By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
High school baseball coaches salivate when they get a big group of talented freshman coming in. They know the program will be competitive for the next four years, and they start dreaming of sectional and state championships.
Four years ago, the Ocean City baseball program welcomed one of its best freshman classes ever, and now that the careers of all those players are officially over, it’s safe to say that freshman class didn’t disappoint.
Not all of this year’s seniors played varsity four years ago, when the Red Raiders went 21-4 and advanced all the way to the South Jersey Group 3 championship game against Burlingtown Township, but some did, and the ones who didn’t got a chance to see the winning tradition of Ocean City baseball up close.
In the past four seasons, Ocean City has put up some outstanding numbers, and the numbers don’t lie. The Red Raiders have gone 74-27 the past four years, and that includes a 10-4 record in the postseason.
This year, Ocean City went 21-6, won the Cape-Atlantic League American Conference and South Jersey Group 3 championships, and advanced all the way to the Group 3 state championship game. Northern Highlands denied the Raiders their first state championship with a 7-2 win on June 11, but that doesn’t overshadow the incredible season this baseball team turned in, particularly under the circumstances.
Ocean City was billed as one of the top teams in South Jersey before the season even started, so players had to deal with high expectations right from the beginning. But the starting lineup featured all seniors except for junior shortstop Andrew Donoghue, and after a disappointing loss to Winslow in the second round of the 2015 playoffs, all those seniors were eager to prove Ocean City was one of the best teams in South Jersey.
And the Red Raiders had reason to be confident. Their pitching staff was stacked. Ace Sean Mooney was one of the best pitchers in the state throughout his high school career, and Josh Arnold would have been a No. 1 pitcher on any other team. And third starter Nick Artymowicz probably could have been the No. 1 starter on most teams in the Cape-Atlantic League.
Mooney hadn’t let up an earned run all season until the state championship game, and on that day, Northern Highlands star Zach Dreznin turned in a lights-out performance, limiting Ocean City to just two runs in seven innings.
“The year we had was unbelievable. One of the best years we’ve ever had at Ocean City. We’ve never won the conference and South Jersey in the same year. So we had an outstanding year. We had outstanding play, outstanding defense, hitting — we were hitting .324 as a team coming up here,” head coach Craig Mensinger said after the game. “Of course, Sean had a magical season, but so did Josh, so did Nick. We put it together all year, until today. It’s a little mystifying, but I have to just keep looking across the field. They had something to do with it. They’re a nice team. They got on a roll and rode that pitcher.”
Arnold came through with a couple of huge performances during the playoffs, against Mainland in an eight-inning thriller in the sectional semifinals, and against Nottingham in the group semis. Against Nottingham, Arnold finished with 12 strikeouts, and against Mainland he allowed just four hits.
“We’ve been working for this all four years, so it’s great to finally be here. Josh did great, and the runs in the beginning of the game gave him some confidence, and he kept throwing well the whole time,” Artymowicz said after the win over Mainland. “This is something we’ve definitely been waiting for all year.”
Right fielder Dom Fiorentino had another impressive year at the plate, leading the team with a .432 average that included 38 hits, eight doubles and 19 RBIs. He struck out just four times in 88 at-bats. Arnold hit .316 with six doubles, two triples, three home runs and 17 RBIs, and Mooney batted .329 with six doubles, a home run and 16 RBIs.
Middle-of-the-order guys Joe Clifford and Artymowicz combined for 37 RBIs and 16 extra-base hits. Even guys who batted at the bottom of the order made major contributions to the offense. Brian Casey hit .346 and Danny Gray batted .313. Those two added another 18 RBIs, as the Red Raiders batted .321 as a team and scored 175 runs in 26 games.
The pitching staff was equally impressive. Mooney finished 9-1 with a 0.63 ERA. He allowed just 19 hits in 56 innings while striking out 102 and issuing just 11 walks. Arnold posted six wins, 97 strikeouts and a 2.59 ERA in 56 innings, and Artymowicz had a sub-4.00 ERA in 24 innings.
Mensinger said that Nottingham coach Jim Maher pulled him aside after the Red Raiders beat the Northstars 10-8 in the Group 3 semifinals and complimented the talent and determination of Ocean City.
“I did like the fact that their coach (Jim Maher) pulled us aside and said, ‘coach, you’re the best team we’ve played all year,’” Mensinger said. “So that’s nice to hear things like that. He’s a class act.”
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN