By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
BUENA VISTA TOWNSHIP — Much like Buena Regional, the No. 1 seed in the Cape-Atlantic League Tournament, third-seeded Vineland has been fighting for respect all season long. The Fighting Clan have been inconsistent, scoring winning streaks of five, four and three games but also suffering through a three-game skid and, at one point, losing 5-of-7.
But it seems coach Kyle Jones’ group is getting hot at the right time. Vineland ripped off three wins this week to capture the Cape-Atlantic League Tournament championship, winning the crown in convincing fashion with an 11-3 victory over host Buena on Friday afternoon. Vineland led just 2-1 after three innings but then erupted for four runs in the top of the fourth and scored five more times in the final two innings to salt the game away and improve to 17-8 heading into the state playoffs, which begin Monday.
Junior pitcher Benedetto “Benny” Andreoli was the difference maker for Vineland, as he allowed just three hits and two runs over six innings of work while striking out four. He allowed a run in the bottom of the first inning on a hit batsman, two walks and an infield error, but after that Andreoli allowed just five baserunners the next five innings.
“Benny was saying all day in school that he was locked in, and he showed it today,” said right fielder Yoan Feliz. “The first inning was scary, but after that he was locked in. He’s even keeled. He’s going to come out every time and give 110 percent and he’ll do what he has to do on the mound. That’s what you’re looking for in a pitcher.”
“Benny was a dog today on the mound,” added senior shortstop Xavier Cortez. “I have full confidence in him whenever he’s on the mound. He gave us a bunch of confidence. When you have a guy like that you’re in every game.”
“I’m just happy right now. I can’t even put words to this. This is great. All season it’s been up and down, but today we got it done. I just had to get ahead and let my defense work, let them hit the ball. This defense behind me has been great all year, so I just let them do their thing,” Andreoli said. “I know how to throw strikes. I’ve been struggling a little bit, but I knew in a big game like this I just had to come out here and do what I know how to do.”
There was no question on coach Jones’ mind who he was going to give the ball to in the biggest game of the year so far. The only question was, would Andreoli need anybody to finish the game out for him. After six innings and 89 pitches, he reluctantly yielded to Justin Morris, who allowed one run on one it while striking out one in the bottom of the seventh.
“Benny doesn’t give up. I had to drag him off that mound to come out today,” Jones said after the game. “He’s a grinder, he’s a tough kid. He’s hard-nosed.”
Andreoli helped himself out in a big way at the plate, too, as he laced an RBI triple to the gap in right-center in the top of the fourth to start a four-run rally that gave Vineland a commanding 6-1 lead. Cortez added an RBI single a few batters later, and Donny Gomez pushed the lead to 5-1 with an RBI single to left. Cortez came around to score on a wild pitch before Buena finally got out of the inning.
By that time the damage was done, however. Vineland (17-8, 8-4 Cape-Atlantic League American) finished the day with 13 hits, including four doubles, Andreoli’s triple and a solo homer in the seventh by leadoff batter Yenuelle Rodriguez, who went 2-for-4 with a pair of RBIs and a run scored. Vineland’s bottom of the order — Christian Willis, David Ortiz and Andreoli — went a combined 5-for-9 with three RBIs and three runs scored.
“We’re locked in. We come out and play the game the way it’s supposed to be played, our pitchers throw strikes, our hitters are hitting, and that’s how you win ballgames. When you’re taking pressure off the top three or four hitters, it helps knowing we’re able to flip the lineup,” said Feliz, the No. 3 hitter in the order. “This gives us a little bit of confidence going into next week. Monday is the real challenge and we’re going to try to keep it rolling from right now.”
“We’ve been hitting our stride and everybody is working together,” Andreoli added. “We’re getting it together, and this is the right time to do it. We just have to keep moving forward.”
Vineland certainly was looking for some respect with a win over rival Buena (22-3, 11-1 CAL National), a team that had lost just twice all year — to Absegami during a regular-season game and against Cherry Hill West in the Diamond Classic.
“Coming into games like this, we have to come in here with full energy, all seven innings. And that’s what we did today. This means a lot to me. The past three years we haven’t really done too much, so I’m excited for this. Not a lot of guys left, we’re full of seniors this year so we have a lot of leadership in the dugout,” Cortez said. “I feel like a lot of teams have slept on us, especially in tournaments like this. They were probably thinking we had nothing this year. That motivates us a lot. We’re always the underdog, but we’re ready to beat any team that steps in front of us.”
“This means a lot. The CAL is one of the toughest conferences in South Jersey — in all of New Jersey, really. We beat one of the top teams last game in (St. Augustine) Prep, and we just finished what we had to do today. I feel like the teams we played all year have been getting us ready for the state playoffs,” coach Jones said. “The biggest thing is keeping everybody in Vineland. In previous years we lost guys to Prep, we lost guys to Delsea, we lost guys to St. Joseph (Academy), but nobody is leaving now. We’ve really built the foundation here and everybody wants to stay and play.”
Jones said playing teams such as Cherokee, St. Augustine Prep, Shawnee, Lenape, Bishop Eustace, Millville, Clearview and Ocean City has gotten his team prepared for tough postseason games.
“Every game is a battle,” he said. “It all comes down to who makes the least amount of mistakes. They are all tough games. But the schedule we played in the Cape-Atlantic League has prepared us for the state playoffs. We’re ready to go.
“You can’t overlook us. We have a lot of big wins this season, and the games that we lost I feel like we were right there. These guys have bought in. In the past there have been teams that didn’t buy in, and you don’t win games that way. But these guys have bought in. They are a tight group. We work together through the summer, in the weight room in the offseason. They are always together. They are a really close-knit bunch and they do all the little things they need to do to win games for each other.”
What’s next: No. 2 Vineland hosts No. 15 Central Regional in the opening round of the South Jersey Group 4 playoffs on Monday at 4 p.m. No. 1 Buena hosts No. 16 Gateway on Monday at 4 p.m. in the opening round of South Jersey Group 1.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays