By KAYLIN FLUKEY
Every baseball player has the same fantasy of hearing his name called in the starting lineup as the team gets ready to take the field in the state championship game. It’s a moment high school players wait their whole lives for.
However, what that kind of fantasy becoming reality relies on is the amount of work and dedication it takes to simply make the varsity team at an outstanding baseball school, let alone be an integral part of a team that gets to do something special.
Bryan Perez, a senior this spring at Mainland Regional High, knows firsthand that the road to get to that moment can be a bumpy one for some players. Perez spent his first three years of high school on the junior varsity baseball field, growing into his lanky body and continuing to develop his baseball skills.
After Perez’s junior season and a long talk with the coaching staff, Perez knew this past offseason was the most important one yet if he wanted to be physically and mentally ready to play on varsity in the spring of 2023.
“Going into his senior year, we had talked in the off season about how he had an uphill climb because he didn’t play any varsity as a junior, so he needed to make a big jump to be an everyday player in the lineup,” said Mainland head coach Billy Kern.
Perez spent countless hours in the gym and the batting cages getting himself ready for his senior year. He knew all along that a starting spot belonged to him and he was going to do whatever it took to prove it. As it turned out, he had to do even more than he was expecting to earn a full-time starting position.
“He changed his body physically. He’s much stronger and came in with the expectation that he was going to compete and start at third base.” Kern said. “We rotated guys for a few weeks early in the season and he won the job. He’s been fantastic for us at third all season.”
It was a big jump for Perez coming up from varsity after three years on JV, but he turned to his coaches and fellow seniors for guidance, and he molded right in. Perez did not waste any time as he recorded his first varsity hit, a two-run single in their win against Oakcrest on April 6.
“It felt good knowing that the hard work I put in during the offseason and during the season paid off and I’m just trying to keep the same mentality,” said Perez.
Perez didn’t have much time to celebrate his new position because the work had only just begun. The Mustangs had a very rocky season, coming away with some big wins but also some tough losses. They were just 9-13 heading into the state playoffs, and the No. 9 seed in the always tough 16-team South Jersey Group 3 tournament.
One of the biggest wins of the season came against Group 4 stalwart Egg Harbor Township. In the first matchup on April 24, the Mustangs fell to the Eagles 2-0. The next day, Mainland came back for redemption on their home turf. The game was all tied up in the bottom of the seventh inning. Perez stepped up to the plate with a runner on base and a chance to be the hero.
“I wouldn’t say I was calm exactly. I just tried to focus on everything that I have been working on the past year and just putting the bat on the ball and just letting whatever happens, happen.”
Perez trusted himself and his abilities to get the job done, hitting a single to drive in the winning run. Teams often turn to their leaders in pressure situations for guidance. Being only one of four seniors on the entire varsity roster along with Nick Wagner, Joe Sheeran and Lukas Englert, Perez was someone the team turned to for comfort and stability.
“He’s a quiet leader but his demeanor doesn’t change. He doesn’t get too far up or too far down, and so our young guys can lean on him to keep the dugout calm in any situation.” Kern said.
Not only is Perez a selfless leader in the dugout, but between the lines as well. Perez finished the season with 12 hits and 14 RBIs. Runs batted in is arguably the most important statistic in baseball — that’s what wins games. Perez having more runs batted in than hits — and finishing third on the team in that category — proves his selflessness and dedication to manufacturing runs for his team.
Perez’s attitude toward the game played a big factor in the Mustangs’ historic post-season run. The Mustangs entered as underdogs and no one expected them to make it past the first or second round of the state tournament, including themselves. However, the four seniors were not ready for their days as a Mustang to be over, and the team was determined to make it last as long as possible. They scored an opening-round win over No. 8 Cumberland Regional, then went on the road in the second round and shocked top-seeded Shawnee to advance to the sectional semifinals.
“Once we got rolling, we just tried to keep the same mentality of working and grinding all of these games out and playing all seven innings as hard as possible.” Perez said.
The Mustangs kept proving everyone wrong as this group of scrappy baseball players from Linwood made it all the way to the NJSIAA Group 3 state championship game. After beating No. 4 Hammonton in the sectional semifinals, the Stangs took care of No. 2 Delsea Regional, 6-4, in the championship game. A win in the group semifinals put Mainland into the state championship game against Morris Knolls.
A game when Perez got to hear his name read aloud in the starting lineup by the P.A. announcer at Bob DeMeo Field in Hamilton, Mercer County.
Perez made the most out of his dream moment, recording a two-run single in the first inning of the championship game. However, all good things must come to an end. The curtains fell on the Cinderella story as Morris Knolls defeated Mainland 9-3.
Even though the Mustangs did not come away with a state title, the journey to get there was more than what they could have asked for. This was more than just a historic season for Perez, it was a representation that hard work pays off and that anything is possible if you are willing to work for it.
He will be stepping into the next chapter of his life at Stockton University this fall with hopes of continuing his baseball career. He may have taken off the green-and-black uniform for the last time, but the lessons, memories and friendships obtained while wearing it will last a lifetime.
Perez is a beacon of light for players of all ages who are fighting for that starting position. It might take a few weeks, a few months or even a few years, but never lose sight of your goal.
“Keep working, your chance will pop up.” Perez said.
Kaylin Flukey is a 2020 Absegami High School graduate and a rising senior at Iona University studying journalism. She’s a contributing writer for South Jersey Glory Days.