By DAVE O’SULLIVAN

Staff Writer

HAMILTON — On a hot Saturday afternoon in June, after a hard-fought state championship game at Bob DeMeo Field, Joe Sheeran had tears in his eyes as he talked about what it was going to be like taking off that black-and-green Mainland Regional jersey for the last time. He may not take it off for a few days — that’s how much his Mustangs career, and the last three magical weeks, have meant to him and the other three seniors in the Stangs’ baseball program.

Mainland went from a glossed-over No. 9 seed in the sectional tournament — one that many didn’t think would make it past a round or two of the state playoffs — to nearly pulling off one of the greatest playoff runs in South Jersey history. The Stangs jumped out to a 3-0 first-inning lead on Morris Knolls, but the Golden Eagles came roaring back to score nine unanswered runs in a 9-3 victory in the NJSIAA Group 3 state championship game.

The Hollywood ending was not to be for the Mustangs and their faithful fans.

“This was a small senior class, but I wouldn’t want to be out here with anybody else,” said Sheeran, one of just four seniors in the program along with Nick Wagner, Brian Perez and Lukas Englert. “These are my guys for life and I’ve created lifetime friendships and I’ll remember this forever. This was a helluva ride. This is my first state championship game, my senior year, and it was immaculate. The atmosphere was there, all the cheering — it was an experience I’ll never forget.”

Mainland (14-14) got to Morris Knolls starter Joe O’Toole early and often, as three straight errors — including two by O’Toole on bunts — led to a 1-0 Mainland lead. The Stangs loaded the bases again after O’Toole got two outs, and Perez — who didn’t become a starter at third base until late in the season — stroked a two-run single up the middle to stake Mainland to a 3-0 lead.

Mainland catcher Brady Arena tags out Morris Knolls’ Carter Seely on a play at the plate during the Group 3 state championship game. (Sout Jersey Glory Days photo/Sully)

But the Golden Eagles (21-10-1) answered right back, scoring three runs in their half of the first, highlighted by a two-run double to right-center by Michael Simone. Simone came up big in his third at-bat of the day as well, drilling a two-run home run to deep left-center that gave the Golden Eagles a commanding 8-3 lead in the bottom of the fifth. James Kahn stroked a two-run double in the bottom of the third to give Morris Knolls the lead for good at 5-3.

“After the first inning, all we talked about was starting over and playing a six-inning game. It just seemed like we kept putting pressure on them offensively, but we were at seven (left on base) going into the seventh and I think we left eight on overall. It seemed like we had guys in scoring position every inning and we just couldn’t get that big hit throughout the game. Give credit to O’Toole, he pitched out of traffic in every inning,” said Mainland coach Billy Kern. “Extra-base hits hurt us today. We made some great pitches, even some of the doubles were down-and-away, great pitches that their guys put some great swings on. They had 10 hits today so you have to give them credit. Anytime you lose a ballgame when you don’t make an error and you get out-hit, you just have to give credit to the other team. We played a clean game defensively, we tried to pound the strike zone with both of our guys, and we did. I love both of our guys on the mound today, (Morris Knolls) was just better than us offensively today.”

Seven Golden Eagles had hits and Simone led the way, going 2-for-2 with three runs scored and five RBIs. After a rough start, O’Toole was outstanding. He allowed just five hits and two walks in six innings of work while striking out four. Ryan Iberer pitched a clean seventh to finish things up for Morris Knolls.

Morris Knolls’ Michael Simone stomps on home plate following a two-run homer that gave his team a commanding 8-3 lead. (South Jersey Glory Days photo/Sully)

Despite the loss, Mainland coaches and players understood just how incredible their postseason run was. This was a team that came into states sporting a 9-13 record.  

“This was special. Special for our community, special for our kids. I’m really happy for them to realize the ability they had and to put it together at the right time. We had great seniors with Perez, Wagner, Sheeran and Lukas Englert. Obviously this will hurt for awhile, but the goal is going to be the same for next year. We’re bringing back 19 really talented baseball players who are looking to get back here next June,” Kern said. “We had talked as a coaching staff that we’re probably about a year ahead of schedule in terms of where we would be. We have a ton of arms who are sophomores and juniors. To have no pitches (the whole season) from seniors is kind of unheard of in high school baseball, so we’ll return a bunch of guys. We also have a ton of guys at our JV and freshman level who are ready to compete and want to get themselves on the field.”

Sheeran — a standout football player who led the Stangs to a South Jersey title last fall on the gridiron — had an outstanding senior season, finishing with 27 hits. The last came on a sharp single up the middle in the final at-bat of his career.  

“I had to bunt twice and then I struck out, and going in (to that at-bat in the seventh) I knew it was possibly going to be the last at-bat of my career,” Sheeran said. “I figured with all the memories I’ve made over the last four years, I had to get a hit. It’s pretty cool ending with a hit. Standing on first base, I was just trying to soak it all in. Everyone is a kid only once, and this was my last time playing for Mainland. I wouldn’t have wanted to do this with anybody else.”

As for that No. 13 jersey, eventually it will get washed and returned back to the coaching staff. Or maybe Kern will let Sheeran keep it, in honor of everything he’s done for the program the last four years.  

“It means the world to me, this jersey,” Sheeran said. “I never want to take it off. Mainland will forever have my heart.”

Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sullyglorydays@gmail.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays