A little more than two years ago, Keith Cocuzza became a varsity baseball coach for the first time when he took a difficult job under difficult circumstances.

When Cocuzza took the reins at Southern Regional with just a handful of games left in the 2015 season, the Rams just had one of their biggest wins in years – and first-round Ocean County Tournament win over top-seeded Toms River North – wiped from the record because they used an ineligible pitcher. The disheartening finish the season capped yet another losing campaign, another in a decade-plus-long drought without a winning season or even an NJSIAA Tournament appearance for Southern.

After another losing season in 2016, Cocuzza and his group were hopeful this year’s club would break through and to call the season a success, given where the program was coming from, is a gross understatement.

Southern not only ended its stretch of losing seasons, but also ended a 50-year state championship drought by winning its first NJSIAA sectional championship since 1967 – a triumphant end to an 18-win season that earned Cocuzza the 2017 Shore Sports Network Coach of the Year.

Southern baseball coach Keith Cocuzza. (Photo by Matt Manley)
Southern baseball coach Keith Cocuzza. (Photo by Matt Manley)

The highlight of Southern’s season was undoubtedly its run to the South Jersey Group IV championship as a No. 11 seed – one that included wins over Vineland, Jackson Memorial, Egg Harbor and Lenape. That run, however, overshadowed what was already significant progress for the program in the seven weeks prior to the state tournament.

During the regular season, Southern finished in the top half of the Shore Conference Class A South standings behind first-place Toms River South as well as Toms River North and Brick and did so with an 8-6 division record. That division mark included a regular-season sweep of Toms River North, which went on to win both the Ocean County Tournament and the Shore Conference Tournament.

Toms River North’s OCT win came at the expense of Southern, but the Rams lost to the Mariners in the championship game – their first trip to an OCT final since the early 1980’s. Southern’s big win during that run was a resounding 11-0 rout of Jackson Liberty – a team that defeated the likes of Toms River South, Steinert and Lacey during the course of the 2017 season.

If Southern bowed out in the first round of the South Jersey Group IV Tournament, the 2017 still would have been a sizable leap forward for the program. Armed with a roster loaded with seniors, though, the Rams seized an opportunity to make 2017 a memorable season.

Three of Southern’s four state tournament wins came on the road and two of those were extra-inning wins. The Rams beat Vineland in the first round, 5-3, in eight innings and pulled out a 3-2 win in eight over No. 2 seed Egg Harbor in the sectional semifinals. In the quarterfinals, Southern won its lone home game of the tournament by winning a rubber match against a Jackson Memorial team that split with Southern during the regular season and upset No. 3 Shawnee in the opening round of the tournament as a No. 14 seed.

In the South Jersey IV final, the Rams faced a Lenape team that rolled through Toms River North, knocked off top-seeded Eastern and scored seven first-inning runs to topple Rancocas Valley in the sectional semifinal. Southern gave Rancocas Valley a taste of its own medicine with five runs in the first two innings and held on to beat the Indians, 6-2, to claim the program’s first sectional title since winning Central Group II in 1967.

The Rams’ season ended five days later at the hands of Central Jersey Group IV champion Hunterdon Central, which overcame an early 2-0 hole to beat Southern, 5-2.

Photo by Paula Lopez.
Southern celebrates its South Jersey Group IV title. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

"It's been 50 years," Cocuzza said. "They should be really, really proud of themselves. For once, we had  community behind us, we had fans at all the games, we went to the Ocean County Tournament final, we won a Shore Conference (Tournament) game and won our section. That hasn't happened at Southern for a very long time."

Southern regularly started seven seniors and its balanced, effective pitching staff consisted of a senior trio of Zach Fillmore, Pat Barrett and Nick Simone. Each of the three starters endured a rough stretch of the season for different reasons and Cocuzza and his staff helped each pitcher get through it and pitch effectively after.

Barrett opened the season limited to a designated hitter role because of a shoulder injury, but the staff brought him along and he was effective (2.12 ERA in 39 2/3 innings) once he got on the mound. Simone was Southern’s top pitcher in 2016 but struggled with his command early in 2017. He found his groove in time for the postseason, however, beginning with a two-hit shutout against Jackson Liberty and continuing 12 1/3 innings with a 1.70 ERA during the state tournament.

Fillmore presented Cocuzza with a more difficult challenge because after leading the pitching staff all year, he left a Shore Conference Tournament start against Lacey with discomfort in his pitching elbow, according to Cocuzza. Fillmore rested for a week and once he gave Cocuzza assurance that he was ready to pitch again, the Southern skipper decided to deploy him out of the bullpen for the NJSIAA Tournament. The senior left-hander shined in his adopted role, closing out Southern’s last three tournament wins and pitching to a 1.56 ERA with 13 strikeouts and four walks in nine innings.

Cocuzza came into the program in 2014 as an assistant under Tom Natoli, who would go on to recommend Cocuzza for the job upon his resignation the following year. The Southern players point to Cocuzza’s calm demeanor and ability to communicate as attributes that have made a difference since he took over, while the coach himself points to a renewed focus and commitment that started with this senior group.

"There were some things I thought we had to do differently, but the biggest thing was just changing the culture," Cocuzza said. "Guys had to start realizing the work that it was going to take to make this happen. Instead of taking 25 swings once a week, you have to get your 500 swings every week. It's a total commitment and this senior group had played together for a long time and I think once they realized the kind of commitment it was going to take and bought in, I think that really changed for us."


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