By Phil Anastasia
TOMS RIVER, N.J. -- All season, Mainland has pitched with authority and played air-tight defense.
That didn't change in the state final.
But the Mustangs left this Ocean County town in a horn-honking, five-bus caravan late Saturday afternon because they picked the biggest game in the program's history to generate some clutch offense.
"That's always been the question for us," Mainland coach Bill Kern said after his team captured the school's first state crown in baseball with a 5-3 victory over Mt. Olive in the Group 3 title game at Toms River South. "Today, these guys came through at the plate."
Sophomore right-hander Kyle Gerace earned the pitching win with four solid innings of relief for Mainland (16-12).
Starting pitcher Nick Droboniku drove in two runs, and Jack Loifflad and Billy Talarico delivered RBI hits in a huge sixth-inning rally as Mainland became just the second public-school team from the Cape-Atlantic League to win a state title in baseball -- about three hours after Buena was the first in the Group 2 championship game across down at Toms River East.
"It means everything," said Gerace, a polished right-hander who allowed one run on one hit with three strikeouts.
Seeded 11th at the start of the sectional tournament, Mainland allowed just seven runs in six post-season victories. The Mustangs' remarkable run was fueled by great pitching by senior Matt Tepedino as well as Droboniku and Gerace, and near-flawless defense.
The pitching and defense held sturdy on Saturday, as Droboniku and Gerace combined to muffle a Mt. Olive (23-7) team that had won 16 in a row with strong work in the field from Talarico behind the plate along with third baseman Roman Papademetriou and second baseman Matt McLaughlin.
Talarico turned a suicide-squeeze attempt into an out in the second and combined with left-fielder Loifflad and McLaiughlin for a 7-2-4-2 putout in the third.
"We're the best team in Mainland baseball history," Talarico said.
Mainland broke a 2-2 tie with a pair of runs in the sixth. Drew Riska led off with a double, advanced on Droboniku's sacrifice bunt and scored on Loifflad's single through a drawn-in infield.
Talarico made it 4-2 with an RBI double.
"Biggest hit of my career," said Talarico, a senior.
Mt. Olive cut the lead to 4-3 in the bottom of the sixth but Mainland added an insurance run with a pair of walks and Droboniku's RBI single.
In the bottom of the seventh, Papademetriou fielded a grounder and fired to Droboniku for the final out, popping a cork ona wild celebration among hundreds of green-clad Mainland fans who travelled to the game on four student buses.
"Our mantra has been 'Why not us?'" Kern said.
Mainland 110 002 1 -- 5 3 1
Mt. Olive 101 001 0 -- 3 7 0
WP: Kyle Gerace. LP: Jake Snyder.
2B: M-Drew Riska, Bill Talarico; MO-Bobby Shannon, Duchemin.
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