Mainland mows down Hamilton to reach first state title game

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mainham1 Bill LeConey/Mainland Regional pitcher Matt Tepedino (left) celebrates with catcher Billy Talarico and first baseman Nick Droboniku after his dominating win over Hamilton in the Group III state semifinal. EWING - The phrase “worth the wait” applies in many ways to what the Mainland Regional High School baseball team accomplished Wednesday afternoon.

The Mustangs had to wait an extra day because of the weather to secure the program's first-ever appearance in a state championship game – and the wait seemed to suit pitcher Matt Tepedino to a T.

Tepedino was overpowering on Wednesday, hitting the mid-90s on the radar gun, striking out 13 and allowing five hits in a 2-0 Group III semifinal win over Hamilton West at The College of New Jersey. The victory propelled the Mustangs into Saturday’s state title game against Mount Olive, scheduled for 2 p.m. at Toms River South High School.

“I felt real comfortable,” Tepedino said in the understatement of the spring. “In the warmup stretch I felt real strong, no strain at all. My slider was on, my fastball was popping. I usually sit around 90 (mph) … I hit 95 today, which is very shocking to me. I was very happy. Today’s game was just amazing. I had heard good things about the way they hit, and I just came out here today and hoped for the best.”

mainham2 Matt Tepedino Wednesday’s semifinal was originally scheduled for Tuesday but was postponed because of rain and lightning. Tepedino said the extra day, and another 90-minute bus ride, actually served him well.

“Honestly yesterday I wasn’t feeling it,” he said. “I just didn’t feel comfortable, something was wrong mentally, but today everything was good. Thank God for that extra day.”

The Mustangs, who struck out 21 times but scored twice on passed balls in their South Jersey championship win over Moorestown last week, found another strange way to scratch across a couple runs against Hamilton’s very good starter Cody Astbury on Wednesday.

With one out in the third, Jack Loefflad hit a bases-loaded ground ball to third that could have been an inning-ending double play, but the Hamilton second baseman threw the ball wide of first, scoring Matt McLaughlin two Mainland runners scored.

That would be all Tepedino needed, but he got some help from a Hamilton base-running blunder in the fifth. With runners on first and second, Tepedino failed to field a sacrifice bunt, but first baseman Nick Droboniku scooped up the ball and fired to third, catching the Hamilton runner off the bag for the out and avoiding a bases-loaded, nobody out situation. Tepedino then got the next two batters on a strikeout and groundout to end the threat.

Tepedino agreed that it was a big play of the game. “I told my coach that I called a play there, that’s why I overran the ball,” he joked. “I took my eye off the ball and I knew something bad was going to happen … luckily we made that play and got him cheating off that bag. I was happy.”

It has been quite a playoff ride for the upstart Mustangs (15-12), who sloshed through an up-and-down regular season and crept into the South Jersey sectional as a No. 11 seed. They’ve won five straight playoff games, four on the road.

“During the regular season we weren’t playing well,” said Tepedino, who will pitch for Division I New Orleans next year. “Hitting, fielding, pitching … honestly we were just working on all that in practice every day, and something just one day clicked, maybe the first playoff game. Everybody had smiles on their faces, and for the first time they just looked ready to play and looked like a baseball team that was playing together.”

The Mustangs have also been loose on the bench the last two games, joking and reacting to their friends and fans, the Corral Crazies, who have been making the up to 90-minute trips throughout the playoffs.

“It’s amazing,” Tepedino said. “Everybody’s happy. I’ve never seen my coach (Billy Kern) this happy, ever, in the four years I’ve started varsity. To see him that happy, it hits my heart, because he wanted this so bad.”

“We just try to be positive throughout, and tell the kids how good they are and that they do belong here,” said Kern, who was a player for Mainland the last time (2003) the Mustangs got as far as the South Jersey title game.

“We don’t talk too much about what everybody else is saying, because you can hang things on the wall or show predictions, and that doesn’t really get it done. It’s about the 21 kids, they’re the reason we’re here, nobody else. Nobody wins the game because they have the loudest cheering section – although it does help. We’ve been telling them, ‘Go out and execute and that will put you in a position to win,” and that’s what they’ve done.”

The Mustangs are also in a position to become the first Cape-Atlantic League public school team to ever win a state title. The last to reach state championship games were Buena (Group II) in 2012 and OceanCity (Group III) in 2010. Parochial schools St. Augustine Prep and Holy Spirit have won three state titles between them going back to 1980.

As the Mainland buses left The College of New Jersey campus early Wednesday evening, they passed two academic buildings, one identified by a sign as “Bliss Hall” and the other “Loser Hall.” You could tell by the honking, hooting and hollering which building best represented the blissful attitude of the Mustangs and their fans this spring.

mainham3 Bill LeConey/Jack Loefflad's sharply-hit bases-loaded ground ball in the third inning led to the only runs of the game. mainham4 Bill LeConey/Mainland's Kyle Gerace, who had singled earlier in the third inning, scores on a throwing error to give Mainland a 2-0 lead. mainham5 Mainland fans, known as Corral Crazies, cheer on their team's state semifinal win over Hamilton. mainham6 Tepedino mainham7 Bill LeConey/Tepedino tosses the ball to Droboniku for the final out of the game. mainham8 The Mustangs celebrate their win over Hamilton West in the Group III state semifinal.

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