ROAD TO THE FINAL: DEFEATED NO. 18 MIDDLETOWN SOUTH, 61-38; NO. 7 RED BANK, 62-55; NO. 3 RED BANK CATHOLIC, 64-43

Seeds are a necessary formality in structuring a tournament. They also lend insight into the perceived pecking order of the field, from favorites to long shots. 

But, make no mistake, when you enter the Shore Conference Tournament as the defending champion, the number that precedes your name on the bracket line means very little to those you’ll encounter who already itch at the idea of unseating the queens from their throne.

Over the span of two years, Manchester has transcend the spectrum, from the emerging upstart that cracked the quarterfinals in ‘18 to the confident crew that won it all last winter, lifting the first SCT title in the program’s history with a convincing 58-42 victory over St. John Vianney in the final. 

The triumph punctuated the Hawks’ ascent to prominence but also confirmed the foundation for successful longevity was in place. 

Good thing, because roles are reversed this time around. What comes with being the defending champion is the assurance that whoever matches up on the opposite side is loading up its best shot at dislodging the crown. And, some inside the Manchester ranks sense a hint of doubt amongst outsiders who may whisper the Hawks lost too much in ‘19 graduates Leilani Correa and Dakota Adams to win again...that their relatively youthful backcourt rotation lacks in big-game experience.

Haters are going to hate and Manchester has been happy to demonstrate it has no plans to suffer a decline, evidenced on Tuesday night when the second-seeded Hawks weathered the early defensive influences of third-seeded Red Bank Catholic and discovered their offensive groove in a definitive 64-43 semifinal win. 

The victory sends Manchester (23-3) back to the OceanFirst Bank Center at Monmouth University on Saturday for a rematch of last year’s title game when it tangles with top-seeded and revenge-minded St. John Vianney (24-1) at 5 o’clock.

The road to a final’s return wasn’t easy. Navigating the field in the SCT never is, but the Hawks did have a useful road map to maneuver around obstacles. 

The biggest difference for us from last year is we have eliminated the unknown,” said Manchester coach Dave Beauchemin. “We have an idea what to expect in each setting. Last season, we entered each of those games with the mindset to prove we belonged. This year, we have prepared to prove it wasn't a fluke...as if we are being hunted because we know, in many cases, teams looked at us as a chance for a signature win.”

Beauchemin has no doubt made certain his players recognize that exterior sentiments but need not worry, for seniors like Penn-bound point guard Kemari Reynolds understand the perils associated with being the reigning champ.

“My team and I wanted to bring a SCT championship back to Manchester for the first time ever,” Reynolds said of the feelings from a year ago. “That alone pushed us to give it everything we had. Now, we are just trying to defend it and bring another one back to our community and add on to the legendary history we have created here. Regardless of our seed, we knew we were the ones everyone wanted to beat because we took it home last year.”

In getting back to West Long Branch, Manchester has proven it has all the components demanded to win a second straight title. Destiny Adams, the Hawks’ gifted 6-3 junior forward, has been able to concentrate more on her work in the paint due in part to the wealth of backcourt options and dominates in the lane at each end of the court. Her 22 points and 19 rebounds on Tuesday against a Casey squad that doesn’t lack for frontcourt size was an indicator of how she can impact an outcome. Adams (18.1 ppg., 11.5 rpg., 2.2 bpg., 2.6 spg.) opened the campaign with five straight double doubles and has run her sum to 14 with three more during the SCT.

Reynolds (7.1 ppg., 3.7 rpg., 2.5 apg., 2.9 spg.) has been motherly in her role, setting the example for a host of underclassmen guards who have developed into bright assets. Still, the savvy, veteran playmaker can pick her spots to attack off the dribble or hit a jumper, things she did on Saturday when her 13 points helped Manchester down seventh-seeded Red Bank, 64-43. Her importance as a calming ballhander and press breaker can’t be overemphasized, especially if the Hawks encounter Vianney’s full-court blanketing. 

Across midcourt, Manchester runs a carousel of guards with Adams the axle in the middle. Freshman Angelica Velez (6.9 ppg., 2.8 apg.)is a swaggy ballhandler with an imaginative passing flair and range on her jumper. Sophomores Amyah Bray (7.8 ppg., 3.2 rpg.) and Myah Hourigan team with freshman Gabriella Ross (8.7 ppg., 25 3-pointers) as interchangeable pieces who can be installed at any point without the product diminishing. 

And, don't forget seniors Serenity Anderson and Nahkaleigh Hayes-Jones. Anderson is the ideal teammate, willing to do whatever is asked for the good of the Hawks, a jack-of-all-trades who displayed her versatility Tuesday with a season-high 10 points, including two threes, four rebounds and three assists. Her work on the boards is ceaseless.

Hayes-Jones comes off the bench to instill immediate long-range fear (team-high 26 3-pointers) as a lethal streak shooter with ice water coursing through her veins.

Together, the combined work of all with the ball yields a whopping 60.6 points a night but also casts some shade on what the Hawks are capable of without it. The defense has elevated through the depth Manchester can run out and has held opponents to 38.6 points a contest. 

MANCHESTER

(23-3, 14-0 IN B CENTRAL)

HEAD COACH: DAVE BEAUCHEMIN

9TH SEASON (158-107)

SCT FINAL APPEARANCES: 1

SCT CHAMPIONSHIPS: 1 (2019)