Players and coaches from South River and Edison will share a bus and register at the same hotel as the high school teams travel to Cooperstown this weekend to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame and play a game on historic Doubleday Field.
South River head coach Mike Lepore, who makes the sojourn about every four years with the squad, wants his players to enjoy the experience and soak up the history, but once the game rolls around, he is looking for a win.
“The nostalgia of being in Cooperstown is going to be there, but we’ve got to win the game,” said Lepore, whose Rams are looking to make a statement after reaching the Greater Middlesex Conference Baseball Coaches Association Summer League championship game nine months ago.
“If we realize we can play with a team of their caliber that will be a huge boost for us,” Lepore said of Edison (5-4), which swept a doubleheader from defending conference tournament champion St. Joseph last week.
The enigmatic Rams (7-3), who split a season-opening series with incumbent conference tournament semifinalist Spotswood and swept five-time defending Blue Division champion Middlesex for the first time in Lepore’s 18 seasons, also played their worst game of the year in a 12-2 mercy-rule loss to Carteret during which they were outhit 10-2 and committed five errors.
South River, whose other loss is to Delaware Valley, has rebounded to win its next four.
Unlike last season, when the Rams relied on pitching (2.77 ERA) and defense (.944 fielding percentage) while batting an anemic .264, South River has performed better at the plate (.303) than on the mound (3.28 ERA) or on the diamond (.911 fielding percentage) this spring.
“Me and my dad (assistant coach Mike Lepore Sr.) have put high expectations on our pitchers,” Lepore said of Tyler Higgins (2-0, 3.29), Dalton Dougherty (2-1, 2.14) and Steven Barberio (0-2, 6.18).
“They are not pitching relatively bad, but they are not pitching to what they are capable of. Walks are up (31 free passes plus six hit batsmen in 57 innings) and we need to take care of that. We stress all the time getting ahead of batters.”
Higgins, who may look like Clark Kent but has been hitting like Superman, boasts a team-leading 1.337 slugging percentage. He is batting .337 with 11 RBI and six extra-base hits including two homers.
Matt Leviton leads the club with a .414 batting average, while Dougherty (.385) and Hart (.364) are also swinging the bat well.
The middle infield features four-year starters Barberio at short and Nicholas Lepore, who recently returned after missing a couple of games with an injury, at second.
During their tenure, South River has posted several upsets including a no-hitter of Old Bridge in the 2013 GMCT. As the 10th seed in the 2012 Central Group I Tournament, when Lepore and Barberio were two of five freshman starters, the Rams also posted a stunning 1-0 upset of second-seeded Metuchen, which had outscored South River 29-2 in a pair of regular season meetings.
Old Bridge coach Jimmy Freel, who saw South River play over the summer, said he believes the Rams “are for real.”
“I think that it (success) is a couple of years in the making here,” Freel said. “This is the group for them. They are going to be competitive, not only in their division, but they can compete with anybody in the White or Red.
“They have arms, they play defense, they are well-coached and they hit the ball. They are the total package.”
GMC TOP 10
(Records through Thursday)
1. Monroe 6-1
2. St. Joseph 7-2
3. Old Bridge 4-5
4. East Brunswick 6-4
5. Piscataway 7-3
6. South Plainfield 5-3
7. Edison 5-4
8. Sayreville 5-3
9. J.P. Stevens 4-4
10. Spotswood 5-3