By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
It was one of those days where you could just feel the sun burning your skin as you stood in place. Early June, Mercer County, heading toward high noon and a summer sun that seemed angry it had been cooped up the past few months.
Not exactly ideal conditions to be playing 14 innings of baseball.
But that’s what it took for the Ocean City baseball team to secure the first state championship in program history — the equivalent of two high school games.
The Red Raiders seemed to have everything lined up perfectly. They had ace Gannon Brady ready to go, he of the dominating victory over rival Mainland Regional in the sectional final the weekend before. And head coach Andrew Bristol had all kinds of other pitching in reserve — Matt Nunan, a Boston College commit, Duke McCarron, a University of Maryland commit, as well as Tom Finnegan, who originally committed to Vanderbilt when he was just a freshman and who had thrown a gem against Colts Neck in the Group 3 semifinals.
All the Raiders needed was a couple of runs in support of Brady and Bristol was confident his team could pull out a victory. Well, those couple of runs proved to be quite a challenge to come by.
Pascack Valley, a team that came into the state championship with 24 wins, matched Ocean City inning for inning. The Red Raiders scored a run in the top of the first, Pascack Valley answered in the bottom of the first. That same scenario played out in the sixth, and when the seventh went by without a run from either team, it looked more and more like the Glory Days Magazine Game of the Year was going to take a lot longer than originally anticipated.
Both bullpens were forced to toss eight innings — longer than the originally schedule seven, and Pascack Valley’s Cole Porter, the eventual losing pitcher, twirled 99 pitches in relief and allowed just three hits. Nunan and McCarron were just as good for Ocean City, combining to limit Pascack Valley to just one hit while striking out six in eight innings of work.
“That game was one of the most brutal sporting events I’ve ever been a part of. Every inning we went on it just seemed like the game was never going to end. It seemed like nobody was going to be able to score a run. Our parents kept going to the snack stand to get us drinks and bring them back to the dugout. It was an unreal feeling, and to finish it the way we did — especially with that being the last game of my high school career — it was just an outstanding feeling and moment to have,” said senior catcher Joe Repetti. “Everybody was on edge the entire game, on their feet right up against the fence. We knew that with one minor mishap the game could be over, so everybody, collectively, tried to lock in as best we could. I was trying to calm everybody down, especially the pitchers, and just trying to keep everybody locked in. We were just trying to make plays as they needed to be made and the outcome happened to fall in our favor.”
“It was like an encapsulation of everything we talked about with handling adversity. That game — you had to be able to handle the all the elements, handle all the pressure. That was like a microcosm of our season. I kept thinking to myself, ‘I’m going to lose this game because I lost a coin flip for the home team.’ As it kept going I was like, ‘there’s no way we’re going to keep dodging these bullets.’ You think about those last three innings, Joe picked a kid off third, there was a line drive double play to (Jack) Perry and then the double play to end the game. I guess it was just meant to be,” Bristol added. “We had talked about it, how we would handle an extra innings situation. Some people wanted me to go to Duke before Nunan, but I thought Nunan had such a great practice the Wednesday before, where he pitched live and was great.”
The game needed a hero, and the longer it went on the more likely it was going to be somebody that casual South Jersey baseball fans had never heard of. Enter Jack Perry, Ocean City’s senior third baseman.
In the top of the 14, shortstop James Mancini led off with a walk, took second on a wild pitch and found his way to third before Perry — who had an RBI double in the sixth — laid down a perfect bunt single to plate Mancini with the eventual winning run in Ocean City’s 3-2 victory. The game ended in the bottom of the 14th when second baseman Ben Hoag turned a 4-3 double play.
“It’s unbelievable. I can’t even describe this feeling. It hasn’t set in yet. It’s awesome. I was nervous, and just trying to stay confident. I didn’t have the best season, but that didn’t matter (in that moment). All that matters is I came to play today, and did my job. Our team fought hard, it was such a long game, the pitching was solid, as always, and it feels great to come out on top,” Perry said immediately after the game, which fell on Father’s Day. “Toward the end it became all mental. All of us were physically dead, but it was 100 percent mental. It was a long fight, but it worked out for the best for us. This was always the main goal. We always knew we had the talent, we just had to put it together, work hard as a team. Coach Bristol and this great coaching staff led us through this.”
“It was a game where you think you have to do something to manufacture a run,” Bristol said. “I thought if we could get a leadoff guy on like we did that inning, we could do something. Mancini led off with a walk and we were going to bunt him over but the ball got by the catcher and the next thing you know he’s on third base. I knew we’d still have to manufacture a run though. We weren’t going to be able to hit our way through that.”
It was an emotionally uplifting finish to a season that began with the Red Raiders losing five of their first 13 games and searching for an identity.
“Everyone once in a while I’ll sit and think to myself that we really won a state title. That’s something you always want as a program but you never know if it will ever happen. But it happened, and we were fortunate enough to be in the right position, and have the breaks go our way, have the right kind of talent,” Bristol said. “One of the things that helped is we have nine incredible coaches, so we’re able to focus on so many little things in practice that a lot of teams can’t. It was a great run.”
Added Repetti, “That was a really surreal feeling. That was a perfect way to put an end to the great careers that we all had as students at Ocean City. I couldn’t have asked for a better ending. It was a fairy tale.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays
Glory Days Magazine 2021 Game of the Year: Ocean City baseball state championship win
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN