Moments after his Southern Regional baseball team made program history Friday, second-year Southern head coach Keith Cocuzza asked senior second baseman Joey Robertson when he knew the Rams were on their way to winning the program's first NJSIAA sectional championship in 50 years.

Robertson said it was after the team's first-round, extra-inning win over Vineland, which came three games before Friday's South Jersey Group IV championship at No. 8 seed Lenape.

While Robertson and his teammates might have started believing more than a week ago, Cocuzzo was just starting to come to terms with what his team accomplished more than an hour after the program's biggest win in half-a-century.

Facing a Lenape team that beat an impressive trio of opponents to reach the final, Southern - the No. 11 seed in the bracket - jumped on the Indians with five runs over the first two innings and rode senior pitchers Nick Simone and Zach Fillmore to a 6-2 win over the Indians that clinched the South Jersey Group IV title - Southern's first sectional championship since winning Central Jersey Group II in 1967.

Photo by Paula Lopez.
Photo by Paula Lopez.

"It feels really good," Cocuzza said. "It's still sinking in and my phone has been ringing since the game ended with people calling to congratulate. It's a great accomplishment for the kids and it was great to see them celebrate. They're excited and they should be."

Leading up to Friday's championship game, Lenape had rolled through Toms River North and Rancocas Valley in the first and semifinals rounds, respectively, and beat No. 1 Eastern, while Southern won two extra-inning games and a two-run game over No. 14 Jackson Memorial. On Friday, however, Southern jumped out to a 5-0 lead thanks, in large part, to a four-run second inning.

"We haven't jumped on top of too many teams this year," Cocuzza said. "We've been either falling behind or playing in tight games where we're up one or two runs. And against Lenape, with the teams they've been beating, it never felt like we had a comfortable lead. I went to watch them against Rancocas Valley (on Wednesday). I got there five minutes late and it was already 7-0."

The Rams jumped on top in the top of the first on a sacrifice fly by junior Marcos Matias, then opened up a five-run lead with their four-run second. Senior Zach Oddo singled home a run to make it 2-0 and sophomore Cole Markley knocked in the third Southern run with an RBI fielder's choice ground out. Senior Noah Brown followed with a two-run single to stretch the lead to 5-0.

Jake Topolski answered with a two-run single to pull Lenape within 5-2 in the bottom of the fifth before Robertson came through with an RBI single in the top of the fourth - a hit that turned out to the the last run-scoring play of the game.

Simone was not the most dominant version of himself Friday and he put a combined six batters on base via walks (three) and hit batters (three), but he held a potent Lenape lineup to two hits - both singles - over his 4 1/3 innings of work.

After Simone reached the 83-pitch mark with one out in the fifth, Cucozza turned to Fillmore for the third straight game to close out a tournament win. Fillmore allowed three singles during his 2 2/3 innings, but did not give up a walk and struck out three in keeping Lenape off the board.

"Nick and Zach did a nice job of getting ahead and mixing their pitches," Cocuzza said. "The big thing, though, was our defense. They (Lenape) hit some balls hard and our guys made all the plays."

Fillmore has not started a game since getting knocked around against Lacey in the Shore Conference Tournament round of 16. Fillmore left that game with pain in his left pitching elbow and did not throw again until before the sectional quarterfinal game against Jackson Memorial. According to Cocuzza, Fillmore told his coach he felt up to pitching and in that game against the Jaguars, he pitched the final two innings to earn the save.

With that, Southern's most reliable starter at the beginning of the year - when he raced out to a 5-0 start - became the team's closer.

"He just needed a little rest," Cocuzza said. "After about a week off, he felt better and after seeing him in that role against Jackson, we figured the best way to use him was in that closer, late-game role, and he's done a great job buying in and going right after guys."

Friday's historic win might seem like a surprise on paper given that Southern has gone more than a decade without a winning season and drew the No. 11 seed in the bracket, but the Rams have proven on several occasions to be a formidable, senior-heavy team. They won two out of three games against Ocean County Tournament champion and Shore Conference Tournament finalist Toms River North and the one loss to the Mariners was in the Ocean County Tournament final.

Those two regular-season wins over Toms River North and an 8-4 start to the season earned Southern the No. 3 seed in the Ocean County Tournament, which the Rams proved was deserved by reaching the final. It was that seeding that opened Cocuzza's eyes to the respect his team had earned from the coaches in the area in a short time.

"Seeing us get that number three seed in the OCT kind of opened my eyes," Cocuzza said. "We knew we were pretty good, but I think we had an underdog mentality and we felt like we had to go out and earn respect. When other coaches started noticing, I think it made me realize that maybe we were better than even I thought we were."

Southern will look to continue its state tournament march on Tuesday, when the Rams will travel to East Brunswick Tech to play defending Group IV champion Hunterdon Central, which edged Freehold Boro, 2-1, in the Central Jersey Group IV final on Friday.

"As hard as it is to win in the state tournament and as random as it can be, I thought we could be in the mix," Cocuzza said. "To be at this point, I didn't necessarily expect it, but I thought we had a real shot. Now we're here and we're going to try to keep it going. That's one good thing about this group: they are in the moment."


Box Score

(11) Southern 6, (8) Lenape 2

Southern (18-8)1401000680
Lenape (20-7)0020000250



Nick Simone (W, 6-3)4.12223383
Zach Fillmore2.23000342
Mike Audet (L)78662189


Top Hitters

SouthernGame Stats
Pat Barrett2-3, R
Noah Brown1-3, 2 RBI
Joey Robertson1-2, BB, R, RBI
Vaughn Walker1-2, BB, 2 R
Zach Oddo1-3, RBI
Garret Lange1-3, R
LenapeGame Stats
Jake Topolski1-2, 2 RBI
Tommy Gardiner1-2, BB, HBP, R



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