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Mainland baseball team enjoys thrill ride of a lifetime during state championship run

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By DAVE O’SULLIVAN Publisher If you could bottle and sell Mustang Magic, you’d make so much money you could have your pick of oceanfront homes in Margate, Longport or Brigantine. You’d take weekend skiing trips to Colorado in the winter just for something to do. Heck, you might even have a talking robot to do household chores, like Rocky Balboa did in Rocky IV. The Mainland Regional High School baseball team was transfixed in a dreamlike state throughout the state playoffs, going from likely first-round fodder in the sectional playoffs to Group 3 state champions. And even now, several weeks later, it’s tough to find anybody who can really explain how the Mustangs did it. But that’s the great thing about high school sports. Every so often you catch lightning in a bottle and something magical happens. Mainland had no chance, right? In the first round of the South Jersey Group 3 tournament they were up against Delsea Regional stud Bryan Dobzanski, a 6-foot-4 flamethrower who, following the playoffs, was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals and is beginning his professional career this month. Sure, Mainland had its own ace in Matt Tepedino, a senior who will play at Division I New Orleans University this fall, but how could the Mustangs, a team that hit just .237 during the regular season, even score enough to make it past the first round of the playoffs? “We weren’t showing that we had the ability to make it this far, but once we did we started doing real well and everything came together and we actually became a baseball team,” said senior pitcher Matt Tepedino, who pitched brilliantly and won the semifinal game in both the sectional and group playoffs. “Everybody just wanted to have something to do with the playoff wins and wanted to show what they had, and they did. “(The win over Delsea) was actually huge. I never expected to go that long in that game. It just kept going on and on. It was a good game and we couldn’t get away from them. It just set the tone for the rest of the playoff run.” Mustangs senior pitcher Matt Tepedino holds up the state championship trophy after Mainland beat Mt. Olive 5-3 in early June to win Group 3. (Glory Days Magazine photos/Dave O'Sullivan) Mustangs senior pitcher Matt Tepedino holds up the state championship trophy after Mainland beat Mt. Olive 5-3 in early June to win Group 3. (Glory Days Magazine photos/Dave O’Sullivan) “Looking back on it, getting emails and phone calls from former players and coaches, and people in the community, it showed me how much the sport and the team meant to everybody. It was nice, the support we got the whole way through, and obviously the finish was something special,” said Mustangs head coach Billy Kern. “I kept telling the kids, it felt like the Delsea game was like two playoff games because it was so long, and there were so many opportunities for us to win the game. And then, finally, we broke through and on the bus ride home I found out there was an upset on the other side of the bracket and we would be home for the second round. After round one you start seeing how the brackets are shaking out and who you will have to play. I think that’s when they started believing that they had a chance to do something special.” And something special is exactly what the Mustangs did. They took care of Burlington Township 3-1 in the second round of sectionals behind a gritty pitching performance by Jack Loefflad. That theme would continue throughout the playoffs, as Mainland relied on its pitching staff and a few timely hits to just keep on winning. They dispatched Hammonton 4-1 in the sectional semifinals, then outlasted one of the gutsiest pitching performances in decades by Moorestown in the South Jersey final to slip past the top-seeded Quakers 2-0 in nine innings. Scott Zimmer threw 168 pitches and struck out 21 batters, but Mainland rallied for a pair of runs on passed balls in the top of the ninth, and sophomore Kyle Gerace shut the door in the bottom of the ninth after junior Nick Droboniku turned in the performance of his life, tossing eight shutout innings. “Once we beat Moorestown we thought, why not us?” said junior infielder Matt McLaughlin. “We knew things were going our way when we struck out 21 times and ended up getting two runs on passed balls. After that game, I feel like a bunch of us knew it was our time to win it.” “It was frustrating throughout, but I did feel like we were in the game the whole time. Even though their pitcher was so dominant we did give ourselves opportunities,” Kern said. “I was just so impressed with Droboniku keeping us in the game. Not only did Zimmer strike out 21, but there were at least three innings where we ended the inning with a guy on third and those were really pressure-packed situations and that Zimmer kid made the pitch every time.” “That kid was unreal. He threw harder and harder as the game went on. Delaware is getting a good product right there. He’s a beast,” said Mainland assistant coach Mike Camac. “But we faced a lot of good pitching all year. In the Cape-Atlantic League we faced great pitching every week. So once you get used to that level of competition, eventually you’re going to rise to the occasion.” Camac said the coaching staff always believed the Mustangs had the potential to compete with the best, despite not really showing it for most of the season. Mainland’s offense never really got on track, but their dominant pitching allowed the Mustangs to make the playoffs, and from there, everything came together. “I knew they had it in them. When we were losing I just thought we were so much better than that, and in our last 15 games we went 11-4 and in the playoffs we went 6-0, so it finally came together,” Camac said. “We were pitching well all year, and playing great defense, and I think that’s what made the difference. Our ERA in the playoffs was insane and our errors were basically nonexistent. That’s what wins games.” “Our pitching was backing us up all through the playoffs and basically carried us. Whenever Tepedino was on the mound we felt like we could beat anyone,” said senior right fielder Drew Riska. The Mainland Regional baseball team poses for a team photo after winning the Group 3 state championship at Toms River South High School in early June. The Mainland Regional baseball team poses for a team photo after winning the Group 3 state championship at Toms River South High School in early June. Tepedino got much of the attention, and deservedly so. He pitched a whale of a game against Hammonton, then followed that up with a 14-strikeout performance against Hamilton in the Group 3 semifinals where his fastball was topping out around 94 mph. “The game he threw against Hamilton was one of the best games I’ve seen a high school pitcher throw, ever,” Kern said. “He never was overwhelmed or rattled by their fans. In seven innings we didn’t visit the mound once. There was nothing to talk about. He was dominant, start to finish, in that game.” But there also were some unsung heroes who came to the forefront during the playoff run. Senior catcher Billy Talarico was a rock behind the plate and shut down opponents’ running games. He also got huge hits in the win over Hammonton as well as the state championship win over Mt. Olive. “He was somebody who absolutely got overlooked. He was our defensive player of the year, and even though he didn’t come up with a lot of hits, he came up with big hits. He had a big hit in the final, he had a hit against Zimmer and he had the breakthrough hit against Hammonton. And he threw out nearly every baserunner who tried to steal in the playoffs and he called about 95 percent of the pitches. He was outstanding throughout,” Kern said. “He was the rock back there that allowed our pitchers to be successful.” “Saying this as a former catcher, that kid was an absolute beast,” Camac said. “I think he had 10 assists during the playoffs and for a catcher that’s phenomenal. I couldn’t be more proud of him.” And guys like John Wallace and David Donovan, who didn’t see much playing time, were instrumental as team leaders who kept the intensity up. “Tepedino, John Wallace and David Donovan, those three seniors were impressive throughout the playoffs,” Kern said. “When they weren’t in the game they were up in the dugout. Wallace was the first one out of the dugout whenever we scored a run. It’s not easy being a senior and not have a direct impact on the game, but their leadership was impressive throughout.” The best way anyone could explain the run Mainland went on was, simply, timing. “I never thought we’d be playing for the state championship. But I knew we had to catch fire at some point and it just happened to be at the right time,” McLaughlin said. “We needed everybody to show up and play, and the first playoff game went 14 innings. We just caught fire at the right time.” Said Kern: “We didn’t really change much about how practice was. We tried to keep everything loose. Once we got to the Burlington game (in the second round of the S.J. Group 3 playoffs) we talked to them about accepting the challenge and winning the next pitch, the next play. We didn’t really talk about going all the way. It was more of a live-in-the-moment type of thing. Sometimes it takes a long time for a team to gel, and fortunately for us we came together at the right time.” And when third baseman Roman Papademetriou fielded a sharp ground ball and threw to first for the final out in the state championship game, the Mustangs knew they would have memories to carry with them for the rest of their lives. “It was unbelievable. As soon as that ball was hit to Roman I knew it was over. It was crazy. I never felt like that in my life,” McLaughlin said. “It was by far the best feeling of my high school career,” Riska said. “Going into senior year I wanted to make a good run in basketball and baseball. We got far in basketball, but I didn’t want to lose another state championship.” “They are going to remember this when they are old and can barely walk, winning the state championship. They are such nice kids and obviously we wanted to be winning the whole season. But we couldn’t really get mad at them because they are such nice kids,” Camac said. “We just kept staying positive, coaching and watching the kids grow.” Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sully@acglorydays.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays [adsense]

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