Arena leads Mainland softball to playoff win
LINWOOD — With star pitcher Gillian McCarthy on the shelf with an injury, the Mainland Regional softball team needed somebody to step up Tuesday in the opening round of the South Jersey Group 3 tournament against arch-rival Ocean City. Fellow sophomore Bailey Arena did just that. And so did the Mustangs' offense. They had just a tad to do with Mainland moving on to the second round of the playoffs.
Fifth-seeded Mainland pounded out 15 hits and scored 14 runs in six innings to dispatch No. 12 Ocean City, 14-4, and advance to Wednesday's second-round game at No. 4 Seneca.
Arena wasn't overpowering, but she peppered the strike zone and let her defense do the work. She worked out of a jam in the second inning and allowed a pair of runs in both the third and fifth innings, but by the time the fifth inning came around the Mustangs had built up a 10-2 lead.
"At first I was very nervous, but my coaches and teammates told me they believed in me. I knew I could trust them in the field, so I just tried to throw strikes, and (my teammates) were there for me. I was just trying to do my job," Arena said.
"That's her first playoff win, and what better way to get it done? We just told her if she pitched around the plate, threw strikes and kept the ball low, she'd be good," said Mainland coach Frank Marascio. (Rachel) Zeides hit a home run, but thankfully it was a solo shot. She's good. That's why she's a first-team all-star."
"She's definitely stepped up a huge amount and done great things for our teams. At first, she was shaky about coming in to pitch, but once she started coming in full time after Gillian got hurt, she owned it," said senior center fielder Rachel Hartlage. "I think Bailey feels comfortable having Sam (Morton) behind the plate because Sam knows what she's doing. Sam has total control of the whole field, so I think everyone feels comfortable playing the field knowing she is behind the plate."
Mainland (16-9) has felt nothing but playoff disappointment the past two years, losing 1-0 to Lacey Township in the opening round in 2014 and falling to Hammonton last year by the same score. That's why scoring 14 runs against Ocean City (9-10) got coach Marascio so fired up.
"The last two years, we lost in the first round of the playoffs 1-0. So this feels really good. It's a testament to how well the girls have been playing, and how well they've been swinging the bats. We've been talking about that all year that we're going to hit the ball, and they came through today," Marascio said. "This gives us tons of confidence. It really reminds me of when we went to Florida. We went down to Florida (in March) with a lot of confidence and hit the ball like we're hitting it now. We're in mid-season form and it's a nice thing to go into a game knowing our bats our working. Their confidence is high because they finally got the playoff monkey off their back. And there were some upsets in our bracket — and they know that — so they are ready and they see that this could be an opportunity of a lifetime."
Having some early run support settled Arena's nerves, she said. Mainland was set down in order in the bottom of the first by Red Raiders pitcher Keani Hindle, but broke the ice in the second with a four-run rally highlighted by consecutive run-scoring doubles by Gabby Monzo and Shannon Bennett, and an RBI infield single by Mackenzie Brennan. Ocean City answered with a pair of runs in the top of the third on an RBI single by Zeides and a Mainland infield error, but the Mustangs charged back to score two runs in the third and four more in the fourth to take a commanding 10-2 lead.
"That settled me down a lot. It made me feel like we could win this game," Arena said of the Mustangs' offensive output. "It feels great to get the seniors this playoff win. I wouldn't be who I am without them. They are really great and they've mentored me freshman and sophomore years. I'm glad I could help them get the win."
Mainland has plenty of young talent, but has leaned on seniors Hartlage, Kenzie Mindish and Kathryn Hutton as the stakes have been raised late in the season.
"It's great. There's never been a better feeling. This is our best win of the year, definitely," Hartlage said. "I think this year, especially with the three of us being captains, we've been able to help them. A lot of (the younger players) were nervous going into games, but we would just say, 'it's OK. You have so many more chances to get better at whatever you mess up on.' I definitely had a great time taking on the leadership role this year."
The South Jersey Group 3 bracket opened up a little bit with top-seeded Cumberland Regional falling to No. 16 Cherry Hill West in the opening round last week, but Hartlage said there's no reason for the Mustangs to look ahead. They'll have their hands full with Seneca, and the tournament still includes four of the top five seeds, including No. 2 Pinelands and third-seeded Lacey township.
"I think we have a lot of confidence, but I don't think we are overly confident," Hartlage said. "I think we're going to play the same game that we played today, and hopefully even better tomorrow. I think we'll keep our heads level as we go throughout this tournament."
Contact Dave O'Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays