Upstart Mustangs heading to first SJ final since 2003

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tepedinopitch Mike Schultz/Mainland ace Matt Tepedino threw a complete game, striking out seven batters and surrendering just two hits, to propel the Mustangs to a 4-1 win over Hammonton in the Group III semifinals. HAMMONTON - A dominating pitching performance by Matt Tepedino and a two-out, clutch base hit by Billy Talarico in the sixth inning helped propel the Mainland Regional High School baseball team to a 4-1 upset win over third-seeded Hammonton on Tuesday in the South Jersey Group III playoff semifinals.

With the win, the 11th-seeded Mustangs (11-12) advanced to the South Jersey finals on Friday where they will face top-seeded Moorestown.

"In all my four years (at Mainland) we have not made the playoffs," Tepedino said. "This is my last year and I'm pumped. I've never been this excited to win a high school game."

Tepedino threw a complete game, gave up just two hits and struck out seven Blue Devil batters.

"My fastball was on and my slider was lethal today. Usually, I have trouble with the slider in the beginning of the game but today, the whole game, it was dead on and right where I wanted it."

Tepedino had brilliant command over his pitches and was able to induce ground ball outs at key moments.

Talarico had his own key moment in the top of the sixth inning.

With Mainland leading 2-1 and two runners on base, Mainland coach Billy Kern called a safety squeeze. Committed to playing small ball to scratch out an insurance run, Kern said he put senior Neil Hutchinson in a "tough spot" by asking him to get down a bunt with two strikes. Hutchinson bunted it foul and was the second out of the inning.

Kern knew if the play wasn't successful, Talarico was up next. "Billy has been swinging a hot bat for the last three weeks," Kern said.

On a one-strike pitch, Talarico hit a line drive into right field, plating two runs and stretching Mainland's lead to 4-1.

"I was thinking I need to get these runs in to win," said Talarico. "I just saw my pitch - up in the zone, middle of the plate - so I just threw my hands through the zone and lined it over the second basemen's head."

The hit took all the pressure off the Mustangs, enabling them to relax defensively, and allowing Tepedino to attack the strike zone. Most importantly, it propelled Mainland to its first SJ final since 2003, when Kern was the Mustang shortstop.

“It’s just a confidence thing at that point," Kern said. "It seems there are no bad hops when you are up three runs as opposed to one run. You could see the air go out of the other team when they knew they had to score three runs off of a quality pitcher (like Tepedino).”

Drew Riska had two hits for the Mustangs and also scored a run.

Riska is no stranger to SJ final playoff games. This past season he reached the SJ finals with the Mainland basketball team.

“The goal was the same for the baseball team as it was for the basketball team," he said. "We just wanted to make the playoffs. The fact that we did has made this a great senior year.”

Despite having to face top-seeded Moorestown in the finals, it’s hard to call the task ahead a daunting one for the Mustangs. They have quality pitching as evidenced by their 1.92 team earned run average. They have defied all expectations to reach this point and have played with a “we belong here” attitude throughout their surprising run through the playoffs. They had a 6-9 record at the time playoff seeds were announced.

The difference, Kern says, is that they are playing with confidence. “We knew our pitching could carry us through the playoffs. Right now we are making every play in the field, and when we need a timely hit we are getting it. We are getting contributions up and down the lineup.”

The South Jersey final is scheduled for 4 p.m. on Friday in Moorestown. Talarico is definitely confident. “I’m all guns ahead,” he said. “I have confidence in this team and I think player to player, we are better than them (Moorestown).”

tepedinoend Mike Schultz/The Mainland battery of Matt Tepedino and Billy Talarico embrace after the final out of Tuesday's SJ Group III semifinal win. endgame Mike Schultz/Mainland players congratulate one another after Tuesday's win.

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