Ocean City, Mainland tangle in SJG3 semis
Like Tom Petty says, the waiting has been the hardest part.
The Ocean City and Mainland Regional baseball teams — bitter rivals on the field — each earned their way into the South Jersey Group 3 semifinals with wins last week, then had to spend the entire Memorial Day weekend thinking about the matchup they had been anticipating all year. The players had to wait an extra day as well, as the field at Ocean City was unplayable on Tuesday due to Monday's rain.
It looks as though the game is on for today, however, with the temperature expected to be around 75 degrees under sunny skies at the scheduled 4 p.m. start.
"We're ready to go. We're excited. It should be a good pitching matchup. We talked about being ready to go and showing up for school (on Tuesday) ready to play. It's much harder to turn it on if you show up thinking you're not going to play," Mainland coach Billy Kern said. "The four teams who are left in our sectional all deserve to be here. They are all good teams, and anybody can win it."
Fans expected this matchup when the brackets were released, and each team has done its part to make sure it happened. Top-seeded Ocean City dominated No. 16 Absegami, 13-5, in the opening round, then got another great pitching performance from Sean Mooney in the quarterfinals in a 6-0 win over Central Regional. Mainland, seeded fourth and the two-time defending sectional champion, slipped past No. 13 Cumberland, 3-2, in the first round, then got past a scrappy Lacey Township team, 4-1, in the quarterfinals behind sophomore right-hander Nick Atohi.
The Mustangs (15-8) have ace righty Kyle Gerace, a Rutgers University recruit, ready to go, while Ocean City (17-5) will counter with either Josh Arnold or Sean Mooney. Ocean City head coach Craig Mensinger said he has been wrestling for days trying to decide which pitcher to pencil in as the starter. Mooney hasn't allowed an earned run all season and dominated Mainland in the teams' first matchup this year, but Mensinger has enough confidence in Arnold to possibly pitch him and have Mooney set to go for the championship game if the Red Raiders were to advance.
"I keep going back and forth with the strategy, talking to both Arnold and Mooney. We have a scenario for both situations," Mensinger said. "It's such a tough call because we'd love to have (Mooney) for the finals, but if you lose now you don't make it to the finals, so you don't want to save him either. But it's Arnold's turn, based on our rotation, and he's been pitching so well and I have a lot of confidence in him. We just haven't made up our minds yet."
No matter who the Red Raiders put on the mound, it should be an outstanding game that draws a huge crowd. The team split their season series, with each team winning on the road. Players on both sides said they are amped up for the game. The winner will face No. 2 Highland, a 5-0 win over No. 6 Toms River South, in the championship game, which is scheduled for Friday at the highest remaining seed.
"I can't wait. It's going to be a great game. The stands are going to be packed and it's probably going to be one of the best games of my life," Mooney said. "I think Josh is going to pitch, and we're confident in him. We can't wait. We split the series with them during the regular season, and now we have a shot at them here in the playoffs."
Gerace said even parents of players are fired up about the game and have been talking about it for a long time. He said Frank Trifiletti, father of Mainland right fielder Nick Trifiletti, predicted this scenario even before the season started.
"Mr. Trifiletti has been talking about this game since before the season started. You walk into Rose's Garden Grill, and that's all he's been talking about. I'm sure he's excited that it's going to happen, and I'm sure everyone else is, too. It's going to be good competition. We know all these kids, we've played against them many times. It's a good rivalry, and I'm glad it's come down to this. It's going to be one hell of a baseball game. A lot of people are going to be there — you know that's a fact," Gerace said. "I'm excited to be on the mound for this one, and I hope Mooney will be pitching as well. We might as well give (fans) a show."
"It was almost like it was destiny. We had this game circled on our calendars. It's almost like it was meant to be to have this semifinal against Mainland. We can't wait," said Joe Clifford, Ocean City's senior third baseman. "It's probably one of the biggest games of any of our lives. We're trying to treat it like any other game. We just have to go through every routine we have. The big thing this year with our coaches and all of us was to have some fun. Have fun up there at the plate and don't let the moment become too big. Just do whatever you have to do to make a play."
Ocean City was expected to be one of the top teams in South Jersey this season, but suffered a couple of early losses. Clifford said the Red Raiders were feeling the pressure of living up to preseason expectations and had to get back to just having fun playing baseball.
"We realized we were pressing a little too much. We weren't doing things the right way and we weren't doing things the way we were taught. The fundamentals, hitting the ball the other way," Clifford said. "I think there were a few games that turned things around for us, but most recently it was the Mainland game at our place. They beat us, 5-2, and we weren't really hitting balls where they should be and weren't taking the right approach at the plate. We knew the playoffs were right around the corner, so we knew we had to snap into action. I think we've done a good job so far, but we have to keep it rolling."
Mensinger said there isn't much more he can do as a coach at this point. He's prepared his team as much as possible, and not it's their time to either get the job done or see their season come to an end.
"I've been at this a long time. I don't get too excited about it. Either the kids will play well or they won't. It's one of those things where the kids are real excited to have this opportunity, and I'm just enjoying it. They kids are really excited to be playing Mainland. We expected to be playing them," Mensinger said. "The only thing that could have been better is if it was the actual South Jersey final. They know us very well, we know them very well. At least that's a plus for both schools, I think, because we know the competition. If we had gotten Lacey, we would have to have gone to all of our resources to get the scouting reports."
Gerace said he's just trying to soak it all in and live in the moment.
"I put it in the back of my mind (over the weekend) because when I think about things too much it eats me up inside. I've learned that from many years of playing this game. When the moment comes, just live in the moment and do what you've practiced doing all the years you've been playing ball. Just go out there and do what you do, and have fun with it. I don't let any of the hype of the game get to me, or the other team yelling or whatever. I use that as fuel. The louder they get, the more excited I get. I try not to make the moment too big," Gerace said. "Down the road, I'm going to have so many more games to talk about. You don't want to harp on one game. If anything does go wrong in this game, I'll use it as a learning experience. I don't want to beat myself down and get myself out of the game. I want it to be a well-played game and have everybody behind me playing their best."
No matter what happens today at 5th & Bay, players understand this will be a game many of them will remember throughout their lives.
"These kinds of games leave lasting impressions on people. It's going to be one to remember," Gerace said. "I'm sure this will be a game I'll remember, no matter how it ends up. It's definitely going to be a fun game, and I'm looking forward to it."
Said Clifford, "I'm going to miss this. You don't want to think about the end being so close, but I've had a great four years here. I wouldn't have it any different. I've made some great friends here, and I'll carry those friendships forever. This season has been a magical one. There's been some ups and downs, but it's been a great experience at Ocean City."
Contact Dave O'Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays