Two years ago, Barnegat was a feared team in Ocean County for approximately 10 innings per week, which is how many innings then-senior and current Wake Forest sophomore left-hander Mark McCoy was eligible to pitch.

Barnegat now has two pitchers – sophomore left-hander Jason Groome and junior right-hander Seamus Brazil – who have shut down opposing lineups during their young varsity careers, but this year, the Bengals are showing they are a team to be reckoned with even when their two aces are not on the mound.

Barnegat outfielder Ryan Ulrich doubled twice in a win over Toms River North on Monday and now has four doubles on the season. (Photo by Matt Manley)

During a three-day stretch from this past Saturday to Monday, the Bengals not only beat two teams that are in the current Shore Sports Network Top 10 and were ranked in the preseason Star-Ledger State Top 20, but they did it without either of their standout pitchers throwing a single pitch in either game.

Two days after knocking off St. John Vianney – currently No. 8 in the SSN Top 10 – at the Strike Out Autism Baseball Challenge at Central Regional on Saturday with a sophomore making his first varsity start, Barnegat did the same to Toms River North, this time with junior John Corbett moving from a relief role to make his first career start at the varsity level.

“We knew we were going to be competitive this year, obviously with Groome and Brazil at the top of the rotation this year, but also with the depth we have on the mound,” said Barnegat coach Dan McCoy, whose son Mark was a first-team All-Shore pitcher for the Bengals before heading to Wake Forest. “It’s an advantage having two proven pitchers like we have, but you also have to have depth, and we’ve been looking forward to this group of pitchers for a couple of years now.”

Sophomore Jared Kacso struck out six and allowed three runs on six hits over six innings to beat St. John Vianney on Saturday. Two days later, Corbett stifled the Mariners in a 4-1 Barnegat win in his first varsity start. Kacso’s start was his first appearance on a varsity mound and Corbett’s seven innings more than doubled his previous varsity experience, which amounted to 6 2/3 innings of relief heading into Monday’s game. In total, the two young right-handers combined for 13 innings in which they allowed four earned runs on 13 hits and six walks while striking out 11 against two of the hottest offenses out of the gate.

In Monday’s win, Corbett showed no trouble extending himself for seven innings. He allowed a run on three hits – including a home run and a double – and three walks with no strikeouts over the first three innings, then allowed just one hit while striking out five over the final four frames.

“The most effective pitch in high school baseball is strike one,” McCoy said. “Early on, he wasn’t throwing strike one and it was forcing him to throw fastballs in hitter's counts to a very good lineup. Once he started getting ahead with strike one, he was able to use his curveball. His curveball got much better as the game went on and when you can throw multiple pitches for strikes, you can have success at this level.”

Barnegat entered the season ready to ride a sophomore-junior pitching combination, although it was not Kacso and Corbett. Groome and Brazil both proved themselves to be promising starters on the varsity team last year and have stormed out to strong starts this season as well. While the Bengals have the two top pitchers to make for a dangerous tournament team, they showed over the last two games that they can get it done with their depth on the mound and a lineup that is arguably the most capable in the young history of the program, which began play in 2007.

“We knew the pitching would be there,” McCoy said. “The question for us was, ‘Are we going to hit?’ In the last few games, we’ve really been swinging the bats, and guys are starting to look comfortable at the plate and confident in their approach.”

After opening the season with a 1-0 loss to Manchester in which the offense failed to score a run in eight innings, Barnegat has been steady with the bats over the next five games, during which the Bengals are 4-1. In those five games, Barnegat is averaging 5.2 runs per game and with the pitching staff proving deep behind Groome and Brazil, that amount of offensive production is all McCoy wants.

Kacso, senior Joe Letinski, senior Ryan Ulrich and junior Ed Rogan have been the standouts at the plate so far. Kacso has broken into the middle of the batting order and is hitting .461 with a .500 on-base percentage and .692 slugging percentage. Kacso delivered an RBI double against St. John Vianney to help make himself a winner on the mound.

Letinski is hitting .467 with a .600 on-base percentage and .800 slugging percentage and did most of his damage in a 9-0 win over Monsignor Donovan by tripling and homering in the shutout win.

Ulrich has three doubles over the past two games, delivering the go-ahead, two-run double in the sixth inning of the win over Vianney and following up that big hit with two doubles to the fence in the home win over Toms River North. Ulrich is hitting .389 out of the lead-off spot with a .450 on-base and .611 slugging percentage.

“We’re just playing good ball right now,” Ulrich said. “We always have good pitching and now we’re starting to swing the bats, which is even better right now. We're playing the field, and we’re taking advantage of the other team’s mistakes. We’re doing everything right now. We’re playing like a top 10 team, and we’re out to prove every day that we deserve to be in the category.”

Rogan gives Barnegat four players with a slugging percentage of .500 or better. The junior first baseman is hitting .429 with a double, three runs scored and three RBI so far this season.

Although the Bengals have demonstrated their depth over the last two games, they will need Groome and Brazil in top form to make noise in the postseason and push for their first Shore Conference Class B South division title since 2008. Groome is dealing with a strained hip he suffered while hitting in his last start against Jackson Liberty, according to McCoy, and will not be available to pitch until next week. Brazil, meanwhile, is looking to bounce back from a subpar start in a 7-5 loss to Point Boro.

Despite that start, Brazil still has a 1.75 ERA with only 10 base-runners allowed in 11 2/3 innings this year with 12 strikeouts. Groome – who threw seven shutout innings in the extra-inning loss to Manchester – has allowed two runs in 14 innings. His 24 strikeouts are tied for the most in the Shore Conference with Rumson’s Shane McCarthy and Manchester’s Devin Tomei – who pitched an eight-inning shutout in the win over Barnegat to outlast Groome.

Brazil was due to face Alabama-University-bound right-hander Andrew DiPiazza of Central on Tuesday, but the rainout pushed the game to this coming Tuesday. Barnegat has two games already scheduled for the rest of the week and will need Brazil for one of the two starts, which means Groome could potentially be available for the showdown with Central, according to McCoy’s timetable.

Regardless of the availability of Groome or Brazil on Tuesday or any other day, the rest of the Barnegat roster is starting to believe it can win with anybody on the mound.

“It’s great playing good teams and it’s even better beating those teams,” Ulrich said. “We’re showing right now that we’re a tough team to beat. We didn’t start the year the way we wanted to, and we didn’t pitch well against Point Boro, but over the last two games, we’ve showed how good we can be when we’re clicking in every phase of the game, and that’s exciting.”