It’s shades of 2014 again as both Mainland and Buena Regional are aiming to win state championships. That’s the last time either of these squads won a state title, and for Mainland, this year’s postseason is playing out much the same way it did back then, as the Stangs have relied on their formula of getting great starting pitching, coupling that with solid defense and a few timely hits here and there.
Here’s a quick look at the group semifinal matchups, and how both teams got to this point.
GROUP 3 SEMIFINALS
Mainland (13-13) at Middletown North (17-8), today, 4 p.m.
THE SKINNY: Mainland is flying high after winning South Jersey Group 3 as the No. 9 seed, and the Stangs have won five straight games after an unremarkable regular season. Middletown North has won four straight games, and three of those playoff wins have come by one run, so the Lions are used to playing in close games. Mainland will almost certainly go with sophomore Jake Lodgek, a University of Miami recruit, on the hill today. He’s been outstanding all year, and in his last outing — a 3-0 playoff win at Hammonton — he allowed just three hits and three walks while striking out six.
MAINLAND IN THE REGULAR SEASON
The Stangs scuffled all year, but about halfway through coach Billy Kern inserted a nearly entirely new infield — a rare move for very good high school baseball programs. Senior Brian Perez took over at third base and the Blum brothers, Brady and Jake, took over the middle infield as shortstop and second baseman, respectively. Add in catcher Brady Arena and the only original infielder remaining was first baseman Nick Wagner. Kern also has Lodgek playing right field when he’s not pitching, and all those moves have meant a boost in the offense. Perez has chipped in 11 RBIs and nine runs scored, Brady Blum is hitting .289 with 12 runs scored and 13 walks, and Jake Blum — just a freshman — is hitting .357. Wagner has been steady all year, hitting .348 with 23 hits and 15 RBIs. Since a 13-5 loss to Hammonton in early May, Mainland has gone 7-4, and in five of those wins the Stangs have scored four runs or more.
MAINLAND IN THE POSTSEASON
Beat No. 8 Cumberland, 4-1
Beat No. 1 Shawnee, 3-1
Beat No. 4 Hammonton, 3-0
Beat No. 2 Delsea, 6-4
It’s been the same old Mainland when the postseason starts, as the Stangs have ridden the starting pitching of Lodgek and Cohen Cook, with some help out of the pen from Ethan Mitnick. Heading into the sectional final against Delsea, Mainland had allowed just two runs in three playoff games. The Stangs also pulled off a pretty impressive trick — they took down four of the top eight seeds in the section, beating No. 8 Cumberland, No. 1 Shawnee, No. 4 Hammonton and No. 2 Delsea. They’ve also showed versatility on offense, as in each game it’s been a different hero. In the win over Cumberland, Perez scored a pair of runs; against Shawnee, Wagner went 2-for-3 with a run and an RBI; and in a 6-4, come-from-behind win over Delsea in the title game, junior DH Jack Haines went 3-for-4 with two runs and three RBIs, which came on a three-run double in the fifth that put Mainland ahead for good.
GROUP 1 SEMIFINALS
Buena (26-3) at Point Pleasant Beach (23-5), today at 4 p.m.
THE SKINNY: Buena is trying to cap off one of its best seasons ever with another state championship. This team has been built to win from the start with a host of seniors, and while the Chiefs lost to Vineland in the Cape-Atlantic League Tournament championship game, they bounced back to win South Jersey Group 1 and are two wins away from a state title. Point Beach started the season on a 10-game winning streak and have gotten hot again, winning its last six, including mercy-rule victories in three of its four sectional games.
BUENA IN THE REGULAR SEASON
Just a couple of hiccups, as the Chiefs started out 13-0 before a 3-2 loss to Absegami on May 1. The schedule wasn’t exactly challenging, but the Chiefs took care of business, winning all but one regular-season game. The other two losses came against Cherry Hill West in the Diamond Classic and against Vineland in the league championship game. The Chiefs have done it with offense and defense, as they hit better than .300 and have an ERA of less than 2.00. Joey Kurtz has 73 strikeouts and a 1.32 ERA in 58 innings, while senior shortstop Tre Carano has 44 hits, 40 runs scored, 25 RBIs and is hitting .444. Buena has seven batters who have at least 16 hits, and the Chiefs have scored 223 runs this season.
BUENA IN THE POSTSEASON
Beat No. 16 Gateway, 9-0
Beat No. 8 Glassboro, 15-0
Beat No. 4 Paulsboro, 11-7
Beat No. 2 Audubon, 8-4
The Chiefs garnered the No. 1 seed for good reason, and they ripped through this section, outscoring their opponents 43-11. Against Paulsboro, Zach Strouse and Aidan Carano combined for seven RBIs, and in the championship victory over Audubon, Kurtz struck out eight in six innings, shutting down the Green Wave over his final three innings of work before giving way to Austin Wokock to finish it out.