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Mainland baseball proved it has staying power by winning its second straight South Jersey championship

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By DAVE O’SULLIVAN Publisher On May 13, 2014, the Mainland Regional baseball team lost 1-0 to St. Augustine Prep stud pitcher Joey Gatto to fall to 6-11. A little more than a year later, the Mustangs own a Cape-Atlantic League American Conference crown, a pair of South Jersey Group 3 championships and a state title. Following that loss to the Hermits, the Mustangs won 33 of 39 games and successfully defended their South Jersey title, dispelling any notion that they are a one-hit wonder, a flash-in-the-pan, a Cinderella story, or any other worn-out cliche. Head coach Billy Kern knew the group of players he had last year — and the ones who would be returning this season — had a chance to do something special. It was just a matter of whether or not they could have enough confidence to match their talent level. That loss to Gatto, a current Anaheim Angels farmhand, and St. Augustine gave the Mustangs the confidence that they could compete with anybody, and that, Kern said, was the turning point for a baseball program that has taken South Jersey by storm in the past 12 months. “The turning-point game was actually a loss. We took a 1-0 loss but played good baseball in a defeat to Joey Gatto. I think that was a big game as far as just getting them over the mental hump that they could play with anybody in the league. He was obviously one of the top pitchers in the state last year,” Kern said. “I think that was a big turning-point game, and we were fortunate enough to go 13 innings in that first-round playoff game against Delsea. That felt like two playoff games. When you get to the fifth or sixth inning of a playoff game, every out matters. Then when you get to the ninth, 10th or 11th innings it’s almost like playing two games. By the time the second round rolled around we had already been battle tested.” Mainland faced another imposing pitcher in the opening round of last year’s South Jersey Group 3 tournament — Bryan Dobzanski of Delsea, a two-time wrestling state champion who would go on to sign a professional baseball contract with the St. Louis Cardinals after the season. The Mustangs got the game to extra innings tied 1-1, and eventually won 4-2 in an epic 13-inning marathon that started a string of six straight playoff wins that culminated in a Group 3 state championship. Senior first baseman Tyler Wray leaps into the arms of senior pitcher Nick Droboniku after the Mustangs beat Delsea Regional 6-3 to win their second straight South Jersey Group 3 championship. (Glory Days Magazine photos/Dave O'Sullivan) Senior first baseman Tyler Wray leaps into the arms of senior pitcher Nick Droboniku after the Mustangs beat Delsea Regional 6-3 to win their second straight South Jersey Group 3 championship. (Glory Days Magazine photos/Dave O’Sullivan) “We had those highs and lows in that game that you can easily fold from and it was nice to come out on top in a game that very easily could have gone either way,” Kern said. “We all knew we had talent, it was just about getting it all together and making this a team. We wanted to show people that we are a great team and that we could compete with anyone,” said current junior pitcher and infielder Kyle Gerace, who became eligible halfway through last season after transferring from St. Augustine. “We faced a great pitcher in Dobzanski, and a lot of the guys were scared. I mean, the guy throws bullets. Facing a pitcher like that, it really is scary. But we had Tep on the mound, then we went to Nick (Droboniku) and I ended it. We got through a few jams during the game. That hadn’t really happened in a while, and when it did happen it kind of opened our eyes to the whole playoff atmosphere, and we were like, ‘OK, we can win these kinds of games. We can handle the pressure, we can get a few runs here and there and win big games.'” Tep is Matt Tepedino, last year’s senior ace pitcher who was one of the keys to this amazing two-year run for the Mustangs. He came on like gangbusters late last season and turned in dominating performances in both the sectional and state tournaments. Another key was the addition of Gerace. Mainland had been scuffling before he became eligible, but once he was inserted into the lineup, not only did it help solidify the infield but he added another middle-of-the-order bat to an offense that sorely needed a spark. “I had heard a lot about Tep and how he was a great pitcher, and I knew we had all the pieces. I knew with the lineup we had last year that this was a team that could go far. It was frustrating because I knew we had a lot of talent, we just had to put it together,” Gerace said. “As we got closer to the playoffs, Tep started getting more focused and having better command. It started with pitching, and from there we started piecing together a few hits. We weren’t a great hitting team last year, but we started to realize how much potential we had and it kind of took off from there. “When I first (became eligible), I sensed that the team was down a little bit. It wasn’t like a normal, upbeat baseball dugout. But after a few games everybody started coming together. We started getting some timely hits and some great outings from our starting pitchers.” It was natural for people to dub the Mustangs a Cinderella story after last season. After all, they had come into the playoffs as a No. 10 seed with a losing record. They finished with six straight wins to improve to 16-12 by season’s end, and after capturing the state title with a 5-3 win over Mt. Olive, views about the team began to change. Coming into this year, Mainland no longer was the cute underdog story. Now they had to go out and prove they had staying power, and they embraced that challenge head on. Kern said he didn’t approach this season as having something to prove, but his players certainly did. Left fielder Dean Deveney gets mobbed by teammate Matt Thomas after blasting a solo home run in the sectional championship win over Delsea. Left fielder Dean Deveney gets mobbed by teammate Matt Thomas after blasting a solo home run in the sectional championship win over Delsea. “I didn’t feel that way, but the kids kind of took on that mentality. It’s a lot easier to play the underdog role and get yourself up for games than it is to go in with the expectation of winning. I knew they were talented, but the thing I’ve been pleased with is that there are games you are expected to win along the way and you can easily slip up … I was impressed with how well they competed in the Cape-Atlantic League,” Kern said. “We tried to put small goals in front of them back in March when we started talking about expectations for the season. We put it in the order of win the CAL, get a Diamond Classic berth, get an opportunity to play for the South Jersey title, then get an opportunity to play for the state title. I said it a couple times throughout the year that last year was last year, and that if they wanted to have the kind of storybook ending that last year’s team had it was going to take effort and it was going to take work.” The Mustangs (23-6) put in the work, and having that chip on their shoulder all season long paid off. They beat Cumberland Regional, Highland Regional, Toms River South and Delsea Regional to win their second straight South Jersey title while also setting a single-season school record for wins. “The one thing about this team that is most impressive is that they got everybody’s No. 1 all season long. Last year’s team was a little bit under the radar and we would face maybe a No. 2 or No. 3 starter from some teams, but when the playoffs rolled around this team got every other team’s best shot and came out on top time and time again,” Kern said. “We played Eastern (in the Diamond Classic), and they didn’t throw their No. 1 but at the same time we didn’t throw our No. 1 either. We weren’t really hitting the ball and we lost by two runs, and it was one of those games where you knew you could have beaten that team,” Gerace said. “The whole season, a lot of people talked about Ocean City possibly winning the CAL; it just felt like all season people were doubting us. But to go out there and get more than 20 wins, 20-win seasons are huge and for us to go out there and prove that we are a great team and can get 20 wins, it just goes to show we are a talented team that can win big-time games.” Gerace said that the coaching staff of the Kern brothers (Billy, Dan and Brian), Mike Camac, Brian Smith and Mike DeCicco deserve as much credit as the players for Mainland’s success the past two seasons. “The Kerns are so knowledgeable. It’s fun to have young guys on the coaching staff who have played Division I baseball and have been in big-time games,” Gerace said. “They have the experience, so when we go into a game against a guy like Dobzanski or Gatto, it’s great knowing your coaches have confidence that you can hit that guy. It’s the whole atmosphere that they create.” Billy Kern said that what he has enjoyed most the past 12 months is seeing the response from the school and community to the effort his boys have put in. “It’s nice to see the hard work pay off, but it’s the work of so many people. We have such a great volunteer group in the offseason. They do a great job in December, January and February. I also have awesome assistant coaches who put the time in. It’s the work of so many people,” Kern said. “What was exciting for me was to see the amount of people who came out to support the kids (in the South Jersey final). That was the biggest crowd I’ve seen at a high school baseball game. You see the community come out and support them. We had five school buses of kids signed up to come see (the Group 3 semifinals). It’s nice to see the buzz about Mainland baseball and that we aren’t just a blip on the radar, we are here to stay.” Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sully@acglorydays.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays [adsense]

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