Staff report

Move over, Mainland, your rival wants a seat at the table.

After dominating the South Jersey Group B championship meet for years with guys like Destin Lasco, Liam and Cole Garbutt and Erik Truong, Mainland was bounced in the sectional semifinals this year by No. 2 Moorestown, opening the door for top-seeded Ocean City to capture its first championship since 1962.

The Red Raiders, who long have had to play second fiddle to Mainland, their neighbor across the 9th Street Bridge, clawed their way to a 90-80 win over Moorestown on Thursday night at Gloucester County Institute of Technology, taking first place in the final event to pull away. That event, the 400 freestyle relay, saw the team of Pat Armstrong, Nick Bianchi, Matthew Woodside and Gavin Neal set a new school record as well.

“It was surreal. We’re excited. We looked at it for awhile and we knew it was going to come down to the last relay most likely. The meet was back-and-forth, it was a dogfight. We had 80 points after the breaststroke and I thought we had a real good opportunity, we just needed to win that last relay and the kids pulled it out. They actually broke our school record by two seconds, so they won it in style,” said Ocean City coach Shane McGrath by phone following the meet. “The thing that we talk about all the time is the last time our boys won a sectional title was back in 1962. The kids, at this point, are annoyed that at practice or in the weight room I’m always writing ‘1962’ on the board, but now they tell me I don’t have to write that anymore. Now it’s 2022.”

Moorestown (6-5) dominated the first-place finishes, as Ocean City (13-2) won just two individual events and two relays of the meet’s 11 events, but the Red Raiders showed their depth, piling up enough seconds and thirds to come out on top. Armstrong took first in the 50 free and Neal captured the top spot in the 100 free, while Moorestown countered with a pair of wins each from Luke Mumma and Jonah Luetke. Ocean City took second in the 200 medley relay, Michael Kelly took second in the 200 IM, Armstrong added a second-place finish in the 100 fly, C.J. Denn was second in the 100 back and Woodside scored a second in the 500 free.

“We thought we had a shot. Last year we graduated Steve Gooden and Dolan Grisbaum, so losing them we weren’t sure what we had. We knew we had a good group coming back but we’ve had some guys this year who have dropped a tremendous amount of time,” McGrath said. “Our sprint groups have really shined. They can go against any team’s sprinters and hold their own. Looking at the times throughout the year — nowadays everything is out there on nj.com so you can see everybody’s times where as in the past you had to guess or reach out to other coaches about kids’ times. We knew we had a shot, we knew it was going to be tough, but luckily we came out on top today.”

One key to Ocean City’s success this year has been relying on some lacrosse players as well as pulling athletes from the town’s talented lifeguarding crew.

“I think it’s been our work ethic. I go back to five or six years ago when we had a group of guys who bought into what’s outside the pool — the weight room and the extra stuff you need to do to get better. They started the trend of we’re going to dedicate ourselves to this and this is not just a team, but a program. They started it and this group continued it. That’s really what it was, a group of guys who came together — surfers, lifeguards, lacrosse guys — a ‘motley crew’ I call it. We have our club guys, too, but all together when that whole thing works out it shows in meets like this,” McGrath said. “It means a lot. I have a couple of lacrosse guys on my team and they had an opportunity to win a South Jersey title under coach Joe LaTorre, who runs an absolutely awesome program, so now they have two South Jersey titles and some kids never get experience even one. Their heads are high. I told them to enjoy this moment then we’ll move on to the next step.”

McGrath credits this year’s team with carrying on the recent legacy of putting in the work necessary to compete with the best teams in South Jersey. Now, the squad can put a shiny new trophy next to that dusty old one from 1962.

“This group of kids has bought in from the get-go,” McGrath said. “Like all kids who have been affected by what’s happened the last two years, they knew they wanted it and they put in the work. My seniors — they were there, they’ve been in two South Jersey finals against those great Mainland teams that no matter what we did in those meets it would have taken a miracle to beat them with who they had at the time. This was our opportunity and we knew these opportunities only come once in a while, and maybe never, so they went after it and they did it.”