Boys Basketball – 2022 Shore Conference Tournament Championship Preview: Marlboro vs. Manasquan
Shore Conference Tournament Championship
Sunday, Feb. 27, 2022, 3 p.m.
At RWJBarnabas Health Arena, Toms River
No. 2 Marlboro vs. No. 5 Manasquan
Tale of the Tape
No. 2 Marlboro (22-2, 11-1 in Class A North)
Head Coach: Mike Nausedas, 10th season
SCT Championships: None
SCT Final Appearances: 1 (2017)
Road to the Final: Defeated No. 15 Central, 78-51; No. 7 Jackson Memorial, 85-44; No. 6 CBA, 45-37
Off the Bench
No. 5 Manasquan (21-4, 12-0 in Class C North)
Head Coach: Andrew Bilodeau, 14th season
SCT Championships: 7 (2020, 1957, 1955, 1948, 1947, 1945, 1941)
SCT Final Appearances: 19 (2020, 2019, 2005, 1980, 1972, 1960, 1957, 1955, 1954, 1952, 1945-48, 1939-43)
Road to the Final: Defeated No. 28 Pinelands, 78-29; No. 12 Ranney, 52-38; No. 13 Donovan Catholic, 73-41; No. 1 Red Bank Catholic, 57-53
Off the Bench
Marlboro has an all-senior starting five that has played together at the varsity level for multiple seasons. Jonathan Spatola, Jack Seidler and Jay Ratner are all third-year starters and Zack Molod is a second-year starter that got some run as a sophomore in 2019-20 as well. During that time, Marlboro has gone to places not seen in the program’s history, reaching the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV final for the first time in 2020 and making it to the unofficial Shore Conference championship game last season.
As important as the winning experience is for this group, the two championship losses in the past two years provided Marlboro with some major offseason fuel. The Mustangs lost at the buzzer in the 2020 CJ IV final at home against South Brunswick and in the final seconds of overtime at Manasquan in last year’s Shore Conference championship game – either of which would have been the program’s first postseason championship had Marlboro found a way to win.
Marlboro won its first tournament championship of any kind in December at the WOBM Christmas Classic, in which the Mustangs beat Red Bank Catholic for the title in RWJBarnabas Health Arena.
Not only are the five Marlboro starters experienced; they are also all dangerous. Seidler and Spatola are reigning All-Shore First Team selections, Molod has been a steady scoring threat and three-point shooter all year and Ratner is a tireless worker and finisher who can also step out and score on the perimeter. Vincent Spatola has also proven he can beat opponents who are overly keyed-in on Spatola, Seidler and Molod.
Marlboro showed its offensive might in a quarterfinal win over Jackson Memorial in which all five starters scored at least 12 points and all of them except for Seidler connected on a three-point attempt. The Mustangs scored only 45 points in Thursday’s win over CBA and Vin Spatola and Zack Molod each scored only five points, but Spatola’s five came as part of a 22-7 run that helped the Mustangs take control of the game.
Manasquan is probably the more flexible team in that the Warriors have shown a willingness to slow games down when it favors them, but they are also a team that likes to push the pace at every opportunity. Against Marlboro, any team looking to get out and run must tread lightly, because few teams in the state are as lethal when the game is played from sideline-to-sideline.
On the one hand, Marlboro would gladly welcome an up-and-down game in which the press becomes a factor somewhere along the way. On the other, if Manasquan wants to slow the game down, that might be the Warriors giving up something they do well in order to slow down Marlboro. It’s a gamble Manasquan is good enough to make work, but the Mustangs showed against CBA that, even against a team who wants a slower-paced game and was successful in creating one, they can still prevail.
If coach Mike Nausedas has his way, his five starters will be in the game either for the full 32 minutes or until he believes he has the win sealed. Marlboro has just two losses on the entire season and both came when one of its starters – Molod – was out and the Mustangs offense just didn’t work the same with one of its cogs missing. With the full starting five, Marlboro is 20-0 this season.
Marlboro’s starting five will, of course, be on the floor to start Sunday’s game, but should Marlboro encounter any foul trouble, things could get more interesting. Juniors A.J. Schwartz and Ryan Mendes are good athletes who can provide some defense and energy, but the five-headed scoring threat diminishes with any of the starters out, particularly Seidler, Spatola, Molod or Ratner.
In the championship game at Manasquan last March, Seidler was saddled with foul trouble for much of the game and fouled out. Any similar scenario could be devastating for Marlboro in a close game. Even without actual foul trouble, the specter of foul trouble forces the Marlboro starters to pick their spots in being aggressive, which is why their experience and basketball savvy is so crucial at this stage of the season.
Marlboro’s tallest player is Seidler at 6-foot-5 and he can be more perimeter-oriented at times. That leaves Ratner at 6-3 to handle a lot of the grunt work in the paint and against a team that commits itself to the glass and has some size to do it, Marlboro could find itself at a disadvantage. Then again, Seidler is a capable rebounder when he locks in on that part of his game, plus both Spatolas are very good rebounders for their size, with Jon Spatola putting up better than five rebounds per game despite being the shortest player on the court most nights.
Manasquan has a 6-7 big man in Matt Solomon and two long wing players in Alex Konov (6-7) and Griffin Linstra (6-4) who can make life difficult on Marlboro if the Mustangs don’t make a point of bodying up on the boards.
Marlboro has never won a postseason championship of any kind. Even the WOBM Christmas Classic title and the outright Class A North championship were both the first of their kind. Five years ago, the Mustangs made a surprise run to the championship and lost to Mater Dei Prep and did something similar last season before losing to Manasquan.
On top of this representing Marlboro’s best chance to date to win its first championship, it also might be its only chance for at least a little while. While Nausedas has shown he can coach teams into contention, next year’s group will have almost no experience and it might mark the start of a rebuild for the program.
None of that will be lost on those in the Marlboro locker room and when you throw in the scars from the last two losses, there has to be a weight of some kind on the back of this team. So far, Marlboro has done an outstanding job of competing each day and continuing to check off each box in their pursuit of a championship, but now, the trophy is in the building and the summit is in sight. How will the Mustangs respond against a program with championship pedigree, although a team with a ton of youth and almost no pressure on them?
Marlboro has five players who can score, but it is not a team that loves the idea of playing a slow-paced game or having to deal with a lot of size on the inside. Manasquan is not outstanding at any one thing, but the Warriors are very good at just about everything and will have the capability of poking at some of Marlboro’s possible weaknesses, minor as they may be.
Defensively, all five Manasquan starters and even its trio off the bench, can be trusted to match up against anyone on the floor, with the possible exception of Frauenheim, who might struggle if he somehow switched onto Seidler. Linstra has been particularly valuable on defense thanks to his length, athleticism and competitiveness and is sure to be matched up with either Jon Spatola or Jack Seidler.
Manasquan likes to get up and down the floor, but if slowing Marlboro down means slowing the game down, the Warriors can do it without messing up their flow in the process.
Manasquan has no starters back from last season, but some of its best players from recent years have heavily involved themselves in this year’s team. Ben Roy has been injured all season, but has imparted his wisdom on his teammates throughout the year. Coach Andrew Bilodeau named a host of former standouts – Jack Collins, Connor Walsh, Jimmy Walsh, Ryan Jensen, Tommy Toole, J.R. Hobbie, Tyler Hobbie, Andrew Solomon and others – who have returned to help work with the team at practice and provide some insight from their experience at Manasquan.
With the way Manasquan has played over the last several weeks, the collective effort seems to be having a profound impact on the young Warriors team. For its part, Marlboro has gotten similar support from players like P.J. Ringel and Alex Ratner, but Manasquan’s recent success runs even deeper and there is a reason the program continues to reload with All-Shore talent that blends together to form championship-contending teams.
A Chip on the Shoulder
With a lack of experience comes questions from the outside about how good a team can be in the hear-and-now. Manasquan opened the season ranked No. 5 in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 and unranked in the state and fell as far as No. 7 at the Shore earlier in the season. The Warriors are the No. 5 seed in this tournament and embraced the notion that some outside the program (including yours truly) thought they have been vulnerable at different points of the tournament.
On Sunday, Manasquan will again be an underdog against a Marlboro team that is out for revenge against the Warriors, even though most of the 2021 Manasquan team that beat the Mustangs in last year’s Shore championship game are gone or, in Roy’s case, injured. This Manasquan group also has something to prove as a young team and thanks to all the input from past players and a standout coaching staff led by Bilodeau, they are equipped to prove it on Sunday.
At this point in the season, even a team with two sophomores and two freshmen in the starting lineup has played enough games together than inexperience isn’t as much of an issue anymore. With that being said, this will be the first championship game for most of the Manasquan players, or at least the first championship game in which these particular players will be asked to shoulder the load. Solomon and Frauenheim were involved last season, but now, Solomon is the starting muscle in the middle and Frauenheim is running the point instead of just spelling a starter for a few minutes, which he did as a freshman.
Marlboro, meanwhile, has a lineup full of players who have been through the fire and are about as hungry as a team can be. Red Bank Catholic was a hungry team too, but this is an all-senior group who has been close enough to winning a championship that they could practically taste it. That makes this an opponent unlike this Manasquan team has seen this season.
Manasquan has shown it can put points on the board and the Warriors do it with a free-flowing offense that is not afraid to take calculated risks to get players open looks. Marlboro will test Manasquan’s capacity to create those shots without turning the ball over and if the Warriors commit some early turnovers that turn into Marlboro points, it can’t make them gun-shy, but it will place a premium on protecting the ball when there is a deficit to erase.
It could very well be that Manasquan is ready to navigate this Marlboro defense from the opening tip, but the amount of pressure Marlboro puts on teams when it gets into its press and starts racking up easy baskets is immense.
With the exception of, perhaps, a loss to CBA on Jan. 4, Spatola has left a significant impression on every game Marlboro plays. Even if he is not scoring 20 points, he rebounds, he breaks down defenses, he finds open players and is wrecks games on the defensive end by forcing turnovers. Ryan Frauenheim has a lot of those elements for Manasquan, but Spatola is a ridiculous athlete to boot and that makes him almost impossible to contain.
It is at least possible that Manasquan can slow down the rest of Marlboro’s starting five on a good day. Seidler could struggle to find his shot if Manasquan keeps him on the perimeter and a disciplined defensive effort could keep a hand in Molod’s face throughout the game. Ultimately, though, it is hard to envision how Manasquan bottles up Jon Spatola and if he is in a zone, that opens everything up for his teammates.
Over the last few weeks, Manasquan’s offense looks like it has found itself, with three dangerous shooters, a smart and capable point guard to run it and enough size earn some second chances. Adams is becoming an offensive star as a freshman and with one hot streak, he can break Marlboro's heart. Marlboro, meanwhile, gives up its share of points, but in this tournament, the Mustangs look like they are defending at a new level and with its proficiency in forcing turnovers, Manasquan’s offense could face some unique challenges.
Manasquan’s defense is also playing at a high level, but this Marlboro team will be unlike anything Manasquan has seen in that all five players can shoot the three. Of course, Manasquan has tested themselves with the likes of Rutgers Prep, Roselle Catholic and the Patrick School, but at almost all times, those teams are playing with at least one player on the floor who a defense does not have to track out to the three-point line.
With that being said, the key for Marlboro in this one will be to not settle too much on the perimeter, particular if Seidler’s matchup gives him an advantage down low. The Mustangs senior can score from anywhere on the floor and when he is working to get shots in the paint and crashing the offensive glass, he and the Mustangs are extremely hard to stop. If Seidler breaks 20 points or at least gets his points with a modest number of shots, that is a very good sign for Marlboro.
Although Manasquan is more than capable of finishing this run with a third straight Shore Conference championship and will relish a chance to prove another doubter wrong, Marlboro has not come all this way to lay an egg. It is going to take a supreme game to deny Marlboro at this point and with the Mustangs on the cusp of making program history, the thought of them being denied with this group in this setting is hard to process.
The Pick: Marlboro, 64-57
Semifinal Picks Record: 1-1
SCT Picks Record: 20-6