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Mainland Mustangs win first South Jersey title since ’99

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celebrate Bill LeConey/The Mainland Mustangs celebrate their 2-0 win over Moorestown in the South Jersey Group III championship. MOORESTOWN – The Mainland Regional High School baseball team quietly snuck up on a lot of people this year.

The Mustangs are making a lot of noise right now, when it counts.

The 11th-seeded Mustangs beat top seed Moorestown, 2-0, in nine innings Friday to capture the South Jersey Group III championship, their first sectional title since 1999.

“If you had told me halfway through the season that we would be here and win this game, I wouldn’t have believed you,” said junior Nick Droboniku, who threw eight scoreless innings, allowing four hits and striking out seven in a tremendous pitching duel with Moorestown flame-thrower Scott Zimmer. droboniku Bill LeConey/Mainland's Nick Droboniku pitches against Moorestown in the South Jersey Group III title game. “It was an up and down season, honestly… But we got hot at the right time. It’s awesome.”

Mainland (12-12) now has a chance to win its first-ever state title. The Mustangs will next play Central Group III champion Hamilton in a state semifinal Tuesday at The College of New Jersey in Ewing Township. North 1 champion Mount Olive will play North 2 champ Cranford in the other semifinal.

The Mustangs weren’t on a lot of radars in preseason. They got off to a rough start and didn’t appear to be headed to the playoffs. They barely slipped into the postseason and weren’t given much of a chance to win a game, much less a championship, as a No. 11 seed playing exclusively on the road.

Mainland head coach Billy Kern said he believed in the team all along.

“As God is my witness, I knew this team had it in them, from start to finish,” Kern said. “I knew that as long as we got a spot in the playoffs… with our pitching staff, and the hearts these kids have, that we were going to give ourselves an opportunity to win.”

Friday’s win was remarkable in many regards. The Mustangs were playing the section’s top seed on its home field, a team that won its first two playoff games (against Woodrow Wilson and Ocean City) by a combined score of 37-0.

The Mustangs struck out 21 – yes, 21 - times Friday against Zimmer, a University of Delaware commit.

Zimmer, a big, intimidating presence on the mound, threw 168 pitches and was clearly running out of gas by the ninth. The Mustangs loaded the bases on hits by Roman Papademetriou and Kyle Gerace, a fielder’s choice and a walk. With two outs and Droboniku at the plate, Matt Thomas scampered home on a wild pitch. Matt McLaughlin followed him to the plate two pitches later on a passed ball. Gerace nailed down the win for Mainland with a 1-2-3 ninth.

“After scoring that run, it was the most awesome feeling I’ve ever had in my life,” said Thomas, a sophomore. "It’s just absolutely amazing. After we got in (the playoffs), I knew we were going to make a run. We had a good feeling about today’s game.”

Droboniku gave an absolute bulldog effort on the mound. He threw 94 pitches and escaped trouble on numerous occasions, including the seventh, when he stranded a runner on third with a groundout to end the inning, and the eighth, when he stranded runners on second and third.

Kern said he changed his mind halfway through his walk to the mound about taking Droboniku out in that situation.

Mainland has received fine pitching from all three of its starters this postseason, including Matt Tepedino and Jack Loefflad, but Kern went with Droboniku in the title game.

“I had my options, but there was no doubt Nick was my guy,” Kern said. “He’s a multi-sport athlete, he’s a gamer. He’s going to give me absolutely everything he has, and that’s exactly what he did.”

Kern was a player for the Mustangs the last time they played for the South Jersey title, losing to Toms River North in 2003. He said the players have asked him about the experience, but he hasn’t revealed much.

“I just keep telling them, ‘Create your own memories. Don’t worry about what anybody did before you, and don’t try to live up to anything but your own expectations. You have an opportunity to create a memory that will last a lifetime.’

The Mustangs had a big contingent of students and fans make the hour-plus trip Friday. As the buses left the Moorestown parking lot, a South Jersey title in hand, they were honking horns, hooting and hollering, making a lot of noise.

It seemed an appropriate response for a team coming through loud and clear at just the right time of the year.

zimmer Bill LeConey/Moorestown's Scott Zimmer threw 168 pitches and struck out 21 Mainland batters Friday but took the loss. thomas Bill LeConey/Mainland's Matt Thomas scores the first Mainland run on a wild pitch in the ninth inning as Moorestown pitcher Scott Zimmer covers the plate. gerace Bill LeConey/Mainland's Kyle Gerace pitched a scoreless ninth to preserve Mainland's South Jersey title. gerace2 Bill LeConey/Gerace struck out the last batter he faced ... and the celebration was on. celebration2 celebration3 teampic Bill LeConey/The Mainland Regional Mustangs, South Jersey Group III champions.

 


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