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Ultimate underdog Holy Spirit took the road less traveled to first state championship since 1982

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By DAVE O’SULLIVAN Publisher Mainland Regional’s Matt Thomas sprinted home from third base with the winning run on a chopper to shortstop by Rob Wood in a 4-3, extra-innings walk-off win by the Mustangs over Holy Spirit on April 18. The loss dropped the visiting Spartans to 1-7, and Holy Spirit head coach Steve Normane looked as if he wanted to put his fist through the dugout wall. Maybe both fists. Such was the frustration of the first three weeks of the 2015 season for the Spartans. Normane knew he had talent, but he also knew his team was fairly young and inexperienced and would take some lumps early in the season, especially considering just how tough the Cape-Atlantic League American Conference was this year. Still, starting out 1-7 was not what he envisioned, and he told his team after that game that he was sick of moral victories. The Spartans needed some victories that actually counted in the standings if they were going to save their season. But taking the Mustangs — the defending Group 3 state champions — to extra innings may have been the confidence boost Holy Spirit needed to convince itself that it could hang with the big boys of South Jersey baseball. The next six weeks proved that Normane’s confidence in his team was legitimate. The Spartans won enough games to qualify for the Non-Public B South tournament, then went on a hot streak that culminated in something out of a movie script. The Spartans won all five of their playoff games, in dominating fashion in four of them, capturing not only the Non-Public B state championship but also a scrapbook’s worth of headlines and the hearts of South Jersey baseball fans. They were the ultimate little-engine-that-could, as a group of smart, tough seniors joined together with a few juniors and a nice crop of sophomores to take home the title despite finishing the season under .500, at 14-16. Holy Spirit players celebrate near the mound at Toms River North High School earlier this month after knocking off Newark Academy 9-4 to capture the Spartans' first state championship since the 1982 season. (Glory Days Magazine photos/Dave O'Sullivan) Holy Spirit players celebrate near the mound at Toms River North High School earlier this month after knocking off Newark Academy 9-4 to capture the Spartans’ first state championship since the 1982 season. (Glory Days Magazine photos/Dave O’Sullivan) “We are still riding pretty high. Just looking back on a year that could have been really rough, and ending the way it did was really neat. We set that goal at the beginning of the season, to win a state championship, and there were a lot of times throughout the season where it didn’t look like it was remotely possible. To have these kids stick with it and keep buying into what we were telling them, I don’t think there is anything more satisfying as a coach,” Normane said a few days after a 9-4 win over Newark Academy sealed Holy Spirit’s first overall state title since the 1982 season. “(The Mainland loss) showed us that, while we played a good game against one of the top teams in the state, ultimately we lost. At that point we were starting to get really frustrated. We didn’t like the moral victories anymore after that Mainland game. The next game was against Atlantic City and we handed A.J. Russo the ball, and he shut them down and we kept it rolling the next day by beating EHT. That was big, because our seniors needed to stay with us for any of this to be possible, and every one of them did. “Yeah, we played great against Mainland, but we were getting sick of just getting close (to winning). We said to ourselves we needed to turn the corner and start getting some victories under our belt.” “I thought there were a lot of positives to come out of that game. It showed we could hang with a team like Mainland, and they are obviously a really good team last year and this year. To stick around with that team the whole game showed we had the skill to beat the top teams in our conference. That gave us some confidence,” said senior second baseman Tommy Burns. “We knew how good we were and we knew we were better than a 1-7 team. That game showed us that we could compete with these teams and we were better than the way we had been playing. The younger guys knew that and we just kept telling them over and over. They came to play in the second half of the season.” Following the loss to Mainland, Holy Spirit won four of its next six games to improve to 5-9. A loss to Ocean City put them at 5-10, but a few days later — in a rematch with the Red Raiders, one of the top teams in CAL American — the Spartans got a huge outing from sophomore Bobby Spicer and won 3-2. It was perhaps the biggest win of the season for a number of reasons. First, it proved Holy Spirit could win a big game. Second, it showed the team that Spicer could be a nice compliment on the mound to fellow sophomore Billy Kral. And third, it proved the Spartans could beat a quality opponent on the road, a foreshadowing to what they would need to do in the playoffs. Holy Spirit entered the playoffs with a 9-15 record and as the No. 10 seed, meaning most, if not all, of their playoff games would be on the road. The Spartans dispatched St. Joseph of Hammonton — a team that had eliminated them in the first round the previous year — 8-1 in the opening round, then squeaked past St. Rose, a Monmouth County power, 2-1 in the next round. “I think for me, personally, it was after that St. Rose game,” Normane said about when he thought his team had a chance to go all the way. “But we knew St. Joseph was in the same boat that we were. To get matched up with them in the first round, a rematch of the game that eliminated us the year before, I think beating them gave us all the confidence in the world. Nobody thought we could show up and beat St. Rose, and we had a hard-fought game where we scored on a squeeze bunt and on a fielder’s choice. I think after we beat that St. Rose team and we saw our path, we knew something was possible. We had full confidence in Billy against Gil St. Bernard’s and then we were able to come back with Bobby against Marist to get us to play in Toms River, which was the goal from the beginning. Sophomore Billy Kral pitched an outstanding game in the state final, going six innings to pick up the win against the Minutemen. Sophomore Billy Kral pitched an outstanding game in the state final, going six innings to pick up the win against the Minutemen. “St. Rose had a great team and threw some great pitching at us, and to be able to win a close one after losing those close ones all year, it was huge. That definitely gave us the confidence that we could go all the way.” The Spartans embraced their role as road warriors, rallying around each other on two-hour bus rides to and from playoff games. They had to travel to North Jersey to face Gil St. Bernard’s in the sectional semifinals, then had to do it again, going to Colonia High School to beat Marist 7-1 to win the sectional title. Heck, a trip to Toms River for the state final was a relatively short bus ride for the Spartans. “The bus rides home were great, everybody would be so hyped up and that just made us want to win the next game to have another bus ride just like that,” Burns said. “What I’ve come to learn about high school teams is, you give them a little something to take pride in and they will run with it. We took pride in getting on that bus and going on the road and winning, where a lot of teams and coaches might see it as a negative thing. And in Non-Public B South, you have to travel pretty far to each game. We got off easy with St. Joseph of Hammonton in the first game, but we knew if we were going to do something special we were going to be on the bus a lot. And the guys were fine with it. The bus rides coming home were fun and the kids really got into it. It seemed to work for us,” Normane said. “Against Newark Academy we had a coin flip, and I’m a baseball guy and I would choose to be the home team, but our kids were telling me ‘coach, we gotta be the road team.’ And I was like, ‘no way, are you guys crazy?’ But Newark Academy won the toss and we got to hit first and we scored some runs early.” The Spartans were the road team against Newark Academy in the state final, and came out like gangbusters against the Minutemen, putting the game out of reach within the first few innings. “Looking back and seeing how far we’ve come, there were times when we were lucky to get two wins in a row or just get a win; to go on a five-game winning streak when it really mattered shows how much our season turned around and that tells the story,” Burns said. “It’s starting to sink in, but it’s still unbelievable to think that after 33 years we won it again.” Spirit fed off the quiet confidence of some of its seniors, such as Burns, center fielder Anthony Boselli and utility player A.J. Russo, a kid who had been involved in a ton of big games with the basketball team during the past two winters. “Anthony was our MVP. In my short stint of coaching, he’s probably the best all-around baseball player I’ve coached. He’s an athlete, runs the balls down in the outfield that sometimes I think are sure doubles. He also got on the mound this year and won some big games for us,” Normane said. “And he does everything quietly. He’s not a big rah-rah guy, but he’s the first one in the cage and the results show. I’m so happy that he made first-team all-conference. He’s a great player and he has a great future.” Normane was much more animated in the third-base coach’s box throughout the playoff run. He said it wasn’t because of nerves about the strategy of the game, but more understanding the moment his team was in and just how special this playoff run was becoming with each passing day. Much like a player feels during a hot streak, Normane said he didn’t want to be the one to let the team down. Former coach Bob Soifer came back this year as an assistant, and Normane said he wanted to win so badly for guys like Soif as well as all the alumni and parents who have been supporting the program for so many years. “I never really get too nervous coaching, but there were a lot of nerves before the Marist game and the Newark Academy game. The only reason there were nerves, it wasn’t because I didn’t have confidence in our players or our game plan, the nerves came from, what if we never get back here? Guys coach their whole lives and never even come close to Toms River. So that’s where that anxious feeling came in,” Normane said. “I was like, ‘man, I don’t want to blow this.’ But the kids believed in everything I said, and that makes all the difference in the world for a coach. To be able to call ourselves state champions in my second year is something I definitely do not take for granted. “There are guys like Soif who coach for 30 or 40 years and don’t get a chance to make it that far. We’re going to work hard to get back there next year, but for right now, we’re going to enjoy this for a little while.” Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sully@acglorydays.com;  on Twitter @GDsullysays [adsense]

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