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‘Made in the ‘90s’ Mustangs made history in 2014

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mainfollow8 Bill LeConey/The Mainland Regional Mustangs won the first state baseball title in school history Saturday. TOMS RIVER - Mainland Regional High School held its senior prom on Friday night, with the theme “Made in the ‘90s” nostalgically recreating the decade in which the students were born.

It also created a late night for several of the Mainland athletes going for the school’s first state title in baseball Saturday afternoon at Toms River South.

No problem. Just another obstacle to overcome for these “Made in the ‘90s” Mustangs, who used timely hitting, strong pitching and solid defense to beat Mount Olive, 5-3, in the Group III title game, setting off a “Green Wave” of celebration that extended back down the Garden State Parkway and into the mainland communities of Linwood, Northfield and Somers Point.

“It was the best feeling of my life,” senior outfielder Drew Riska said of the final out in Saturday’s game. “Nobody expected us to win. We were the underdogs in every (playoff) game. We just proved everybody wrong. It feels great.”

mainfollow Bill LeConey/Mainland senior Drew Riska signals to his teammates after his rally-starting leadoff double in the sixth inning Saturay. Mainland struggled through an inconsistent regular season, going 10-12 and squeaking into the South Jersey playoffs as an 11th seed. They went 14 innings to beat higher-seeded Delsea in the first round, and also beat Hammonton and top seed Moorestown on the road to win their first South Jersey title since 1999.

The Mustangs struck out a shocking 21 times in the Moorestown game but managed to win the game on a pair of passed balls/wild pitches in the ninth. Because of weather, they had to wait an extra day - and make two 3-hour round-trip bus rides in two days – to beat Hamilton West in the state semifinals.

The Mustangs were admittedly “flat” in the early innings of Saturday’s game, maybe a hangover effect from the late prom night, and were outhit 6-1 through five innings in a 2-2 tie.

But Riska started the sixth inning rally with a leadoff double, and Jack Loefflad hit an RBI single to break the tie. Billy Talarico followed with a line smash over the left fielder’s head.

“That was probably the biggest hit in my entire career, and I’m just so excited that as a senior I was able to get it done,” said Talarico, a senior catcher. “It feels awesome.”

Talarico provided his usual stellar defense behind the plate, while infielders Roman Papademetriou and Matt McLaughlin also made big plays. Kyle Gerace pitched four strong innings in relief of starter Nick Droboniku, who helped the cause with a pair of RBIs.

It was the first time in the playoffs that the offense actually picked up the pitching staff. “In the previous games we only scored like one or two runs,” Riska said, “but we kept battling. We had it in our hearts to finish it off.”

mainfollow2 Bill LeConey/Mainland senior Matt Tepedino pumps up his teammates in the dugout Saturday. Senior pitcher Matt Tepedino was not only made in the ‘90s but threw in the 90s – hitting 95 mph on the radar gun and striking out 13 in the semifinal win over Hamilton. But he maxed out his innings pitched, so all he could do Saturday was watch and (very loudly) pump up his team in the dugout.

“We sure showed everybody that we’re not the underdogs,” Tepedino said. “We’re the state champs.”

Head coach Billy Kern said the mantra for this team became “Why not us?” Sophomore Gerace, one of several starting underclassmen, said the bar has been set high for Mainland baseball. Many great players - such as the Law brothers, the Kern brothers and R.J. Lindquist – have gone through the program but never won a state championship.

“I’ve been asked all along how it compares to ’99, 2000, 2003 … and I’ve been telling them, they’re creating their own legacy,” said Kern, a Mainland player the last time the Mustangs reached a South Jersey final, in 2003. “They’re never going to meet ’99 or any of those other years, but everybody’s going to be compared to 2014, and that’s something that nobody can take away from them.”

mainfollow9 Bill LeConey/Proud parents Cindy and Dan Kern, far left, pose with their sons Billy, Dan and Brian after they coached the Mainland Mustangs to a state championship on Saturday. It was also a very proud day for the Kern family. Brothers Dan Jr. and Brian are assistant coaches for Mainland. Father Dan Sr. and mother Cindy were beaming as they posed for pictures with their boys on Saturday.

The last few years have been challenging on the athletic fields for Cape-Atlantic League public schools, which have faced declining enrollment and increased competition from area parochial schools that can draw talented players from various districts, including Mainland’s. Before Saturday, no CAL public school had ever won a state baseball title – both Mainland and Buena Regional (Group II) broke down that barrier on Saturday.

Mainland, of course, has also experienced tragedy in recent years, losing four members of the football team to a devastating car crash on the Parkway three years ago.

Saturday’s state title can’t erase that pain or make the future challenges any easier. But it certainly created a unique and special memory for everyone involved.

“We’re the best team in Mainland baseball history,” Talarico said. “It’s cool to go down in history … It’s cool."

 


 

Related: 

Mainland Mustangs corral state baseball title 

Mustangs win Group III state title

Mainland Mustangs win first South Jersey title since ’99

Upstart Mustangs heading to first SJ final since 2003 

Photo Gallery: Mainland mows down Hamilton to reach first state title game 

mainfollow6 Mainland infielder Matt McLaughlin makes a play.

mainfollow6 Bill LeConey/Mainland senior Billy Talarico pumps his fist after his RBI double in the sixth inning.

mainfollow4 Bill LeConey/Mainland players mob pitcher Kyle Gerace after the final out Saturday. mainfollow7 Mainland Regional head baseball coach Billy Kern


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