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The Atlantic Shore Babe Ruth program has become a stepping stone to success for area baseball players

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By Dave O’Sullivan Publisher Kyle Gerace stood on the mound in the seventh inning of the state championship game at Toms River South High School in early June, 2014. His Mainland Regional High School Mustangs were holding a slim lead over Mt. Olive, and Gerace was charged with holding that lead and nailing down the title for the upstart Mustangs, who had entered the state playoffs a sub-.500 team with a 10-12 record. The noise from the stands behind home plate had reached a fever pitch, as anxious Mustangs fans were delirious, knowing one of the most improbable championships in state history was at their fingertips. Tough spot for a high school sophomore to be in. But Gerace had been in tough spots before with his Atlantic Shore Babe Ruth teams in years prior, so he was prepared to handle the pressure. He did just that, earning the save in a 5-3 victory. The following year, spring of 2015, Gerace twirled a gem as Mainland beat Toms River South 1-0 to defend their South Jersey Group 3 championship. The visiting Indians had the tying and winning runs and second and third, but Gerace calmly struck out the last batter to ice the title. Several of his Mainland teammates, guys such as Nick Droboniku, Matt Thomas and Jack Loefflad, had all cut their championship teeth as 13-year-olds in 2011 with Atlantic Shore. That team made it to the Babe Ruth World Series, the first time Atlantic Shore had ever advanced that far. Prior to 2011, A-Shore had just one state championship to its credit, the 2004 team that was led by former Mustang standout Charlie Law. Atlantic Shore has made two return trips to the world series since 2011 and cemented itself as the premier Babe Ruth program in South Jersey. The team that made it to the world series in 2011 — a team that featured such future high school stars as Anthony Boselli of Holy Spirit and Steve Myers of Atlantic City — made a return trip in 2013 as 15-year-olds. And this year’s 14-year-old squad punched its ticket to Pine Bluff, Ark., earlier this month. This year’s 13-year-olds advanced to the regional tournament, hosting it at Atlantic City’s Sandcastle Stadium for a fourth straight year. Atlantic Shore’s ability to continually host a regional tournament, as well as make several trips to the world series in different age groups, has made it a legitimate powerhouse in the region when it comes to Babe Ruth baseball, which in many states is sort of the minor leagues for high school baseball. For many players, playing for Atlantic Shore is the first rung on a ladder that often includes multiple years of high school varsity experience, the Atlantic County Baseball League and sometimes even high-level college ball. It could be argued that Atlantic Shore has had a direct impact on the resurgence of the Cape-Atlantic League’s success at the high school level. It all started with that group of 13-year-olds in 2011. Brandon Lashley and the 14-year-old all-star team advanced to the Babe Ruth World Series in Pine Bluff, Ark., where Atlantic Shore has made it into the semifinal round. (Glory Days Magazine photos/Dave O'Sullivan) Brandon Lashley and the 14-year-old all-star team advanced to the Babe Ruth World Series in Pine Bluff, Ark., where Atlantic Shore has made it into the semifinal round. (Glory Days Magazine photos/Dave O’Sullivan) “We are kind of the main feeder program for a couple of area high schools. There’s AAU and the TSC league. A lot of kids play both, but they don’t play any real tournament style baseball. They may play tournaments, but there is no district tournament, state tournament, regional tournament. They don’t have that tournament trail,” said Mike Gill, who coached this year’s 13-year-olds. “In 2011, we had that group who are now either outgoing seniors (in high school) or juniors who will be seniors next year, and they were just really talented. We didn’t even win the district that year. We ended up finishing second in the district and we went to the state tournament because they take the top two teams. We ended up winning the state championship and going to regionals. We finished 2-2 (in pool play) and barely made it out. We just got hot, won the regionals and went to the world series.” (like Facebook.com/acglorydays to view several Atlantic Shore photo galleries) Gill said that for many years, AAU was the way most players decided to go when it came to playing their summer baseball. But now, after several years of high-level success, he sees more and more players wanting to play locally for the Babe Ruth program. “At that time (2011), AAU was really coming on strong and we were losing kids to AAU. But then that team made that run and all of a sudden kids were like, ‘wow.’ They were reading about it in the paper, they were seeing it on the news. Those kids turned into kind of like little rock stars. Kids started saying, ‘well, I want to do that.’ So you started seeing kids who were migrating to travel ball come back because they wanted to play A-Shore,” Gill said. “From that 2011 team, every year after, we started to become more and more successful. A lot of it has to do with the kids seeing the press coverage, when TV 40 was here. All the media outlets started to pick up on what these guys were doing and I think it really started giving the league a little bit of recognition. That’s where it kind of took off, that team going to the world series. They went again in 2013, the same group. And then you see those kids become successful at the high school level and they talked about it. They would reference playing Atlantic Shore. “I think our 14-year-olds going to the world series this year definitely re-lights that fire. At any time that could become a distant memory, so it was good to see them get there. Our numbers are way down, but what we are getting are the higher-end players.” “When that whole group of kids (in 2011) was in Little League, you could just see that group of kids was just unbelievable. It was like the perfect storm. They were able to get to the world series and it just sort of built from there,” said Dave Geiger, coach of the 14-year-old team that is heading to this year’s world series. “When they were all 12 years old, in Little League, Northfield ended up winning the districts and the section. They ended up getting eliminated in the states by Toms River. It was the perfect storm and it couldn’t have happened at a better time for the A-Shore program.” Pressure cooker Competing for state, regional and national championships exposes young ballplayers to pressure-packed situations. It’s really their first taste of that kind of competition as they progress to the regulation-sized field following their Little League careers. For a player such as Gerace, facing those types of situations at age 13, 14 and 15 prepared him for what he would eventually face at the high school varsity level. “It’s obviously great to see (the 14-year-olds) make another run at a world series. It’s an experience like no other. You bond as a team. And you see down the road that it leads to success. These coaches (Geiger and Dennis Foreman) are two of the best coaches in the area, so you see these kids are getting top-of-the-line coaching and that leads to high school success,” Gerace said. “I’m glad these guys are getting this experience. These guys play in huge games and I remember it like it was yesterday. It sticks in your brain. They are big moments these guys are playing in, and when you get to high school and have another big moment you think back, did you succeed? Did you fail? If you failed, obviously you want to succeed now, so it makes you a stronger and more poised baseball player.” Gerace said his first taste of real pressure came as a 13-year-old in a game against Maryland during the regional tournament. He started out the game by walking the first three hitters. He had hit a moment of truth as a pitcher. If he didn’t find a way to buckle down and work out of a jam of his own doing, that game was going to get out of hand in a hurry. Brian Furey throws a pitch during the 13-year-old all-star team's appearance at the regional tournament, which has been held the past few years at Atlantic City's Sandcastle Stadium. Brian Furey throws a pitch during the 13-year-old all-star team’s appearance at the regional tournament, which has been held the past few years at Atlantic City’s Sandcastle Stadium. “I remember one game, specifically, a game against Maryland in the regionals. I walked the first three guys, coach came out to talk to me and I ended up striking the next three hitters out. It was one of those games where you take a deep breath and think, ‘OK, I battled through that. If that ever happens again, I know I have the strength to stay focused and push my way through a jam like that,” Gerace said. “So it teaches you to stay calm in certain situations. Every game (in regions and the world series) is a battle. You want to win that world series. That is your ultimate goal.” Next-level baseball Gill said he believes Atlantic Shore can now be considered a top-notch feeder program for several area high schools such as Mainland Regional, Ocean City, Atlantic City and Holy Spirit. The Atlantic Shore coaches work with the area high school coaches to try to develop young players into the types of players who can make an impact once they get to the varsity level. Atlantic Shore truly has become a “program” and not just a couple of local all-star teams. “I think our program has gotten to the point where other teams in South Jersey — or even regionally — know who we are. We were at states and a guy from Nottingham I was talking to, and Nottingham has always been the Mecca (of Babe Ruth baseball), he was saying when he saw they were playing Atlantic Shore he knew they were in for a tough game because our teams are always good. We’ve hosted the regionals for four years now, and the Sandcastle is a great facility and they encourage us to host, so we can pretty much host whenever we want to. It’s a financial burden so we have to really evaluate (every year) if it makes sense for us to host, but we really think that hosting the regional tournament is a help in getting kids to play. We try to use the stadium to not only get the kids in our area to want to play, but I think it has given our program notoriety because the kids remember their experience,” Gill said. “I think since 2011 we have become a very high profile program, both in South Jersey and regionally. Prior to 2011 we had only won one state championship, in 2004. It used to be if we got to states that was a win for us. Now we expect to win the state tournament, and if we don’t that’s a disappointment for us.” “Atlantic Shore is a good program, one of the best around. This team right here, pretty much 90 percent of the credit goes to these coaches. They come out here every day, volunteering their time. They aren’t getting paid for this. It’s a great thing,” said Solomon Griffith, a 14-year-old from Ocean City who is a member of the team heading to this year’s world series. “It sets you up for good high school experiences when you are on a good team like this. It’s a lot of fun.” Gill said a main focus of the Atlantic Shore program is to begin to teach players the finer points of the game. To get them to understand that their talent has gotten them this far, but it will be their ability to learn how to play the game better that will give them an opportunity to be successful at the high school level. “We told the kids that we hope they take something from what we try teaching them and use it at the next level. We are very proud to read that Kyle Gerace, Jack Loefflad, Anthony Boselli and all these guys are first-team all-conference players. Steve Myers is the top hitter in the Cape-Atlantic League. And these guys all come back to our practices to show that they really appreciated what they learned from us. To see them taking the things they learned and using it to become successful is great. A lot of times at age 13 you just have raw talent and are better than other kids. We try to teach them more than just winning today. We want them to become good high school players. We try to teach them a better approach,” Gill said. “Some of the high school coaches come out to our practices to watch the kids, and we ask their opinions like, ‘hey, where do you see this kid as a 15- or 16-year-old player?’ And we bring out some of the old players so they can see the same thing. If you don’t have a more selective approach at the plate, you’re going to see the game even out on you a little bit. These tournaments are really their first taste of other kids catching up to them. We always tell them that at age 13 you might be able to just walk onto the field and be better than other guys, but at 14 that changes. If you don’t keep working at it and make adjustments, your raw talent isn’t going to take you where you want to go.” Community support One thing about Babe Ruth baseball that Gill said appeals to him is the fact that the kids are playing locally, and representing their towns. And when they do have success, that attracts a lot of support locally, from parents as well as business owners and fans who help raise money to send these teams to regional and world series tournaments. “When we were at the fundraiser (at Wonder Bar) I didn’t think there would be too many people there, but everywhere I looked there were people. There are a lot of people out there supporting us,” said 14-year-old all-star Brandon Lashley of Ocean City. “What we are doing says that there are a lot of great players in South Jersey, and a lot of great coaches that help us get better. That definitely gives us incentive to keep working hard.” “I think some of the parents of those kids (from 2011) appreciated that run. Some of the best times they have had as baseball parents started (with Atlantic Shore). It’s hard as kids in the early stages of their life to look back already and understand that (an experience) is beneficial to them. I think that’s what made these kids so successful at Mainland and Holy Spirit, and the individual kids, was those guys were able to look back and realize some of the things they were taught, they were able to take with them and become successful because of it. That’s why they like to come back and teach the kids the value of it,” Gill said. “One thing that I think is lost a little bit these days is civic pride. Representing your town and playing alongside your friends. At 13 years old, specifically, there are no scouts looking at you. Be a kid, have fun, represent your town, and hopefully do something special. Our league has proven that it can be done here. I think if we can keep the best players here and playing for their towns, I think the memories they will end up having will be much better than just playing random weekend tournaments somewhere. We certainly want people to know that there is very good baseball right in their own town and they can have a great experience with it.” Geiger agreed that the success of the Atlantic Shore teams during the past four years has sparked a renewal of hometown pride. “The community really takes great pride in it. Even those guys that Mike had when they were 13, their parents are still coming out to help. You have all these parents who don’t have any sons in the program anymore, but they are still there to support it because they had such a great experience,” Geiger said. “Even my son, Lee (22 years old), who played for A-Shore back in the day, the kids he played with he is still really good friends with to this day. It’s something that carries on and you always remember your A-Shore all-star team. These kids build lasting relationships, remembering the summers they played together.” Gerace, who is one of the most highly recruited baseball players in South Jersey after earning second-team all-state honors as a junior this past spring, said he has played both AAU baseball and Atlantic Shore. He said it’s tough to top the experience a player gets when you see entire communities rallying around your efforts to win a national tournament. “I hope some of these kids came out to our games when we were playing as 15-year-olds. You just see the fan base. These bleachers are filled down both foul lines. It’s an experience that you will never forget,” Gerace said. “I hope these kids saw that and realized that this is a cause bigger than themselves. It’s a close community. You’re playing for a championship in this. When you are playing AAU, you’re playing for yourself or your playing for a college coach to notice you. If it was up to me, I would play this all year, non-stop. This is my favorite kind of baseball. There’s no ‘I’ in team here.” Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sully@acglorydays.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays [adsense]

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