Atohi helps put Mainland into SJG3 semis
LINWOOD — Two years ago, Kyle Gerace became a playoff star when, as a sophomore, he came through with several big-time outings on the hill to help lead the Mainland Regional baseball team to a South Jersey Group 3 and overall Group 3 championship. Current sophomore Nick Atohi — one of the heroes of last summer's Atlantic Shore Babe Ruth world series-winning team — looks to be following in Gerace's footsteps after a dominating win over Lacey Township on Thursday that put the host Mustangs one step closer to their third straight sectional championship.
After a shaky first inning, Atohi calmed down quickly and mowed the No. 12 Lions down for the next six, finishing off a complete game five-hitter with a relatively easy seventh inning as the No. 4 seeded Mustangs advanced to the South Jersey Group 3 semifinals with a 4-1 win. Atohi also helped himself at the plate, going 1-for-3 with an RBI single in the fifth that gave Mainland a 3-1 cushion.
"All day in school (this game) was all I could think about. I knew I had to come out strong, throw my curveball for strikes, and just throw strikes. I have a good infield, a good outfield, so I just had to throw strikes and let them put it in play. My curveball wasn't really working in the first inning, so I knew I had to keep it down. I just kept working on it throughout the game," Atohi said. "I still felt strong into the seventh inning. It felt like I was just starting the game in the seventh inning."
"I'm just so proud of him. He's such a competitor out there on the mound. Not a lot of kids out there his age can control themselves, stay strong, and stand tall on the mound," Gerace said. "He really proved himself throughout the season, and in tough situations he's been clutch."
Catcher Anthony Capasso said he knew once Atohi (7-1) got through the nervousness of the first inning that he would settle in and be fine.
"I felt confident that whatever I called for him he would throw a strike. Or even if we wanted to throw something in the dirt to get them to chase. It felt good catching him," Capasso said. "I think he had a little bit of nerves pitching in a big playoff game. He missed a couple spots (early on) and that's how they got the base hits. After that, I didn't really say anything. He just kind of calmed down. After the third inning, I knew he had control of this game."
The Lions (6-14) got off to a quick start, as leadoff hitter Jorden Jurkiewicz singled up the middle and was sacrificed to second by Anthony Ruggerio. Don Zellman followed with a single to center, but Jurkiewicz got hung up between third base and home for the first out. Catcher Paul Carluccio hit a ground ball in the hole at shortstop, and Zellman was able to score from second on an errant throw to make it 1-0. Mainland (15-8) answered in its half of the first, evening the score at 1-1 on nearly the exact same play.
Matt Thomas doubled down the left-field line to start the bottom of the first, and after a pair of flyouts, scored on Capasso's ground ball in the hole at shortstop that led to a throwing error.
"In the first inning, they got a run, but then we got one back and I think that really helped him. That evened things out and he was able to go out there, start fresh, and get his mind set back to being that bulldog and shutting kids down," Gerace said of Atohi. "I tell him before every inning, I say, 'come on Nick, sit 'em all down.' It seems to be working. He's winning games and he's really helping us."
From the second inning on, Atohi was nearly unhittable. All Lacey was able to muster was a pair of singles through the final six innings. Mainland took the lead for good in the third when Gerace walked and came around to score later in the inning on Marty Cortellessa's RBI single up the middle. Atohi tacked on a run with an RBI single in the fifth, and Cortellessa scored on a fielder's choice later in the inning to push the lead to 4-1.
The win sets up a highly anticipated matchup with rival Ocean City. The top-seeded Red Raiders handled Central Regional 6-0 in their quarterfinal matchup, and next Tuesday the likely pitching matchup will be Ocean City ace Sean Mooney vs. Gerace. Both senior pitchers have committed to NCAA Division I schools, as Mooney plans to play at St. John's next year while Gerace selected Rutgers. The other semifinal features No. 2 Highland vs. No. 6 Toms River South. Last season, Mainland beat Toms River South for its second straight South Jersey title.
"We're looking forward to going out there and facing Mooney, probably. Last year, on JV, I would be looking down here (to the varsity field) and wanting to come play down here. Now, I have the opportunity to come down here and be one of the top pitchers on the team," Atohi said.
"It's going to be exciting. If they throw Mooney, we'll have to face him and just try to get a couple of hits and score some runs," Capasso added.
Gerace said a matchup like Tuesday's is the kind he will savor, no matter what the end result is.
"Bring it on. We've faced them. We split the season series — they took one and we took one. We're hot, so we're coming at them. You just have to take it one inning at a time, one out at a time. We have to just stay focused on keeping the ball out of the air, getting base hits and moving runners. Our pitching and defense has been fantastic. We just have to keep doing what we're doing on the mound and in the field, and our bats have to put up some runs. We haven't had seven runs or more in a while," Gerace said. "It will be at their field so I'm sure they will bring out a crowd, but we'll bring a crowd, too. It's going to be nothing but fun. It's good competition, and it's always been good competition between us. I'm glad we finally get a chance to face them in a big situation like the playoffs. I've never faced them in a playoff game in my career. I'm glad it's going to happen and I hope everybody comes out. It should be a great game."
Contact Dave O'Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays