Every Tuesday and Thursday, from the beginning of December until the first official practice in March, they worked.
Motivated by an early exit from last year’s playoffs, members of the Northern Burlington High School baseball team were determined to play on the last Saturday of the season this spring.
“They were there even in snowstorms,” coach Rick Doppler said. “It burned in the back of their minds.”
With 69 wins and two sectional titles over the past three seasons, competing for a state championship has eluded the Greyhounds — until now.
Winners of five straight and 12 of its last 13 games, Northern Burlington (27-4) will play South Plainfield (23-8) for the Group 3 title Saturday at Toms River North High School. First pitch is scheduled for 11 a.m. and the ’Hounds are eager to hit the field one last time.
“We had all the talent in the world last year to make a state championship run but we couldn’t get it done,” said senior Ryan Shinn. “This year we’re playing great; we’re relaxed and having fun.
“It really motivated us. Everyone had that loss in the back of their head; how we lost and the season didn’t go the way we wanted it. We just worked hard all season to get where we are now. We’ve enjoyed the run and not taken anything for granted.”
Northern Burlington suffered a second-round loss to Hopewell Valley in last year’s Central Jersey sectional tournament.
With another talented team, things came together quickly. The Greyhounds have hit the ball hard, played tough defense and got consistently strong pitching.
“We told them to play loose and have fun, and when they go out and have fun their talent comes through,” Doppler said. “It clicked from the beginning.
“There were a lot of battles for positions and that helped us. It helped the kids stay sharp and practice harder.”
Headed to the University of Delaware, senior catcher/first baseman Adam Rapp said it’s the team’s overall attitude that has allowed the ’Hounds to succeed.
“We played team baseball all year and we stuck together as a team,” he said. “We’re all hitting the ball, all picking each other up. There aren’t any little clicks. We’re all friends and there’s just a different attitude this year.
“Everybody has confidence going into this state final.”
A Florida Gulf Coast recruit, Shinn is expected to get the start. The left-hander is 9-0 with a 1.96 ERA, striking out 79 batters in 64 1/3 innings. He has two playoff wins, including the sectional final over Somerville.
Offensively, Shinn is also the team leader. He’s batting .484 with 12 doubles, two home runs and 28 RBIs. Rapp is batting .435 with nine doubles, three homers and 36 RBIs. Zack Wright is hitting .451 with 16 RBIs.
Northern is batting .346 as a team, averaging close to 10 hits and seven runs a game.
“We have speed and can run, we can play small ball or hit for power. And we hit for average,” Doppler said. “We’re built to win.”
It’s been a special season, one Northern Burlington hopes ends with a dog pile on the pitcher’s mound.
“Going through it all, winning the sectional two years ago and then getting knocked out early last year, we really had nothing to lose,” Shinn said. “This season has been amazing. We’re going to do everything we can to win it.”
Kevin Minnick; (856) 486-2424; firstname.lastname@example.org