By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
You know who gets told that winning or losing doesn’t matter, and the most important thing on a baseball field is having fun? Kids in tee-ball. The last time most college ballplayers heard that from a coach their pants drooped onto their shoes and their batting gloves were two sizes too big.
But after a tough, late-season loss to perennial powerhouse Margate Hurricanes, that’s exactly what Joe Bunting, coach of the Northfield Cardinals in the ultra-competitive Atlantic County Baseball League, told his players. Forget all his pre- and post-game speeches up to that point. Rip up the rough drafts, burn ’em, toss them in the trash with that empty bag of seeds. Just go out there and play baseball like you’re 10 years old again and the only thing that mattered was having fun. That’s exactly what he told his team, a few days before the pressure-packed league playoffs were set to begin.
“After getting knocked around by Margate (last year) we knew what we had to do. We got off to a strong start at 7-0, then Margate beat us and there might have been a slight doubt that crept in. And we had a rough patch where we went 2-5 down the stretch. We had two (regular-season) games left, Margate and Absecon,” Bunting said. “We played a great game against Margate but we lost, 3-2, and I said to them, ‘scrap everything I’ve said to you, all the speeches. I just want you guys to have fun, and that’s all it is. I want you guys to play like you did in Little League. I want you smiling — if I don’t see you smiling and having fun, I’m taking you out of the lineup. I want you laughing, I want you taking the extra base and being ultra-aggressive. I’m no longer going to tell you when to steal, you have the green light every time.’ And that night, it just clicked with them. We beat Absecon in the final game of the regular season, 14-1, and Absecon had a great team. I just think Justin (Epifanio) and Tommy Burns, who are team captains and have been with us since Day One, were just sprinting out there and having a blast. They believed after that and said we were going to win it all, and sure enough they did it.”
Northfield didn’t lose again after that speech. They took down Absecon in the regular-season finale, then rallied from a late 3-1 deficit to beat the Margate Green Wave in the first game of the playoffs. After that, the Cardinals caught so much fire it would have taken four or five volunteer fire departments to douse the flames. They ripped off seven straight playoff victories, including two against the Hurricanes (knocking them out of the championship series for the first time in more than 15 years) and three against defending champion Hammonton. They won their first title since 2011 and the first under Bunting, who took over the team five years ago and won just six games that first year.
“Last year we got hit around pretty hard in the semifinals against Margate. We had a very good left-handed pitcher, Z.J. Zabinski (Davidson University), and he decided to go play in a league in North Carolina, so at that point we had to kind of change the rotation around. He was a big No. 1 and a leader of ours. I had found out about (NJIT’s) Jared Kacso from Barnegat because he’s friends with a couple guys from Stockton. We thought he would replace Z.J., but I wanted to have three really good pitchers,” Bunting said. “Anthony (Capasso) had been pitching at Cumberland County College and had gained about four miles-per-hour on his fastball and was throwing consistently in the upper 80s with a hard curveball, and Justin said he could bring along Brandon Riggs. Brandon was kind of an under-the-radar pick-up for us. He’s a guy who pounds the strike zone, and once we got him, I knew he was going to be a good pitcher for us, but I had no idea how good. He texted me about a week ago and said his college coach wanted his stats. I said, ‘I’ll give them to you, but there’s no way in hell he’s going to believe them.’ Brandon pitched 44 innings and gave up one earned run, and had 59 strikeouts with just one walk. It was absolutely insane.
“With those guys, we felt we had the pitching to match up. A lot of teams have a very good top-of-the-rotation guy, but nobody had a three-headed monster, which is how I referred to them. At the same time, we picked up second baseman Mike Disenzo. J.J. Swentkowski brought in him and Joe Pipher.”
The offense racked up 10 runs in the opening game of the championship series, then Riggs completely baffled the Hammonton lineup with a good running fastball and a Bugs Bunny-type curveball in the second game of the best-of-5 series. Kacso closed things out with a victory in Game 3 as Northfield swept its way to the title.
The Cardinals were led by guys who had very good high school careers but weren’t heavily recruited out of high school, such as Tommy Burns (Holy Spirit), Jack Loefflad (Mainland) and Epifanio (EHT). They are, however, what is referred to in baseball as “glue guys” — the kind of players who will grind out at-bats, dive for balls, and walk away from a baseball field filthy even if they went 0-for-4.
“I can’t say enough about Jack. He really took leadership as a catcher, and you love that. A couple times when I was at the edge of the dugout ready to make a move, he would just wave me back in, and I respect that. Because at the end of the day, this is about them. I’m just there to facilitate and maybe make some tough decisions, but it was always about them,” Bunting said. “Our toughest series was against the Margate Green Wave (to start the playoffs). We were losing 3-1 in the seventh inning of Game 1, and Justin got a huge two-run double to tie it, and at that point is when we knew there was no quit in this team. Once we played the Hurricanes in the next round, when we beat them in two straight games and I saw what Riggs did against them — they have 14 either current or former Division I or minor-league baseball players on their team, and we have one — but Brandon threw 5 2/3 innings, gave up three hits, had his only walk of the year and had 10 strikeouts. When I watched him, I said to myself, ‘we’re not going to lose.’”
“It feels unbelievable, especially jumping around to several different teams the past couple of years. I feel at home here, it’s like a family,” Riggs said after his Game 2 victory.
Joe Pipher, a Stockon University player, said the Cardinals were intent on winning a championship for Bunting.
“He makes us want it. He said from Day One that we want to win a championship, and we all bought in,” Pipher said. “The team chemistry is phenomenal, and coach (Bunting) has really adopted us as a family.”
Don’t count out Hammonton or Margate, or other strong teams such as Absecon and Ocean City, when it comes to making a run at next year’s title. For now, Bunting and the Cardinals will take their time enjoying this championship.
“It’s the best feeling I’ve ever had (on a baseball field) and I’ve played in some big games. I pitched against Florida State when they were a top-10 team when they had J.D. Drew; my team played against Kris Benson and Clemson when they were No. 1 in the country and he was throwing 98 miles-per-hour in the eighth inning — and this was, without a doubt, the greatest run and experience I’ve had. The guys were just absolutely amazing. We were 6-18 our first year (in 2012) and teams were beating the heck out of us, but I had an idea of what I wanted to do. I wanted to go with the youth movement, local, and have a really strong defense. I was fortunate to find Justin and Tommy early on and we’ve had major pickups along the way with Swentkowski, who doesn’t get enough credit for what he does at third base, and Jack has been absolutely amazing. Sam is a great ballplayer, and the pitching was amazing,” Bunting said. “This is just a great bunch of guys and they were all happy to be a part of it. I have two daughters, but I had 20 sons this summer.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays