By DAVE O’SULLIVAN . Buy Gallery
and GIUSEPPE UNGARO
The Ocean City baseball and Egg Harbor Township softball teams may have come up one win short in their respective quests for state championships, but the postseason runs those two teams went on — and the way they inspired their fan bases and classmates — won’t soon be forgotten.
The teams captivated the attention of South Jersey high school sports fans for nearly three weeks as they continued to win games. For the EHT softball team, it was a string of dramatic finishes that set social media ablaze. For the Red Raiders, watching their pitchers dominate made their games must-see events.
Ocean City senior pitcher Sean Mooney even inspired a new Twitter hastag — #mooneytuesdays — as he put up one of the best seasons in state history. Heading into the state championship game against Northern Highlands, Mooney hadn’t allowed an earned run all season and had allowed just 21 base runners (11 hits and 10 walks) in more than 50 innings pitched. And while he didn’t have his best stuff in a 7-2 loss to the Highlanders on June 11, his season was still one of the more impressive in recent memory.
“It’s been a great ride with these guys the past four years. I wouldn’t want to go through it with any other guys,” Mooney said after the state championship.
Mooney and the other seniors took the loss hard, as would be expected. The starting lineup for Ocean City featured eight seniors, and the Red Raiders had posted 21 wins to that point, had won the Cape-Atlantic League’s American Conference — one of the toughest conferences in the state — and captured the South Jersey Group 3 championship as the No. 1 seed. They even dominated Nottingham, for the most part, in the Group 3 semifinal round.
“Right now, it’s tough to swallow. It’s bad. We’re going to let it hit hard tonight, and tomorrow we’ll think about all the good things we accomplished. We were CAL champions, South Jersey champions. It’s been a great ride,” second baseman Brian Casey said after the state championship. “These kids are my best friends, on the field and off the field. We’ve been playing together since freshman year, and for it to all end, it just seems unreal. I’m not even thinking about it. I love all these guys. All these guys are going to have a heck of a career in sports, or business, or whatever it might be. It’s been awesome playing with these guys. It’s something I’ll never forget. It’s been the best time of my life.”
The Egg Harbor Township softball team not only caught the attention of the community, but invigorated the student body. The school held a send-off pep rally for the team before its departure to Kean University on June 10 for the Eagles’ Group 4 state championship game against Watchung Hills, and later that evening five busloads of cheering students entered the Kean parking lot in support of their classmates.
“It was absolutely incredible. The support from the school was definitely the best part. Softball usually gets overlooked, but this year, after we started having all those wins, it was insane. Everybody in school started coming out to watch the games and everybody was excited for softball,” said senior Paige Weisman. “They made an announcement, and two minutes later kids were lining up outside the principal’s office trying to sign up to be on one of the busses. It was crazy.”
Eagles players were quick to point out the good that came along with a 24-win season, preferring to focus on that rather than the sting of losing in the championship game.
“We finished the season 24-1, not many teams do that,” said Egg Harbor Township senior catcher Kate Korte, who tried to cheer up her teammates after a 4-0 loss to the Warriors. “They need to be proud of themselves — just as proud as I am of them. I’ve seen them all grow in four years and I wouldn’t want to do this with any other team.”
“It sucks losing this game, but we do have to think about our entire season,” said ace pitcher Nicole Wisser. “We had a great season, probably the best EHT ever saw. We have to keep our heads held high because it was a great season.”
The Eagles were the last remaining undefeated team heading into the state final, having won their first 24 games. They entered the South Jersey Group 4 tournament as the top seed, but were nearly upended by Rancocas Valley before left fielder Bri Lagroteria made a diving save with two outs in the seventh inning to seal a 4-3 win.
In the sectional championship game, EHT was locked in a battle with No. 2 seed Eastern Regional and pitcher Rachel Waro. The teams went into extra innings tied, 2-2, in front of a crowd that numbered in the hundreds and stretched all the way around the outfield fence. At the start of the 10th inning, the international tiebreaker rule was put into effect, meaning each team would start its half of the inning with a runner at second base. Eastern scored a run in both the 11th and 12th innings, but EHT answered each time. In the top of the 13th, the Vikings rallied for a pair of runs to take a 6-4 lead, but again the Eagles answered. They scored three times in the bottom of the 13th, as Ella Glenn’s RBI single to right scored pinch runner Sarah Kawejsza with the winning run. EHT walked off with a 7-6 victory, and it’s first sectional championship since 1993.
As each team kept winning, the student fan sections from each school tried to out-do the other with the support they provided their team. It turned into a good-natured social media competition to see who could get the most fan support. The efforts of the fans and students didn’t go unnoticed by the players for both Ocean City baseball and EHT softball.
Weisman said that even though the Eagles didn’t get the victory over Watchung Hills, winning a South Jersey championship and inspiring hundreds of fans and classmates is something the Eagles players can be proud of.
“I think that was comforting for me, as a senior, that we didn’t walk away with a state championship but we had so much support from the whole school and the whole community. I know that was really comforting for the rest of the girls, too. I saw them in school (on June 13) and I wasn’t sure how they would be feeling afterward, but everyone was pretty content with the season,” Weisman said. “One of the assistant coaches said it best when she said one game doesn’t define the whole 2016 season for EHT softball. And I think everybody feels the same way. It was a phenomenal season no matter what.”
“(The fans) make every game feel like a home game. We thought after we won South Jersey there wouldn’t be as big of a crowd, but then we saw everyone come out to Cumberland County College (for the Group 3 semifinals) and we had all the bleachers filled. It was awesome,” Casey said. “Raider Nation keeps us playing great, and we appreciate all that support. We have a lot of seniors on this team, and it’s great to see everyone supporting us at the end of our careers.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays