With only three games remaining for the trio of Shore Conference teams competing for Group titles next week, now is a good time to look back at how the season went for all 42 Shore teams and take an early look at next year.

Obviously, in the age of rampant transferring, the phrase "will return" is not an ironclad statement, but for these purposes we will work under the assumption that underclassmen will be back with their teams next fall.

Here's how it went this season for the Liberty Division, where Toms River South won its first division title in 21 years, and Monmouth reached the state playoffs after a two-win season in 2022.

Bob Badders | rpbphotography.com
Damir Nelson will return for Toms River South's rushing attack in 2024 (Photo by Bob Badders | rpbphotography.com)

Toms River South (6-3)

The Indians were right there with Holmdel as one of the turnaround stories in the Shore behind head coach Matt Martin, going from 1-9 to winning their first division title since 2002. They also reached the state playoffs, where they lost to Colts Neck in the first round.

They lose one of their core players and leaders in senior QB/LB Jimmy Alexander but return top running backs Jake Henehan and Damir Nelson and wideout Danny Pierson to power the offense. They also bring back multiple starters up front on both sides of the ball, plus standout linebacker Laolu Akinlolu. Nelson and Henehan are also starters in the secondary.

We’ll see if they get realigned into a tougher division, but this season was a crucial step forward for a program with a proud history, and they will have the returners to keep things moving in the right direction next year. The next step will be making an impact in the wider Shore scene, as they went 0-3 and were outscored 132-6 in their three games outside the Liberty Division this season against three tough teams in Holmdel, Toms River North and Colts Neck.

Monmouth (6-4)

The Falcons were another turnaround story this fall, tripling their wins from 2022 for their second winning season in the last three years. They reached the state playoffs, where they lost to Central Jersey Group 2 champion Willingboro in the first round.

The story of Monmouth’s season was its defense, which only gave up an average of 6.2 points per game against divisional opponents to power a second-place finish. The leaders were linebacker/safety Evan Booth (78 tackles, 4 INTs) and defensive lineman Dan Kikta (70 tackles), who had 23 tackles for a loss. That defense will take a major hit from graduation, as the top eight tacklers on defense were all seniors.

Starting quarterback Dom O’Grady, leading rusher Jaylen Harris and top receiver Kaiden Stafford are also seniors, so the Falcons will have an almost entirely new team next year. It may be an uphill battle in the quest for the program's first back-to-back winning seasons since 1972-73.

Pinelands (5-5)

The Wildcats have only had five non-losing seasons in the last 20 years, so a 5-5 campaign is a good season at Pinelands. However, they were hoping for a division title after a 4-0 start. They lost five of their last six games and came up short of a state playoff berth but showed a competitiveness that’s something to build on. The Wildcats have now gone 7-4 and 5-5 over the past two seasons, which is the most wins in two seasons since they went 12-6 in 1987-88.

They lose some standout seniors who have been a core part of their two-year run, including receiver Mike Frawley, who had a massive year with a school-record 68 catches for 1,141 yards and 7 touchdowns. Safety/wide receiver Liam Villinger (100 tackles) and linebacker Devonte Bonds will also be key losses.

They have the returning talent to keep on a winning track, with junior quarterback Ty Kline (1,401 yards, 10 TDs) coming back along with leading rusher Jaimin Parkinson. Almost the entire defense is returning, including sophomore linebacker Eric Kobilnyk (81 tackles), so the opportunity to build a strong foundation is there at a program that has rarely had one during its history. The Wildcats also made a little piece of Shore Conference history this season when sophomore Holly Lucas became the first girl to play as a lineman in a varsity game.

Toms River East (4-6)

It was an up-and-down season for the Raiders, who never won more than two in a row or lost more than two in a row. They battled in the Liberty Division, losing one-score games to division champion Toms River South and Pinelands. The Raiders also made a piece of Shore history this year, as assistant April Florie became the first full-time female coach in conference history.

They averaged 18.2 points per game, but if you take away nondivisional wins over Lakewood and Point Beach (a combined 6-16), they put up 13.4 points per game. That’s an area where they need to make a jump in order to get back to their winning ways, and they return dual threat quarterback Anthony Demarco to help lead the way. They also bring back running back Christian Valeo, but will graduate their top three receivers.

Defensively they lose senior captain Andrew Brush, their leading tackler, at linebacker, but safety Avery Phillips will be back on a unit that returns a decent amount of experience.

Central (4-6)

The Golden Eagles only won one divisional game and started 1-5 but rallied to win three of their last four to give themselves some momentum going into the offseason. Plus, they started the year having to replace promising quarterback Devin Sisler, who transferred to perennial power Don Bosco Prep.

Junior wideout Royalty Riley, an FBS prospect, flashed some explosiveness, particularly as a returner on special teams, while junior running back Nick Ruggiero had some big games, including a 190-yard effort in a win over Neptune. Wide receiver Liam Hurley and tight end Elijah Reeder also will be back along with the majority of the offensive line, so the offense has a chance to be a strength next season. Many of those linemen also return on defense, so Central has the opportunity to be one of the turnaround teams in the Shore next year.

Neptune (2-7)

The Scarlet Fliers suffered their fourth straight losing season, ending with a lop-sided loss to rival Asbury Park and going winless in the division as they try to rebuild a proud program. While they lose leading rushers Eddie Green and Carl Christie, their main cause for optimism is freshman dual threat quarterback Daaron Lynch, who took his lumps in his first taste of varsity football but showed promise. Sophomore Kemar Archer also showed flashes of playmaking ability.

Neptune played several young linemen on both sides of the ball as well as multiple freshmen and sophomores in the secondary, so a lot of young players got some valuable experience this year that the Fliers hope will translate into wins. The most important thing for this program is stability, as Mike Seber became Neptune’s fourth head coach since 2019 this season. Before the players can even learn a new system, the coaching staff is gone, so just having the same person in place for a couple years would be a welcome development.

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