State playoffs bring out the best in star players

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The night before Mainland Regional was scheduled to play Ocean City in the South Jersey Group 3 semifinals, I had a phone interview with Mustangs senior pitcher Kyle Gerace, just trying to get an idea of what his emotions were at the time and how he was preparing mentally to face his school’s biggest rival with a chance to play for a third consecutive South Jersey championship on the line.

Several times during the conversation, Gerace said that he was just going to try to “live in the moment.”
Athletes like to say that all the time, and it’s one of the biggest sports cliches there is. But when Gerace was saying it, the words had a genuine feel to them. He wasn’t just saying them because it would sound good in an online story. He really was trying to live in the moment and savor the final days of what turned out to be an incredible high school baseball career.
It’s one thing to live in the moment, it’s quite another to capture the moment and have the moment define your career in a positive light. Coaches worry all the time about “the moment” becoming too big for a player — i.e., a player failing in a situation he normally would succeed in because the stakes are raised and the pressure is high.
The enduring image of the 2016 spring sports playoff season is the one attached to this column, of Gerace embracing fellow senior Dean Deveney, after the Mustangs lost and absolute heartbreaker to Ocean City. The Red Raiders scored the game-winning run on an infield error, walking off in the bottom of the eighth inning with a 3-2 win. They would go on to win the South Jersey crown — the same championship rival Mainland had won the previous two seasons.
And while Gerace will go on to bigger and better things at Rutgers University this fall, the loss was still the kind that leaves a lump in your throat. As an athlete — particularly one who pitched the first seven innings of that game — a quiet place to hide would be welcomed after a loss like that. But Gerace faced the music, talking to reporters after the game and giving insightful, thoughtful comments, not only about the game itself but also about his teammates, his high school baseball career, and how much the fan support throughout the years meant to all the players in Mainland’s baseball program.
As a sports reporter, you are supposed to be as impartial as possible. But when you spend so much time around local teams and players, there are some players who, deep down, you really hope enjoy the success they deserve. Gerace is one of those players. He has a tireless work ethic, inspires his teammates, is humble in victory and gracious in defeat.
Gerace has nothing to be ashamed of after that loss to Ocean City. He left it all out on the field, limiting one of the best teams in South Jersey to just two runs while throwing more than 100 pitches, and also hitting a game-tying two-run home run that helped send the game into extra innings.
“It’s funny when games come down to two hits like that. They get one over the fence and we get one over the fence, and then all of a sudden it’s a battle from there on out. But we knew that was going to happen, we knew it was going to be a tough game. We knew we had to get off to a good start, and we were a little bit sluggish in the beginning, but after that, with each inning the seniors kept trying to get everyone up and telling guys to just put the ball in play and get good at-bats,” Gerace said after the game. “We’ve had a hell of a run. I’m proud of every kid in that dugout.”
There were other players who were able to live in the moment during the state playoffs, capturing the hearts of fans, the respect of opponents, and memories they will cherish forever. Mainland sophomore Bailey Arena put the Mustangs’ softball team on her back and carried her teammates to an appearance in the sectional championship. Ocean City’s baseball team was full of seniors who, time and time again, rose to the occasion and helped lead the Red Raiders all the way to the Group 3 state championship game.
Egg Harbor Township junior left fielder Bri Lagroteria is enjoying folk hero status after making a diving, game-saving catch against Rancocas Valley in the South Jersey Group 4 semifinals, and senior pitcher Nicole Wisser turned in gritty performances game after game as the Eagles soared all the way to the state championship game. She pitched into the 12th inning against Eastern Regional in the sectional finals in a game that has to go down as the best ever in South Jersey state playoff history. Rachel Waro of Eastern and Wisser battled back and forth for more than three hours before the host Eagles mounted a three-run rally in the bottom of the 13th inning to walk off with a 7-6 win. And in the very next game, senior third baseman Miranda Cincotti drilled a walk-off RBI single in the bottom of the eighth inning against East Brunswick as EHT won 3-2 to advance to the state championship game.
And then there was St. Augustine Prep senior Kris Morgenweck. The Hermits’ ace, Mike Vasturia, was injured before the season even began, and another star pitcher, Billy Chillari, battled injuries throughout the season. Morgenweck rose to the challenge and helped lead Prep to a state championship game appearance.
The EHT baseball team got a huge lift from freshman Jordan Sweeney, who drilled a ninth-inning home run that put the Eagles into the sectional semifinals. And senior pitcher Brandon Riggs turned in an outstanding performance in the first round of the sectional playoffs as EHT dispatched defending champion Williamstown.
Gerace is aware of the legacy he and other seniors such as Deveney, Rob Wood, Matt Thomas, Nick Trifiletti and Mike Juliano are leaving now that their illustrious Mainland careers are over.
“Like coach was saying, we really put this program on the map. It’s good to see these young players buying into this new Mainland tradition and carrying the team. We have a lot of good younger players coming up. We did a great job during my three years on varsity, and I’m just hoping to pass the torch down to the next guys. I sure as hell know they are going to do the same thing. It’s a bunch of good kids, and they know how to win,” Gerace said.
Ironically, Gerace’s last game was played against Mainland’s most intense rival — Ocean City. The hated Red Raiders. Now, Gerace will spend the next four years wearing red as a member of the Scarlet Knights’ baseball program. Like he said, though, he’ll always bleed green.
“It’s going to be tough. I’ll be wearing (Ocean City) colors next year. We’ll see how I look in red,” Gerace said. “I think I look better in green. I’ve grown up wearing green my entire life. (Mainland) green is in my blood. It’s just always been there. I’m looking forward to the next couple of years, but it’s definitely going to be sad when I have to hand these jerseys in for the last time.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan:; on Twitter @GDsullysays


Video of the day


Senior forward Mickey Baker sends Ocean City's game against Mainland on Jan. 24, 2018 into overtime …