive state-tournament wins before losing to a quality Oakcrest squad on the road in the South Jersey Group II semifinal. The beginning of the season included some disappointment, but by the end of the year, Manasquan was in the discussion as the Shore’s top team.

Brian Completo and Victor Pessoa (5) celebrate Long Branch's win over Marlboro. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

7. Long Branch (11-8-2, 5-2-0) Preseason: Not ranked

Long Branch’s season was similar to Manasquan’s, only Long Branch’s run to a championship game came in the state tournament rather than the Shore Conference Tournament. The Green Wave got off to an even rockier start than Manasquan did but turned things around with a September win over CBA. There was still some growing to be done after that win, but the Green Wave ultimately peaked at the perfect time. Following an overtime loss at Colts Neck in the SCT, the Green Wave beat Marlboro twice – once in the Central Group IV semifinals – Freehold Township, Princeton and tied Jackson Memorial. The run ended at Hunterdon Central in the sectional final but the Green Wave continue to trend in the right direction and will have some key pieces back in 2020.

Marlboro celebrates a goal by Mike Steinberg (second from left) in the third minute of Tuesday's game vs. CBA. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

8. Marlboro (14-5, 5-2) Preseason: Not ranked

The Mustangs were on the cusp of the No. 1 ranking in the SSN Top 10 for a significant portion of the season and had a chance to win the A North title, but ultimately fell out of both positions. It might seem like a fall from grace of sorts, but a No. 8 ranking to finish the season is commendable considering how rough things were for the Mustangs just two years ago. Marlboro was 1-14-2 in 2017 and in just two seasons, the Mustangs have returned to upper echelon of the Shore Conference. Competitive losses to Freehold Township, Manasquan, Holmdel and Long Branch are the difference between at perhaps top-three finish and the No. 8 spot.

Photo provided by Toms River North soccer.

9. Toms River North (12-8-1, 3-3-1) Preseason: Not ranked

The Mariners made an early appearance in the top 10 after upsetting Freehold Township on opening-night and then fell out shortly thereafter. As it turned out, they were saving their best push for the end of the season. Toms River North was lucky just to qualify for the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV Playoffs and once they got in, the Mariners went from Clark Kent to Superman. As the No. 16 seed, Toms River North beat No. 1 Clearview, No. 8 Cherry Hill West, No. 4 Jackson Memorial and No. 2 Egg Harbor to win the program’s first sectional title since 2009 in the most unexpected of fashions. In the Group IV semifinal, the Mariners went toe-to-toe with Hunterdon Central before ultimately bowing out, 2-1. Throw in an early-season win over No. 1 Freehold Township and Toms River North did more than enough to overcome a forgettable performance in the middle of the season and snag a top-10 spot.

Colts Neck junior Derek Haaf. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

10. Colts Neck (11-4-2, 5-1-1) Preseason: Not ranked

The last spot in the top 10 came down to three teams: Colts Neck, Southern and Toms River South. The Cougars beat Toms River South in the Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinals and had the slight edge over Southern in common opponents (they beat Jackson Memorial, Toms River South and Long Branch while Southern went 1-2-1 against the same trio). Among Colts Neck’s losses were No. 1 Freehold Township, No. 3 Wall and No. 4 Holmdel and the Cougars also beat two teams ahead of them in Jackson Memorial and Long Branch. An early exit in the state tournament prevented a further climb but a top-10 finish for a team that lost 18 seniors from 2018 went above and beyond the preseason expectations.

 

The Next Five

Southern (12-3-3, 5-1-1) Preseason: 10 – A year after beating Jackson Memorial, the Rams had no answer for the Jaguars and it prevented them from winning a pair of titles. Luckily, Southern returns most of its team next year and will be among the preseason favorites from the Shore.

Toms River South (10-6-2, 4-2-1) Preseason: 9 – The Indians rounded into form at the end of the season, knocking off Holmdel on penalties in the SCT and advancing to the South Jersey Group III semifinals.

Monmouth (15-5-2, 4-2-0) Preseason: Not ranked – The Falcons largely took care of business this season, defeating the teams they were supposed to beat and winning some competitive games against other teams on their level. They never quite got over the hump against the elite programs on the schedule, but Monmouth positioned itself to take the next step in 2020.

Rumson-Fair Haven (9-6-3, 3-2-1) Preseason: Not ranked – Rumson’s season was very similar to Marlboro’s 2018 season, going from one win to nine wins under a new head coach. Jeff Soares and his team will look to take another step next season next year with a lot of talent set to return.

Middletown South (9-5-4, 2-3-2) Preseason: 8 – Middletown South’s senior-laden team performed well against a difficult schedule but settled for fifth place in a loaded Class A South race.

 

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