Heading into the 2019 season, Ocean City softball coach John Bruno had 19 years under his belt during two stints as skipper of the Red Raiders. He’s also the school’s boys basketball coach, and while he’s enjoyed tremendous success on the hardwood, Ocean City’s softball teams struggled to win games throughout much of his career. Before this season began, Bruno had 93 wins and 270 losses. The Red Raiders have had outstanding players throughout the years, such as Rachael Zeides, Arianna Segich, Jackie Haynes and Cory Picketts, but not a lot of overall team success.

Through the first 12 years of his coaching career, the Red Raiders failed to qualify for the state playoffs, and while they’ve qualified in seven of the last eight seasons, each year they lost their opening-round game and the season was over. A few weeks ago, coach Bruno let it be known that this, his 20th season, would be his last on the softball diamond.

His team gave him a sendoff any coach would be proud of.

Ocean City came into the South Jersey Group 3 tournament as an unheralded No. 7 seed, and even if the Red Raiders could get past No. 10 Highland in the opening round, second-seeded Hammonton likely would have been waiting in the second round. The Red Raiders also were on the same side of the bracket as No. 3 Mainland and No. 6 Moorestown, two quality teams with outstanding pitchers. So, coach Bruno figured he’d be the one texting fellow coaches to tell them good luck as the playoffs wore on.

Then, all of a sudden, his phone started blowing up. Ocean City squeaked past Highland, 4-3, in the opening round, then went on the road and scored a huge 3-1 win over Hammonton — not only giving Bruno the first two postseason wins of his career, but also putting itself in position to be one win away from playing for a South Jersey championship. The dream came to a heartbreaking end with a 4-2 loss to Moorestown in the sectional semifinals on May 23, but oh what a ride it was.

“We had one home playoff game a couple years ago and lost to Triton, 6-5. Other than that, we’ve been on the road. We did play Moorestown one year as the No. 14 seed and only lost 1-0, so it is interesting how things work,” Bruno said following the win over Hammonton. “Our first playoff win was against Highland and that was kind of a weird feeling. It’s weird because now I’m getting text messages from other coaches when usually, at this time of year, all my equipment is put away and I’m going to watch them play.”

Bruno had to wait a while to put all the softball equipment away, as a team led by five seniors simply refused to give up. Ocean City’s entire starting infield — third baseman Savanna Holt, shortstop Lindsay Konick, second baseman Alex Vitola and first baseman Jackie Nesi — all were seniors, as was Ashley Vitiello, and the Red Raiders rode their leadership and the hot pitching of Hailey Neville all the way to the “Final Four” of South Jersey Group 3.

“I always think it’s great when a team makes it to the South Jersey semifinals. The final four has a lot of merit because now you’re one game away from the final. You just have to relax, stay loose, have some fun and enjoy it. Savanna Holt came to us her sophomore year from Holy Spirit, but my shortstop, Konick, second baseman Vitola and Nesi have all been with me since they were freshman, so it’s neat to see the reward of four years of hard work. That’s what’s enjoyable. I’m so happy for the kids to see what they can do. A lot of times when you lose in the first round of the playoffs nobody notices, now, all of a sudden, people will stand up and take notice,” Bruno said. “I’m really happy for them because they’ve kind of taken a back seat (to the other girls sports teams). We’ve had phenomenal girls teams with lacrosse, track, field hockey, basketball — and softball has always been kind of an afterthought. But now, at least for the moment, they are in the headlines along with those other kids.”

As the last out was being made by Moorestown in the Quakers’ semifinal win, the rain began to fall, and perhaps it was a fitting sign. It washed away all the past playoff struggles and wiped the slate clean, and maybe this group of players will set a new foundation for a more successful program in the future. Bruno, the last person in the dugout after the rain stopped, reflected on his career — which is by no means over, as he said he’ll continue to coach boys basketball.

“This was a season that came totally unexpected. I knew we had some good kids and some senior leadership, but I never dreamed the pieces would all fall together,” Bruno said. “We had some games where we pitched well but didn’t hit well, we had some where we didn’t pitch so great but we hit well. As the season progressed we started to hit well, pitch well and play good defense. I thought our defense really picked up at the end of the season. We didn’t make very many errors, and that was one of our real stumbling blocks in the past. We were giving teams extra outs, but then we turned about four double plays in the past two weeks between Lindsay and Alex, which is something you don’t see very often in softball. We were really good defensively late in the season and got some timely hitting.”

After shedding a few tears following the loss, Bruno was beaming with pride when talking about his team this year.

“I couldn’t be more proud of these kids, to put me where I was in my final season. It was a neat ride. This was by far my best season ever. I always tell the kids, in basketball, too, when you get to the last four teams in the South Jersey tournament, you’re in the Final Four. We were one pitch away from being in the South Jersey championship. If we strike that girl out instead of her hitting a home run, maybe we’re in the finals,” he said. “In softball, we’ve always been an afterthought. I had never won a softball playoff game, let alone being in the South Jersey semifinals, so it was kind of neat just to be in that situation where the kids could think about playing in a South Jersey final. People knew softball was a sport in Ocean City these past few weeks. The kids saw what we did, everybody is getting text messages, which is cool because a lot of times these girls get overshadowed by lacrosse, track and things like that. So, it was neat for these girls to get the attention.”

Just before exiting the dugout, the finality that his softball coaching career was over hit coach Bruno. He finished his career with 109 wins, as Ocean City won 16 games this spring, but the last two will always have a special place in his heart.

“It’s something that you think about, you wait for it, but when it comes — I used to always say you hate to see the season end but you’re glad when it’s over because it’s a long grind. I’ve said that in basketball for years, but there was always next year. Whether we made the playoffs or not, there was always next year. But now there’s a finality to it,” Bruno said. “I think you learn that it is time (to step away). The March weather has gotten to me, I’m not going to lie. Other than that, it’s very rewarding to be able to pursue something as long as I have. Nowadays, if you don’t win coaches don’t stay with it, and we didn’t win very much in my 20 seasons. Toward the end we did, and that was enjoyable, but I enjoy coaching now as much as I did when we were winning one game. I’ve always enjoyed the sport, but it’s time to kick it over to somebody younger and give them a chance to experience that.”

Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sully@acglorydays.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays

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