By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
LINWOOD — After Mainland Regional got shut out, 4-0, by Cedar Creek on Tuesday afternoon, Mustangs coach Brian Smith issued a challenge to his seniors. He reminded them that if they didn’t start producing in the clutch, their season — and careers — would be over next week with a first-round state playoff loss.
The inevitability of the countdown being on to the close of their time at Mainland High must have struck a chord, because on Wednesday those seniors responded with a roar against rival Ocean City in the annual “Pink Game” for cancer awareness. The game was also “Senior Day” and that might have fueled Mainland’s offensive explosion.
The five seniors — Bella Canesi, Ava Kinkler, Laziah Wilson, Kylie Higbee and Camryn Juckett — combined to go 9-for-18 with seven runs scored, two home runs and 11 RBIs as Mainland rolled past the Red Raiders, 13-4. It was the fourth win in the last six games for the Mustangs, who are hoping to secure a home playoff game on Tuesday.
“At Cedar Creek, I thought our seniors didn’t do the job. We had some opportunities with our seniors up with runners on base, and we got shut out,” Smith said. “Cedar Creek is a great program, but I laid the challenge out to the seniors. I said, ‘tomorrow is Senior Day, and you have a week left in the season, essentially. If we lose next Tuesday, the season is over, so this is it. This is your time.’ We need our seniors to step up and take control, and they did that today. To their credit, on Senior Day — when you look at Ava Kinkler, Bella Canesi; Cam Juckett is a senior who didn’t play the last two years. She came out this year and had three hits today, a big double that knocked in two runs. So, the seniors stepped up today, no doubt.”
Kinkler and Canesi got Mainland (10-7, 7-3 Cape-Atlantic League National) off to a hot start in the bottom of the first inning, as Kinkler doubled in a run and Canesi drove her home with a home run, her fourth of the season and 14th in her career. That gave Mainland an early 3-0 lead, and after Ocean City (5-11, 5-6 CAL National) cut the deficit to 4-2 with a run in the fourth on a home run by Gabrielle Bowen, the Mustangs put the game out of reach by scoring four runs in the fifth and five more in the sixth.
Kinkler, the Mustangs’ shortstop, was on fire all day. She finished 4-for-4 with four runs scored, three RBIs and a solo home run leading off the bottom of the third that gave Mainland a 4-1 lead.
“Ocean City is a big rivalry so we all just wanted to come through,” Kinkler said. “It was also Senior Day, so a big moment for us. The seniors had to step up. I feel like I’m in a good space right now. I saw the ball very clearly and I just wanted to drive it up the middle. I was able to execute that today.”
“They couldn’t get Kinkler out,” Smith said. “Home runs, doubles, singles. Her and Bella are a good combination to have. We didn’t have Bella early in the season, but you can see now what they can do. Denver Obermeyer did a great job getting on base today, setting the table. Then Kinkler gets a hit and Canesi gets the home run, and that gets us out early and feeling good. The offense really came today, and as you’re heading into the playoffs that’s what you’re looking for. This was a big confidence booster today.”
Smith said he worried about his team’s focus because of all the pre-game activity. But once the game started, he didn’t have to worry much longer. Sophomore Bella D’Agostino went the distance, scattering seven hits and allowing just three earned runs while striking out five. She missed time early in the season after being hit in the head with a line drive during a scrimmage game, but has begun to find her groove the last two weeks.
“We had some concerns coming into this game because we had so much going on. We had our Pink Game for cancer awareness and our Senior Day all at the same time, so we worried about their focus. Plus, it’s a rivalry game. I tried to impress upon the girls that we have to be able to focus and shut that stuff out once it’s done, and take care of business on the field,” Smith said. “This difference for us this time was we had Bella D’Agostino in the circle today, and she wasn’t there for the first game. She’s a difference maker.”
Mainland took an 8-2 lead with a four-run rally in the bottom of the fifth, but Ocean City answered back in the top of the sixth, cutting the deficit to 8-4 on a two-run double from MacKenzee Segich. But Mainland’s offense couldn’t be stopped, as in the bottom of the sixth the Stangs tacked on five more runs, including another RBI from Kinkler.
“This is a big victory. It’s the cutoff date for the state playoff seeding, and coming into this game we were seeded ninth, which means no home game. I think with this victory it vaults us over one or two teams and will get us a home game next week,” Smith said. “Hopefully next Tuesday we’ll be playing on this field again.”
Added Kinkler, “I feel like we’ve all come together. We’re playing as a team and working as one unit. It was a little rough in the beginning of the season, but we’ve come through. I just tell myself to take it one inning at a time. You just have to slow things down in your mind. I feel like we’re trying to make a run in the playoffs. We all have to come together and hit, Nos. 1 through 9, and our fielding has to be good behind Bella Dags.”
What’s next: Mainland travels to Absegami today at 4 p.m. Ocean City hosts St. Joseph Academy on Tuesday at 4 p.m.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays