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Mainland baseball team ready for new role as hunted, rather than hunter

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By DAVE O’SULLIVAN Publisher Nobody really considered Mainland Regional to be a contender for the South Jersey Group 3 title in 2014. The Mustangs came into the playoffs as a No. 10 seed, and their 10-12 record hardly elicited any fear into potential playoff opponents. But they knew they were better than a below-.500 team. Their pitching had been dominant all year, they just didn’t hit the ball very well and had lost a bunch of games by just a run or two. Mainland adopted the Cinderella mantra, that us-against-the-world attitude, and ripped off six straight postseason victories to capture not only the sectional championship, but the overall Group 3 title as well. It was a magical run that ended with tears of joy and parents streaming onto the field at Toms River South High School after a 5-3 victory over Mt. Olive in the state championship game on June 7. There was no shortage of hugs and selfies. State championship rings were handed out during the Thanksgiving Day football game. Little different story this year. Now everybody will be looking to take Mainland down, and even getting to the playoffs to have the chance to repeat is going to be a difficult task in a loaded Cape-Atlantic League American Conference. “The biggest challenge is continuing to push them every single day. We don’t talk about last year too much. My staff and I, we don’t want them referring to themselves as the defending champions because they won’t get the opportunity to defend anything if we don’t get to the South Jersey final. If we don’t win that they won’t get a chance to defend the Group 3 title. They can be reigning champions, but come April 1, the reign is over,” said head coach Billy Kern. “They have the opportunity to accomplish even more and kind of write a better story than last year, one that shows success in April, May and June. We’re just kind of letting them know that they have the ability to repeat and do something even more special than last year.” Mainland returns 13 letter winners from a team that captured a state championship a year ago. Mainland returns 13 letter winners from a team that captured a state championship a year ago. “We’re a loose team. We lost a couple seniors from last year, but we have a lot of experience coming back. We know we have a target on our back, but we just have to play baseball like we did last year. Last year turned out real well, and we just have to play good baseball,” said McLaughlin, who also plays basketball and football. “We have a lot of confidence, but we also know that nothing comes easily. We put ourselves on the map, so a lot of teams are going to be throwing their best pitcher at us and teams are going to be playing their best baseball against us. We have to just come out strong and play like a state championship team like we did last year and good things will happen.” What helps, Kern said, is that many of his players are multi-sport athletes. They thrive on competition and have been in big games not only during last year’s playoff run, but also in other sports. “McLaughlin, Loefflad, Droboniku, Tyler Wray, there are a lot of guys who are multiple-sport athletes and they are used to competition. They’ve all been in big games in different environments. It’s just a matter of keeping them focused,” Kern said. “What I’ve been trying to tell them all along is that our goals are small. We want to win the conference and give ourselves a chance to play in the Cape-Atlantic League championship. I said it last June, and I firmly believe it, that this is one of the best conferences in the state. Some of the best pitching and the best teams we saw all year last year were within five or 10 miles of us. If we can have success in this area, we have the ability to compete state-wide.” Kern said that throughout this preseason, there hasn’t been too much talk about the goals the Mustangs have for the end of the season. They know teams will be coming after them and trying to knock them from their lofty perch as reigning state champions. They have to be able to deal with that pressure and perform under it. “We had a really good winter and a nice start to the season. It’s a season where we don’t really have to talk about goals and expectations. We have 13 letter winners returning who have had a lot of success, not only last year, but throughout their baseball careers, so I don’t have to talk to them too much about what I think they can do or what I think they can accomplish. They are a very self-motivated group and they have a very good idea about what they have the ability to do,” Kern said. “The atmosphere has been good at practice. It’s been high intensity. It’s one of those things where my coaching staff’s job is to keep them focused on our short-term goals — having good practices, winning every inning — because they are a really good bunch of ballplayers, and as long as they stay focused, the sky is the limit for them.” McLaughlin said the key for the Mustangs will be playing with confidence, yet at the same time avoiding over-confidence. “We don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves. We all know how hard it is to repeat, so we just want to go one step at a time, take it one game at a time. Obviously we want to make the playoffs this year, but we can’t get ahead of ourselves. We have to be confident, but not cocky.” Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sully@acglorydays.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays [adsense]

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VIDEO OF THE DAY

The Mainland Regional marching band entertains fans during halftime of the Mustangs' annual Thanksgi…