Who is No. 1 at the Jersey Shore? Introducing The 2021 Baseball Preseason Top 10
Just about the only thing baseball-related that was part of the 2020 season after March 11 was the Shore Sports Network Top 10, which went unchallenged by any actual results (the Last Dance World Series in July, notwithstanding).
Thankfully, there will be a postseason Top 10 to go with this year’s Preseason Top 10, which will once again subject to verifiable scrutiny. In other words, take a screenshot: what you are about to read is sure to change.
It is hard to decipher how good a lot of the teams in the running are at this point because there was not a full season to get to know a lot of the players that would have been new to the varsity game last year. The Last Dance gave a brief glimpse into some of the possibilities, but the real education begins on Monday.
Rejoice: baseball is back in New Jersey.
After back-to-back 20-plus win seasons in 2018 and 2019, Jackson Memorial’s would-be 2020 team made the most of its summer by winning seven straight games to reach the championship game of the Last Dance World Series last July. That was a senior-led Jaguars team, but despite losing six starters from the lineup and a top pitcher, Jackson Memorial will be loaded again. The Division-I pitching duo of senior Matt Potok (Coastal Carolina) and Zach Crotchfelt (Auburn) is a big reason why and the lineup will have plenty of firepower, albeit without a lot of varsity experience.
While Jackson Memorial looks like the comfortable choice for No. 1 to start the year, it’s not as clear who the first runner-up is to open the year. Other teams have more marquee names within the Shore Conference, but Manalapan has the makings of a team without a glaring weakness. The lineup has some experience around the infield and lots of potential in a deep outfield, while the pitching staff will be headlined by two standout arms in Joe Mazza and Tyler Kane.
When ace Shane Panzini is on the mound, it will be hard to beat Red Bank Catholic. The Virginia commit and potential top-100 pick in July’s MLB Draft is not going to give up much over the course of the season, at least if his track recorded and improved stuff is any indication. RBC’s success will depend on how the rest of the pitching staff rounds into form and how well an inexperienced lineup can swing the bats day-in and day-out.
The Lancers have their best roster since finishing No. 1 in N.J. back in 2014 and now, it’s just a matter of putting the pieces together and turning it into wins. Without a 2020 season, there is a little bit of mystery regarding how St. John Vianney will look two years later, but with a good group of arms led by Ryan Sekman and a potentially devastating lineup, the Lancers could quickly become a force.
Last year was going to be Toms River North’s opportunity to get back into the mix for the Ocean County and Shore Conference Tournament titles, of which they collected a combined five in three years (three counties and one conference) between 2016 and 2018. The group that coach Andy Pagano hoped could reintroduce the Mariners to championships after a “down” year in 2019 by their standards is now made up of mostly seniors, so Toms River North could very well re-establish itself as a championship brand again.
The Lions are dealing with some injury issues to open the year but assuming they can get healthy, they will be a factor coming out of a loaded Class A North division. Middletown North was as impressive as any team from the Shore Conference during the Last Dance World Series outside of Jackson Memorial, averaging better than 10 runs per game during pool play and losing a 1-0 game in the knockout round. Danny Frontera and Colin Dowlen are ready to go at the top of the rotation, which should make the Lions hard to beat in at least two games per week.
The defending Group III champions from 2019 rode a dominant pitching staff to a championship two years ago and while the Crimson Knights have some arms upon which to lean, it will be a pair of left-handed sluggers in the middle of the order that make Wall imposing in 2021. Monmouth commit Jay Bant has already proven himself as a varsity hitter and junior shortstop and Duke commit Andrew Fischer is primed to do the same this spring.
With a core of seniors that has been playing together at the varsity level since 2019, the Patriots have the makings of a team that should threaten to win the Class A North championship, which means they will be a contender for the County and Shore titles as well. Two years ago, the group lacked power in the lineup, but they are now two years older – and stronger – and it should show in improved offense. All the while, Freehold Township has an unquestioned ace in Zach Gorman and two solid hurlers in Luke Mulhern and Matt Villapiano backing him up.
Like Middletown North, Howell might be a little higher if not for some preseason injury concerns, but there is still a lot to like about the Rebels. Senior Vin Impresa is ready to go at the top of the rotation and while co-ace Chris Ellison gets himself up to speed after an injury delayed his start to the preseason, junior Dan Furlong has picked up the slack. That should give Howell a tough trio for A North teams to deal with, plus an improved offense to complement the arms.
At the beginning of the season, the name on the front of the jersey can mean as much in the rankings as the names on the back. Eventually, however, the players occupying those jerseys have to prove themselves worthy and that will be the challenge for CBA – one of the youngest varsity rosters in the Shore Conference. The arms – Colin Reilly, Jack Frankovic, Henry Escandon, among others – have a chance to be very good and there is a lot of promis in the position-player group, but the schedule will be tough and no one is going to take it easy on CBA because they are young.
Ten More to Watch
Marlboro – With five Class A North teams in the rankings, Marlboro is a sixth just outside the picture. The Mustangs have some questions in the pitching staff, but they should hit and catch the ball enough that the pitchers don’t have to be perfect.
Rumson-Fair Haven – The Bulldogs were one of the Shore’s youngest rosters two years ago and have a solid mix of seniors and juniors that are ready to challenge for the top of the A Central division and some postseason hardware.
Ranney – While Rumson comes of age, Ranney is hoping to start a three-year run of dominance and perhaps beyond simply in the Class B Central title. The Panthers are very young, but very talented and their talented pitching staff might make them a county contender despite their age.
Ocean – The Spartans have a nice mix of pitching, offense and potential with some good young players, not to mention a recent history of contending for postseason championships.
Colts Neck – The junior class has a chance to be very good and if there is potential for a big 2022, there is a chance 2021 is pretty good too.
Middletown South – Yet another A North team, Middletown South graduated a loaded 2020 class last June but has an experienced pitching staff that keeps them a contender in A North, even as the No. 7 projected team in the Shore’s deepest division.
Central – With Cam Leiter atop the rotation and some proven seniors and juniors who took their lumps as underclassmen in 2019, the Golden Eagles are ready to climb closer to the top of Ocean County again.
Lacey – With a senior one-two punch in the rotation and a number of experienced bats in the lineup, this Lacey group has the cast and the chemistry to get back to the top of Class B South
Jackson Liberty – Technically the defending B South champion, Jackson Liberty has a young group good enough to make it three in a row.
Toms River South – Another junior-heavy team in Ocean County, Toms River South does not have a proven roster, but it has a proven track record under Ken Frank, who is six wins shy of 900 for his career.