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Commentary: Composure is the key to making a deep run in baseball, softball playoffs

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By DAVE O’SULLIVAN Publisher Bottom of the sixth inning in the South Jersey Group 3 baseball semifinals, and there was Mainland Regional senior Nick Droboniku fussing over Kyle Gerace’s facial hair, making sure the twists in his goatee were on point before Gerace strode out to the mound in the top of the seventh to attempt to close out a 1-0 victory over Toms River South. An odd scene in a white-knuckle playoff game against one of the most storied programs in state history — a school that has won more than a handful of state championships and produced current Cincinnati Reds third baseman Todd Frazier. But if you have spent any time around the Mainland baseball team, you know these kids embrace the pressure that big games bring. The Mustangs won the South Jersey and overall Group 3 championships last year, and returned 13 letter winners this year. They repeated as South Jersey champions with a 10-0 win over Cumberland, a 3-2 win over Highland, a 1-0 victory over Toms River South and a 6-3 win over Delsea Regional. Their run nearly came to an end against Highland, but the Mustangs calmly wiped out an early deficit and made the plays in the last few innings to dispatch the Tartans. You can have all the big arms and power bats you want, but in the end, what wins championships at the high school level is the ability to stay composed when the pressure heats up and your shirt collar starts getting tight. And there is only one way to gain composure — through experience. Many of the players on Mainland’s roster cut their teeth in big games with the Atlantic Shore Babe Ruth team, playing in multiple world series events. They gained confidence with each win during last season’s epic run through the sectional and state tournaments, so when it came time for the 2015 state playoffs, the Mustangs were tested, seasoned and ready. The importance of that experience can’t be understated, and you can see examples of that throughout the Cape-Atlantic League. Having experienced seniors such as third baseman Sam Errera helped Cedar Creek advance deep into the South Jersey Group 2 playoffs this spring. (Glory Days Magazine photos/Dave O'Sullivan) Having experienced seniors such as third baseman Sam Errera helped Cedar Creek advance deep into the South Jersey Group 2 playoffs this spring. (Glory Days Magazine photos/Dave O’Sullivan) Some are surprised that the Holy Spirit baseball team made a run and won the Non-Public B state championship, considering the Spartans at one point were 1-7 and even came into the title game with just a 13-16 record. But Holy Spirit played a very tough schedule in the Cape-Atlantic League that prepared them for big-game atmosphere, and, more importantly, the Spartans are led by upperclassmen who have a lot of experience. Guys such as Anthony Boselli and Joe Hartley have multiple years of varsity experience, as does A.J. Russo, who also has played in a ton of big games with the Holy Spirit basketball team. I’ve heard Mainland coach Billy Kern say this several times about his team after big postseason wins: “The moment wasn’t too big for them.” Several softball teams also used the experienced they have gained during the past two seasons to make inspired runs to their respective sectional semifinals. Egg Harbor Township is a fairly young team overall, but relied on seasoned seniors Sam Barone in the outfield and Hunter Irvin inside the pitcher’s circle to advance to the semis of South Jersey Group 4 before falling 6-2 to second-seeded Kingsway. Cedar Creek, behind senior pitcher Cheyenne Meyer, a Division I recruit heading to Marshall University this fall, made it all the way to the semis of South Jersey Group 2 before being stopped 3-2 by top-seeded West Deptford. The Pirates also had some key players, such as Darby Langel and Sam Errera, who had been through playoff battles in previous years. So, what is the formula for developing seasoned players who can rise to the occasion during high-pressure playoff baseball and softball? Well, if there was an easy answer there would be a lot fewer stressed-out coaches. It’s a combination of players having the opportunity to play for high-level summer teams, getting the chance to get varsity playing time as sophomores and juniors, and also motivated and knowledgeable coaching staffs. The staffs led by Kern at Mainland, Steve Normane at Holy Spirit, Mary Dunlap at Egg Harbor Township and Shawn Cohen at Cedar Creek probably don’t get nearly the credit they deserve for building up highly competitive baseball and softball programs. The Mainland baseball fan base understands just what a talented coaching staff the Mustangs have, and that was evident after the South Jersey championship win over Delsea. Moms and dads made a point of thanking every single assistant coach, not only for bringing another championship to Linwood (which all parents love), but also for developing their players into young men who will benefit from their high school baseball experience for years to come. Being able to handle pressure and stay composed aren’t just baseball skills. Those are life skills. Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sully@acglorydays.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays [adsense]

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