MIDDLETOWN – Won-loss records can be deceiving, especially if you take them at face value.
Mainland came into Monday’s NJSIAA Group III semifinal against Middletown North with a 13-13 record after beginning its playoff run with a very pedestrian 9-13 record.
However, if you take a closer look at the route they’ve taken, you’ll see that they are one of the hottest teams still alive in the state playoff picture.
As the ninth-seeded team in the NJSIAA South Jersey Group III playoffs the Mustangs stunned top-seeded Shawnee – ranked No.8 in the state at the time – 3-1 in the quarterfinals before shutting out fourth-seeded Hammonton 3-0 in the semifinals. They then upset second-seeded Delsea – ranked No.14 in the state – 6-4 in the final.
The sectional title was their first since 2015 when they also beat Delsea and fourth overall. Now, after holding off Middletown North 5-4 in Monday’s NJSIAA Group III semifinal they’ll continue their improbable run with a chance to win its first Group III championship since 2014.
There’s also a little bit of Déjà vu surrounding Saturday’s Group final. In 2014, the Mustangs also had a sub-.500 record heading into the state tournament and went on to defeat Mt. Olive for the championship.
“It’s possible,” said Mainland head coach Billy Kern when asked if he thought his team might’ve been overlooked entering the playoffs. “But coming into the playoffs we told our guys that all the seed in front of your name did was to let you know where the game is going to be played, that’s about it. Once you show up on the field it’s about the players and about competing and they kind of bought into that, and we’re a real tough out right now, so I feel real good about this team.”
Mainland jumped out to a 2-0 lead with a pair of runs in the top of the second inning with the help of only one base hit, a bunt single. Junior Cohen Cook walked to lead off the inning before junior Brady Blum laid down a perfect bunt that went for a hit, but on the play Middletown North starting pitcher Gabe Ahlemeyer’s throw to first was wild putting runners on second and third with no outs.
On the next play, Jack Haines’ grounder to shortstop Ryan Frontera was bobbled by him and his throw to third base was just late as Blum slid under the tag as Cook was scoring on the play for a 1-0 lead. With runners now on the corners with no outs, senior Bryan Perez hit a long fly ball into right-center for a sacrifice fly and a 2-0 lead. Ahlemeyer struck out the next two batters to get out of the inning without any more damage.
The Mustangs added another pair of runs in the top of the third inning. Junior Christian Elliot led off the inning with drive that had homer written all over it but it banged off the fence in deep left-centerfield for a long double. With one out, Ahlemeyer walked the next two batters to load the bases. Blums sacrifice fly to centerfield then brought in one run and Haines delivered a two-out RBI single to stretch the lead to 4-0.
Mainland starting pitcher, sophomore Jake Lodgek, already committed to the University of Miami, was breezing along facing just 10 batters in the first three inning only giving up a two out line-drive single down the first-base line to senior R.J. Kernan in the first inning.
In the bottom of the fourth, the Lions threatened but left a man in scoring position. Kernan drew a one-out walk and Dylan Briggs singled up the middle with two outs putting runners on first and second, but Lodgek got senior Colby McMahon on a called third strike.
Mainland tacked on another run in the top of the fifth and knocked Ahlemeyer out of the game in the process.
Ahlemeyer hit senior Nick Wagner leading off the inning and that was it for the lanky lefty, who went four-plus innings allowing five runs (four earned runs), three hits, three walks, hit batter and two strikeouts.
Sophomore righty Alipo Figueroa came on in relief of Ahlemeyer. Cook then executed a perfect bunt that slowly rolled down the first-base line and stayed fair for a base hit with Wagner advancing to third on the play. Blum then brought Wagner home on an RBI sacrifice fly to left field for a 5-0 lead.
Whether it be bunting or sacrifice flies to the outfield, the Mustangs do all the little things really well.
“I think that’s just the recipe for winning playoff games,” said Kern of his team ability to execute. “When you get guys to third you got to get them in. You got a guy on first, you got to get him in scoring position. All we’re trying to do it put as much pressure on the defense as we possibly can. Our kids have bought in and they’re executing.”
Figueroa picked off Cook for the second out and got Haines on a grounder to third to get out of the inning. Figueroa was perfect after that setting the side down in order in the sixth and seventh innings.
In the bottom of the sixth, the Lions scored two unearned runs. Frontera led off the inning with walk and advanced to second base on a wild pitch and scored on a Hampton infield hit and error by the second baseman. Briggs then walked putting runners at first and second with one out.
At this point, Lodgek reached his pitch limit and junior Ethan Mintick came on in relief. Loggek went 5.1 innings allowing two runs (0 earned), four hits, three walks and struck out seven on 109 pitches.
“Jake was fantastic,” said Kern. “He’s a leader and has always been No.1 guy. By mid-season he’s really taken on the role of our ace. He’s thrown multiple pitches, competed in the strike zone and he’s only a sophomore, so I get him for a long time.”
McMahon’s grounder to third went through Perez’s wickets for a run-scoring error pulling the Lions to within three, 5-2. Mintick then got Jason Quardt looking on a 3-2 pitch for the second out and Ahlemeyer flied out to left to end the threat.
Middletown North wasn’t quite finished yet and made things interesting in the bottom of the seventh.
Sophomore Aldo Casale pinch hit to lead off the bottom half of the seventh and lined a single into right field. With one out, Frontera then drilled a 3-1 pitch over the left-centerfield fence for a monster home run pulling the Lions to within one run, 5-4 with only one out.
Mitnick then settled down and got Kernan on a pop out to the shortstop and Hampton swinging on a third strike to end the game.
Middletown North won its second straight sectional title last week and were hoping to repeat as Group champions but ran into a juggernaut in Mainland on the way. The Lions started the season 2-5 but finished going 15-3 with all three of their losses coming against playoff teams.
“We gave them a couple extra ones in the beginning and dug ourselves a little too much of a hole to overcome,” said Middletown North head coach Ryan McCabe. “But we stuck with it, defense played pretty well, gave us a shot and we were one swing away at the end there.
“These guys wanted more, and we can’t be content with that,” added McCabe. “I think these guys understand what it is that they’ve accomplished. It’s been a long time since we’ve had these kinds of years but we’re not content where we’re at today.”
Mainland (14-13) advances to the Group III final this Saturday against Morris Knolls (20-10-1), who knocked off Millburn (27-4) – ranked No.3 in the state – 12-0. The first pitch is scheduled for 1 p.m. at Veterans Park on Hamilton.
“We’ve had great practices for three weeks,” said Kern. “We’re sticking to a kind of recipe of getting as many guys to second base as we can and continue to manufacture and stack runs. Our pitching has been fantastic for three weeks now and we’re really picking up the baseball in the field. We have a really, really good recipe going on right now and we’re a tough out. The guys are very confident, and we feel good going into the state final.”
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