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Mainland’s Riska, McLaughlin enjoy redemption by winning baseball championship

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By DAVE O’SULLIVAN Publisher Drew Riska and Matt McLaughlin stood on the basketball court at Mainland High School in early March and watched Delsea Regional celebrate winning the South Jersey Group 3 championship. The Crusaders had held off a furious comeback attempt by the Mustangs to win 54-53. There would be no championship jackets for the Mustangs, no rings. Nothing. Just a loss in your final game and head to baseball practice the next day. And it didn’t look like either Riska, a senior outfielder, or McLaughlin, a junior infielder, would have a chance to bring home any hardware this baseball season, especially as Mainland stumbled to a 10-12 record during the regular season. Somehow, though, the Mustangs made the South Jersey Group 3 playoffs as a No. 11 seed, a longshot to even make it past the first round against, you guessed it, Delsea Regional. But something special happened in that first round. The Mustangs managed to force extra innings against Delsea pitcher Bryan Dobzanski, who recently signed a professional contract with the St. Louis Cardinals and throws in the low 90s with a wicked curveball. Mainland scratched out a 4-2 win over the sixth-seeded Crusaders in a 14-inning marathon. Matt McLaughlin was a guard on the Mainland basketball team that lost in the South Jersey Group 3 championship game, but he got a championship in the spring as he helped lead the baseball team to the Group 3 state title. (Glory Days Magazine photos/Dave O'Sullivan) Matt McLaughlin was a guard on the Mainland basketball team that lost in the South Jersey Group 3 championship game, but he got a championship in the spring as he helped lead the baseball team to the Group 3 state title. (Glory Days Magazine photos/Dave O’Sullivan) “We lost to Delsea in the sectional final in basketball, so winning that first playoff game was like redemption for me and McLaughlin,” Riska said. “I was talking to Drew and I said, ‘they’re not beating us twice.’ It took 14 innings, but we came out on top and got a little revenge from basketball season,” McLaughlin said. And so started Riska and McLaughlin on their improbable path to redemption. “The first game of the playoffs, going in we knew we were facing a kid (Dobzanski) who had committed to going to Louisville. Coach (Billy) Kern just said to go out there and smile, have fun and be happy to be in the playoffs,” Riska said. “We were on the borderline, so we didn’t know if we would even make the playoffs. He told us to just relax and enjoy it. (Dobzanski) started off striking everybody out. During the game I thought, hey, this might be it. But after a couple of wins we were like, hey, we can definitely do this. Our record didn’t really show it, but we knew deep down that we were talented enough to win.” In the next round, Mainland slipped past Burlington Township 3-1 behind a gem of a pitching effort from Jack Loefflad, then knocked off Hammonton behind a dominating pitching performance from senior Matt Tepedino. That set up another chance for Riska and McLaughlin to win a South Jersey championship. However, they would have to knock off top-seeded Moorestown and another pitcher, Scott Zimmer, who threw in the low 90s. Zimmer struck out 21 Mustangs batters, but somehow Mainland managed to scratch across a pair of runs in the top of the ninth inning and held on for a 2-0 win and the South Jersey championship. From there, Mainland went on to beat Hamilton in the Group 3 semifinals before knocking off Mt. Olive 5-3 to win the first state championship in Mainland baseball history. “All through the playoffs our coach from basketball (Dan Williams) was texting me and McLaughlin saying, ‘hey, you guys have another shot.’ He was joking around with us saying maybe we can actually win it this time. When we finally did, it felt great,” Riska said. “During the basketball season, that was probably the worst feeling in the world, losing by one point in the South Jersey Group 3 championship game. But we got a shot to win the championship in baseball. Not a lot of players get that chance, and luckily me and Riska did,” McLaughlin said. Coach Kern said that having two players with championship game experience certainly had an impact on the baseball team. McLaughlin and Riska had been in big games before and brought a calming influence to the baseball field during pressure situations, Kern said. Senior Drew Riska was a starter on both the basketball and baseball teams, and had a key hit that helped lead Mainland over Mt. Olive in the Group 3 baseball championship. Senior Drew Riska was a starter on both the basketball and baseball teams, and had a key hit that helped lead Mainland over Mt. Olive in the Group 3 baseball championship. “Having those two guys who have been in that atmosphere and in those kinds of situations, No. 1 it’s impressive for them to be in it, but they don’t ever seem to be overwhelmed by the moment and I think that rubbed off on everybody else. Nobody seemed to be trying to do more than they had to,” Kern said. “Drew had some ups and downs offensively. He had that tough game against Zimmer, but it shows you what kind of player he is when he can come up and got a big hit in the state championship game. Senior leadership and the guys you want up there in big games to make things happen, that’s just what Drew did. And it was the same thing with McLaughlin. “We’ll take nine guys who can compete over three guys who are really talented. We want guys who are going to battle every pitch and just want to win more than they worry about their stat sheets.” Said McLaughlin, “I think it definitely helped us out a little bit. We could calm guys down because we had been in that situation before. Being in a championship game before, and then being in one the season after, just helped calm guys down.” Assistant coach Mike Camac echoed Kern’s sentiments. “They are both phenomenal athletes who work extraordinarily hard. They work as hard as anybody and have a lot of talent, and the experience of being in big games, the whole team never really got nervous,” Camac said. “They just expected to win. They were very focused.” Another thing that carried over from the basketball season was the incredible fan support the Mustangs received. During the basketball championship, students showed up by the dozens sporting T-shirts that read “Corral Crazies” and spent the majority of the night making as much noise as possible. Those same students got on the baseball bandwagon, organizing bus trips to the away playoff games. Mainland was scheduled to play Hamilton on a Wednesday afternoon at The College of New Jersey in Ewing, and the school sent several busloads of students to form a cheering section. The game, however, was rained out just before it was set to begin, but all those students made the same 90-mile trip the following day, their spirits anything but dampened. “It was awesome having that support. Not a lot of schools have four buses full of students riding up to a baseball game. They were right there with us through the whole playoffs and that helped us out a lot,” McLaughlin said. “They were right back there the next day. They gave us a lot of support that day and we wanted to pull it out for them.” “The one thing we kept talking about was the success of the basketball team and how the fans came out and supported them, and that carried over. Those same kids who were leading the cheers in basketball were organizing the bus trips for baseball,” Kern said. For Riska, he couldn’t have dreamed of a better way to end his high school athletic career. “You can’t really accomplish anything more. We won some playoff games in basketball, and in baseball I just wanted to make it to the playoffs, that was my goal. Once we got there I was like, hey, senior year, let’s do it and leave everything on the field. It was a great way to end my senior year,” Riska said. Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sully@acglorydays.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays [adsense]

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