With the Shore Conference Tournament bracket now set, here are my initial thoughts about it:
—It seems like the results from Monday didn’t really factor into the seeding. St. John Vianney still got the No. 10 seed despite a loss to a Raritan team that did not qualify for the tournament, and Manasquan was still down at No. 16 even after a 13-4 win over the No. 4 seed St. Rose, which did not hurt the Purple Roses in any way because they were projected as a No. 4 seed.
—I think the team with the most to prove is Central as the No. 5 seed. When the Golden Eagles lost to a sub-.500 Brick team this past weekend and then had to go to extra innings to beat another sub-.500 team, Manchester, on Monday, many were questioning how valid that 15-1 record is and how they got a seed that high. The sentiment is that a team like Toms River South, which boasts a win over No. 3 Toms River North and has played a tougher schedule, should be higher than No. 7, possibly flipping with Central at No. 5 and then leaving Manalapan at No. 6. It looks like the win over No. 2 Christian Brothers Academy on Saturday proved to be huge for the Braves, who I don’t think get that 6 seed if they don’t knock off the Colts behind Seton Hall-bound pitcher Ryan Harvey.
—I thought Neptune at No. 24 was too low for a team that beat No. 8 Red Bank and No. 12 Monmouth. I think sometimes the past history of a program can hurt in these seedings because if it hasn’t been an elite program and has had a lot of years of struggling, they get pigeonholed by opinion rather than evaluated for what they’ve done this season.
—Some of the better first-round match-ups look to be Manasquan against a Middletown North team that has won four straight to qualify and could be a sleeper in this tournament; Brick Memorial, which boasts wins over Jackson Memorial and Toms River South but had to win on Monday just to qualify, against Class A Central leader Red Bank Catholic. This is a game that could show just how tough Class A South is if Memorial can win it against a good Caseys team; Shore drew a tough assignment with a dangerous Colts Neck team; and Jackson Liberty can make school history with its first SCT win in its first SCT appearance in its two-year varsity history when it goes on the road to face an Ocean team that has lost three straight through Monday.
As for the Ocean County Tournament semifinals today at Toms River South between the host Indians and Brick (4 p.m.) and then the nightcap between Jackson Memorial and Toms River North (7 p.m.), a few quick thoughts:
—Brick is playing with house money at this point as the 17th seed. Toms River South will try to throw the knockout punch early by getting a big lead and trying to turn this into a 10-run game. The longer the Indians let the Green Dragons hang around, the more confidence they will gain that they can continue this Cinderella run. A big key for Brick will be its defense, which has been better during this tournament run. The Dragons have lost two straight since their big Saturday in the SCT and this is all they have left to play for, so they will give it their best shot. Toms River South, meanwhile, is looking to defend its OCT title, and I would think the Indians would want to refrain from using Tyler Gebler on the mound until the championship game on Saturday at Toms River East. Usually at this point in the season, Toms River South and pitching coach Mitch Powitz like to use their depth and throw one guy for three innings and another guy for four or use a combination of pitchers so that they keep a variety of options as they start playing in multiple tournaments.
—As for the second game, that is the marquee game of the tournament as Toms River North looks to get the monkey off its back and vanquish Jackson after losing their two regular-season games to the Jaguars by a combined score of 10-2, including a 6-0 loss in their most recent meeting. I think Toms River North is going to come out angry after being somewhat embarrassed when Jackson mowed the Mariners over the last time. A big key in this game is going to be who scores first, as Jackson set the tone early the last time. Jackson hasn’t been trailing late into a game in a while, so it’s up to the Mariners to put some pressure on them. Jackson has already seen Mark Leiter and Matt Mancini, so we’ll see if the Mariners try to throw someone new at them. Jackson’s Kevin Needham has dominated North twice this season in complete-game victories and would be pitching on three days’ rest if he goes, but they also have Pete Kelich and Bryan Soloman in reserve. I will be curious to see if any of Jackson’s other pitchers can have the success that Needham has had against a fearsome lineup. It should be a good one, but if I had to pick it, I would say you are looking at at Jackson Memorial-Toms River South final on Saturday, but obviously no one would be shocked if Toms River North, which is still my No. 2 team in the Shore, finally got over the hump against the Jaguars. I just think Jackson’s lineup is so locked in right now that even if the pitching isn’t excellent, the Jaguars will score enough to win.