By DAVE O’SULLIVAN

Staff Writer

When Joe Bunting started the South Jersey South Shore Baseball League in 2021 he had a wealth of coaching experience brought over from the Atlantic County Baseball League, where his Northfield Cardinals won a championship. His plan with the SJSSBL was to wear two hats — league president and Cardinals coach — for one, maybe two years, then give up the day-to-day operations of the Cardinals to focus just on being the league’s president.

But when you’re as competitive as Bunting is on a baseball field, it’s not always easy to trade in the jersey for a polo shirt.

So, three years in, Bunting is still coaching his beloved Cardinals, and has them two wins away from playing for another championship. To get to next week’s championship series, however, Northfield will have to beat two-time defending league champion South Jersey Surf.

The semifinal series start tonight, with No. 2 South Jersey Surf hosting No. 3 Northfield (15-9) at Birch Grove Park in Northfield at 7 p.m., and top-seeded Margate hosting No. 4 Hammonton at 7. Tuesday night features Game 2 of each series, at the home park of the lower seed, and an if-necessary Game 3 would be at the higher seeded team’s field. The Surf and Cardinals will be playing all games at Birch Grove Park in Northfield, as those teams share that field throughout the regular season.

Bunting said he’s hoping this summer will feature a repeat of 2018, when his Cardinals won the title. They made it back to the championship series in 2019 but couldn’t hold onto a 2-0 lead in the best-of-5 series.

This summer presents a formidable challenge for the Cardinals, who have to face a Surf team that hasn’t lost more than six games in any of its three seasons in the league and beat Buena 3-1 in the best-of-5 championship series each of the past two seasons. Bunting said he knows how difficult it will be to go up against a team with that kind of pedigree, but said his team is playing its best baseball of the summer right now.  

“They’ve been kind of the gold standard so far and even though they they didn’t win the regular-season title like I’m sure they had hoped for, they were very hot toward the end. And they’re back-to-back champions. So until you beat them, they’re still the champions, right?” Bunting said. “But I really like our team and they really seem like they’re finally starting to gel. At the start of the season it was kind of frustrating because we just couldn’t hit. We’ve been riding (RCSJ-Gloucester infielder) Cole Fowler and I’ve intentionally kept my mouth shut. I didn’t talk him up because I knew the rest of us really weren’t hitting, and I said sooner or later the other coaches are going to say, ‘I’m not going to pitch to (Fowler).’ But they kept pitching to him and he’s now hitting .492. He Leads the league in hits and I think he’s second in RBIs, home runs and doubles. He’s just been awesome and the great kid. He’s probably the quietest .492 that you’ll that you’ll ever hear.

“He played for me last year but and had a solid solid season, hit around .360, but he’s just taking his game to another level.”

Offense will be the key for the Cardinals, who have won four straight and have outscored opponents 36-8 during that span. Fowler is their best hitter, but they also have guys such as Chase Swain, Nathan Turner, Millville High star Wayne Hill Jr. and Vineland standout Yoan Feliz. Bunting also has some veteran stars he can rely on, like Juan Mejia and Justin Epifanio.

“What I like about our offense is the at-bats that we’ve been getting. We just really wear teams now, and that’s what happened in the Ocean City series,” Bunting said. “We got Gannon Brady’s pitch count up and the C.J. Furey kid, even though we hadn’t gotten a run across yet he threw 89 pitches with one out in the fourth and they had to pull him and we were able to score. The at-bats we’ve been having are just so impressive, we just wear teams down and get to the bullpens.”

Northfield can also pitch a little bit, as that’s been the Cardinals’ bread-and-butter throughout the years. Originally, Bunting said he was going with ace Brandon Riggs — a former standout at Egg Harbor Township High — in tonight’s Game 1 but decided to go with Evan Biddle, a 6-foot-1, 190-pound righty, instead, allowing Riggs one more day of rest.

“He hasn’t pitched against The surf at all this year, so that that was one of the big reasons,” Bunting said of Biddle, a Salem High standout and 2023 graduate. “And tomorrow will be my ace, Riggs. The biggest reason Riggs doesn’t get Game 1 is because with the rain last week and the way things got pushed back, he pitched Thursday in the clincher against Ocean City.”

But should the Cardinals lose to the Surf tonight, Bunting has that security blanket of having his best pitcher for the last six years available in Tuesday’s Game 2.

“Brandon Riggs is just absolutely amazing to me. He’s 6-1 on the year and his ERA is 1.16,” Bunting said. “He’s just been absolutely amazing. And Evan Biddle had one bad start; without that he has a 0.50 ERA, and he’s 4-1. Mike Burnley from St. Augustine Prep only got 15 innings in with them and he’s been absolutely lights out for us. He’s 5-for-5 in save situations.”

Here’s a quick look at each semifinal series and the projected starting pitchers for each team.

No. 3 Northfield (15-9) vs. No. 2 South Jersey Surf (16-7)

Game 1: tonight, 7 p.m. at Birch Grove Park in Northfield. Evan Biddle (Northfield) vs. Kyle Transue (Surf)

Game 2: Tuesday, 7 p.m. at Birch Grove Park. Brandon Riggs (Northfield) vs. Cole Vanderslice (Surf)

Game 3 (if necessary): Wednesday, 7 p.m. at Birch Grove Park. Derek Andrada or Ben Bradt (Northfield) vs. Collin McLaughlin (Surf)

No. 4 Hammonton (15-9) vs. No. 1 Margate (19-5)

Game 1: tonight, 7 p.m. at Jerome Avenue Park in Margate. Chris Garwood (Hammonton) vs. Jake Kinsell (Margate)

Game 2: Tuesday, 7 p.m. at Hammonton Lake Park. John Kasper (Hammonton) vs. Nick DiEva (Margate)

Game 3 (if necessary): Wednesday, 7 p.m. at Jerome Avenue Park in Margate. Josh Wagner (Hammonton) vs. Alec Sachais (Margate).

Best-of-5 Championship Series begins Monday, July 31 at home field of higher seed.

Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sullyglorydays@gmail.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays