By Tim Morris
Everything points to the 2016 boys soccer season being another blockbuster.
With Colts Neck High School back in the Shore Conference A North Division, a tough division just got tougher.
Freehold Township High School (15-4-4) led the way last fall, capturing the NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group IV championship with a thrilling 3-2 win over Monroe Township High School. The Patriots were also the A North public school champions.
Todd Briggs stepped down as head coach after last year’s big season. His replacement, Josh Mehl, has six starters back from that championship season.
“We return several key members of the championship teams of the past two seasons,” Mehl said, as Freehold Township won the Shore Conference Tournament in 2014.
Those players are Adrian Barajas, Kyle Trainor, Sean O’Donnell, Matt Nastarowicz, Andrew DiBella and Josh Nastarowicz, who are seniors with a championship pedigree.
Newcomers include seniors Kris Argyropoulos, March Cohen, Paul Katyal and Matt Cole; juniors Josh Cagan, Kevin Finn, Jon Finocchiaro, Matt Finocchiaro, Jimmy Farrell and Matt Nitti; and sophomores Chris Orrico, Alonzo Konstantinidis and Alex Janssen.
“Coach Briggs instilled a championship-or-bust mentality at [Freehold] Township over the last several years, and the team and I have the same expectations this season,” Mehl said. “We have a really good core of guys who know what they are doing out there, so there are younger guys who will need to step up and fill the shoes of players who have graduated.
“We expect to be a significant force in the A North and compete for championship soccer.”
Manalapan High School also looks to continue its winning tradition. Kerry Eisman is the new head coach at the helm of the program, replacing John Natoli. And as the jayvee coach for more than a decade, he is familiar with the team.
“We are a team that will rely on our togetherness, toughness and balance,” Eisman said. “We are led by some terrific seniors.”
Among them are four-year starter and two-year captain Rocky Garretson, Conor O’Neill, Joe Maccariello, Cameron Saunders and Ethan Sholom.
The returning juniors are Quentin Pickering and Josh Koenig, who shared the goalkeeping duties with Sholom. Between them, they combined for nine shutouts in 2015, when the Braves were 11-6-2.
Manalapan has a number of newcomers, including Sam Rivere, Dylan Han, Jon BiBlasi, Jon Karlin, Adam Brodsky, Jason Popowitz, Adam Goldberg, James Ia Spina, Ryan Myaskovsky, Alex Gargiullo, Justin Goldberg, D’Angelo Reyes, Mike Kuver, Marc Tucillo and J.T. Sasso.
“There is a lot of inexperience, but these guys battled with all the great players the past few years in practice every day,” Eisman said. “They will definitely play with heart and desire.”
Marlboro High School was one of the surprise teams of 2015, going 8-7-4 and making the postseason tournaments. Head coach Dave Santos, who is in his 21st year at Marlboro, returns a ton of experience and is one of the team’s to watch out for in 2016.
“We return a very solid group of returnees,” Santos said. “We will probably start 10 seniors.”
The Mustangs’ returning starters are goalie Jamie Weinberg (1.35 goals-against average); Dan McGrath; tri-captains Ryan LaRocca, Justin Goldstein and Josh Grun; Jaden Strumeier; Steven Karp; P.J. Ringel; and Verazdat Topuzyan. Strumeier, a sophomore, is the only starter who is not a senior.
Senior Brett Easton could complete the starting lineup.
Also back from last year’s state playoff team are Ilan Galitsky, Jacob Grine, Jared Markowitz, Phil Kordunov, Matt Howard, Brian Dates, Zachary Scarpa and Jacob Edri.
Newcomers include Marten Sakharny, J.P. Edralin, Elijah Krain, Jake Rosen, Justin Tzitzis, Sam Rikshpun and Seun Majekodunmi.
Santos’ main concern is scoring. The team graduated its top scorers. Karp and Ringel are the leading scorers from 2015, and they each scored 12 points.
Art Collier’s Cougars (8-9-2) return to A North with an experienced team that qualified for the state playoffs last fall. Colts Neck has seven starters returning, including four defensemen.
“The team should be significantly improved from last year,” Collier said.
Along with seven starters, Colts Neck has 16 players in total who either started or saw significant playing time.
The Cougars’ returnees are Owen Keusch, Ryan Tompkins, Colt Luzzi, Chris Strzalkowski, Connor Smith, Connor Sager, Christian Sager, Zach Shaffer, Jayson Visco, Bryan Chehanske, Zach Ferchak, Michael Martinho, Amro Dewedar, Jake Moore, Dan Gaines and Ethan Kilmnick.
Newcomers expected to contribute are Parker Ballingal, Louis Reale, Don Friedrich, Evan Lowell, Sam Becce, Jack Becce and Dean Posner.
Lowell and Friedrich are vying for the starting goalie position.
Colts Neck will be a very competitive in what is the demanding A North. Just ask the Patriots, who squeaked past Colts Neck, 1-0, in the state playoffs last year.
Freehold High School head coach Anthony Sessa’s team will also be much improved over 2015 (5-12-2).
“We have an experienced nucleus returning from last year and a group of very talented newcomers,” Sessa said.
The Colonials’ returnees are seniors Andy Rizo, Isaiah Ladouceur, Tommy Boyle, Alex Trajkoski, Roger Vega, Josue Aceituno, Colin Bertscha, Abe Cuautle, Kevin Manzano, Alex Soto and Nestor Romero; and juniors Jared Avila, Jake Brower, Saif Elsiedy and Robbie Bailey.
Newcomers include Abelardo Herrera, Luca Bruckman, Phil Franco, Brendan Duffy, Cameron Elslager and Chris Wraback.
“With good focus and leadership from our seniors, I feel we will and can achieve our goal of making both the postseason tournaments and be a contender in a challenging division.”
Rich Yuro’s Howell High School team, which was once a force in A North, would like to return to contention.
Tyler DiGiovanni, Dylan Dougher, Brandon Downey, Joe Masino, Tom Adams and Shane McBridge (goalie) are the Rebels’ core.
Howell and Freehold Township opened their seasons Sept. 9, with the Patriots pulling out a 2-1 win in double overtime on Finn’s golden goal.
Jon Finocchiaro also scored for the Patriots, and Adams found the back of the net for Howell during regulation play.