It's the year of Cape baseball

When the six NJSIAA baseball championships take place Saturday, the Cape-Atlantic League will be carrying the South Jersey banner.

Buena will play Bernards in the 11 a.m. Group 2 title game at Toms River East. Mainland will be in the Group 3 final against Mount Olive, 2 p.m. at Toms River South. And St. Joseph, a team specializing in wacky comebacks, will face Hudson Catholic in Non-Public B, 2:30 at Toms River North.

Buena pitcher Lenny Coulter and his teammates warm up for their Group 2 showdown Saturday. Mainland and St. Joseph also vie for titles. DAVID SWANSON / Staff

"Anytime one team from your conference gets in the state final, you are pulling for them, but when three get in, it is kind of something special," Mainland coach Bill Kern said.

Since NJSIAA state championships began in 1971, the Cape has never had a public-school champion.

Regardless of tournament history, there is excellent baseball played in the Cape. You might have heard about one of the more famous alums, Millville's Mike Trout.

During Trout's senior year, Millville was the top seed, but lost to No. 16 Toms River East, 5-4, in the first round of the South Jersey Group 4 tournament. Those things happen more often than not in baseball, in which a hot pitcher or two can carry a team a long way.

There have been other great players and teams in the Cape, including St. Augustine senior righthander Joey Gatto, who was drafted by the Los Angeles Angels, 53d overall, on Thursday.

Before this year, the only Cape public schools to play in a state final were Buena in 2012, Ocean City in 2010, and Bridgeton in 1976.

The Cape has a more extensive history in Non-Public competition. St. Augustine won the Non-Public A state title in 2011. Holy Spirit was champion in 1980 and 1982. Sacred Heart, which closed last June, won Non-Public B titles in 1999 and 2000 and Non-Public C championships in 1974 and 1978.

As recently as a month ago, nobody could really see Mainland and St. Joseph making a very deep run. At the May 9 cutoff date when teams were seeded, Mainland was 7-10. St. Joseph was 6-10.

Buena was 11-4 at that juncture and was considered a contender in a wide-open South Jersey Group 2 field.

During the regular season, the Cape state finalists competed hard against one another, and now they will be pulling for each other even harder.

"I am so proud of what all three of us have done," said St. Joseph coach Rich Chini, whose team lost to Buena twice in the regular season and beat Mainland, 14-11.

Fans of St. Joseph might need a few extra antacids. The Wildcats have been doing all sorts of unexpected things in the state tournament. Eighth-seeded St. Joseph actually began the momentum with a 14-11 win over another Cape team, No. 1 seed Holy Spirit.

The topper came in the South Jersey semifinals, in which St. Joseph trailed St. Rose by 8-0 after five innings and 8-2 after six and then won it with seven runs in the seventh, 9-8.

Then on Wednesday in the South Jersey final, the Wildcats trailed Rutgers Prep by 2-0 before putting together three straight two-out hits en route to a 3-2 win. Alec Craig had 13 strikeouts for the winners.

Mainland and Buena also have survived postseason nail-biters. In the South Jersey Group 3 final, 11th seed Mainland defeated top-seeded Moorestown, 2-0, in nine innings. The Mustangs used 13 strikeouts by Matt Tepedino to defeat Hamilton, 2-0, in a state semifinal.

Third seed Buena rode a two-hitter from Denny Brady to defeat top-seeded Barnegat, 1-0, in the South Jersey final and earlier needed a 7-6 win to survive the first round against No. 14 Woodstown.

The three Cape teams have thrived on pressure and have clearly earned the right to be the lone three teams from the seven-county South Jersey area still standing, with one more heart-throbbing game to go.