TOMS RIVER — Four school buses full of fans turned the return trip down the Garden State Parkway into a victory parade for the Mainland Regional High School baseball team on Saturday.
The “Corral Crazies” had plenty of reasons to cheer as the Mustangs had just won the biggest game in school history, beating Mount Olive 5-3 to win the state Group III championship.
“We wanted this all year, so just to get here feels awesome,” winning pitcher Kyle Gerace said. “To win it, feels 10 times better.”
Gerace struck out three in four innings of relief and allowed just one run for the win.
“I just went out there with the mentality that I needed to shut things down, and we need to bring home the state championship,” Gerace said.
That’s exactly what Gerace and the Mustangs did.
Gerace walked the first batter he faced in the bottom of the fourth in a 2-2 game but struck out a pair of hitters to get through his first inning of relief.
He gave Mainland the momentum after needing just five pitches to retire Mt. Olive’s second, third and fourth batters in the bottom of the fifth inning.
Mainland’s Drew Riska opened up the top of the sixth with a double, and the Mustangs took a 3-2 lead on an RBI single by Jack Loefflad.
But the Mustangs weren’t done.
Senior catcher Billy Talarico crushed a ball to left field with two outs in the inning that landed just over the outstretched glove of Mt. Olive left fielder Chris Grillo for an RBI double and what turned out to be the eventual game-winner.
“That hit was probably the biggest hit of my entire career, and I’m just so excited that as a senior I was able to get it done,” Talarico said. “It just feels awesome to be able to put the ball in play like that.”
The Mustangs finished the season with 16 wins but also lost 12 games and won the South Jersey Group III title as the No. 11 seed.
Billy Kern is in his third season as head coach of the Mustangs, and said he was glad he doesn’t have to answer any more questions about his team being underdogs.
“I feel like I have been the only one with all the interviews,” Kern said. “When’s the shoe going to drop? The Cinderella Story, you’re playing with house money and all the clichés. …
“All I kept telling the kids was, ‘You’re not playing with house money. This isn’t all gravy for you. You’re playing for a championship. There is something to lose and you have the ability to win it,’ and that has kind of been our mantra — ‘Why not us’?”
Mainland leadoff Matt McLaughlin was hit by a pitch to open the game and Gerace walked to start an early threat.
Two batters later, starting pitcher Nick Droboniku picked up the first of his two RBIs in the game to give the Mustangs a 1-0 lead.
Mt. Olive tied the game in the bottom of the inning, but a Roman Papademetriou sacrifice fly gave Mainland a 2-1 lead.
Riska doubled, walked and scored a run on Saturday. Droboniku had two RBIs. Loefflad had an RBI single and scored a run and Neil Hutchison walked and scored a run.
Kern knows first-hand as a former standout player himself that Mainland has had some great teams throughout the years.
“I’ve been telling them they’re kind of creating their own destiny,” Kern said. “They are never going to meet (the) ’99 team. They’re not going to meet ’02 or ’03, but everybody is going to be compared to 2014 and that’s something that nobody will ever be able to take away.”
Contact John O’Kane:
Mainland 110 002 1-5 6 1
Mount Olive 101 001 0-3 7 0
2B—Riska, Talarico MR; Shannon, Duchemin MO.
WP—Gerace 3k; LP—Snyder 2k.
Records—Mainland 16-12; Mt. Olive 23-7.