This season started with a bunch of question marks for Toms River North senior right-hander Karl Blum, and he made sure it ended with a series of exclamation points.

In 2009, Blum entered Toms River North as a much buzzed-about talent, but heading into his final season this spring, the pitching numbers in his four-year varsity high school career were not commensurate with the hype. Blum's best work had often been done in the summer, where he dazzled at showcases on his way to earning a scholarship to Duke University. However, as a junior, he went a middling 3-3 with a 3.68 ERA for Toms River North. Many of those who watched him play for the Mariners often walked away thinking, "This kid is going to Duke?"

"It sucks when you hear that kind of stuff, but I thought, 'What have I really done?''' Blum said. "I haven't done that well around here, and it's time I step up.''

Karl Blum capped an impressive senior season with a complete-game five-hitter in Toms River North's 5-2 win over Jackson Liberty in Monday night's Shore Conference Tournament championship game. (Photo by Phil Stilton - Ocean County Signal).

This was the season where potential finally became reality. Blum built toward the crescendo of Monday night, where he threw a complete-game five-hitter at FirstEnergy Park to lead Toms River North to its first Shore Conference Tournament title since 2005 and the second in program history with a 5-2 win over Jackson Liberty. It capped a season in which he went 7-1 and helped strap the Mariners to his back in the SCT with fellow senior standout Ron Marinaccio unable to throw in the whole tournament because of elbow soreness.

"Everbody knows he's going to Duke,'' Marinaccio said. "People were heckling him sometimes and saying he's not getting the job done, but he stepped up when it mattered in his senior year and in the tournaments, and he really showed them that's why he's going to Duke."

"Ron was our guy,'' Blum said. "He was locked in for the whole season. It was sad seeing him go down, but I just thought, 'All right, this is my opportunity to take my team as far as I can.'''

Blum threw 6 1/3 innings in a 6-3 win over defending SCT champion Jackson Memorial in the semifinals before coming back on three days' rest for the championship game. He also had a 14-strikeout, 1-0 win in the Ocean County Tournament semifinals against Monsignor Donovan that paved the way to another title for the Mariners, who will end the season ranked No. 1 in the All Shore Media Top 10.

It was not a smooth ride the whole way. At one point, the Mariners were 3-3 after another preseason full of lofty expectations. They finished 8-6 in Class A South play, tying for third place, and letting the "Here we go again" crowd have a field day. The possibility certainly existed that a talented group would walk away from high school without anything concrete to show for it.

"In April, when we were 3-3, if you told us we were going to bounce back and win the Shore Conference and win the Ocean County Tournament and be the No. 1 team in the Shore, I would say you're probably crazy,'' Blum said. "I didn't see our team going there, but I have confidence in my guys, and we all learned to have confidence in each other. It brought us here.''

In his last two varsity seasons, Blum showed glimpses of the potential that ultimately made him an ACC recruit. However, that was often mixed with heavy doses of frustration. He ran high pitch counts that usually meant rarely making it past the fifth inning. When he lost his command and couldn't find the strike zone, he often couldn't correct his mechanics or refocus on throwing strikes. His starts always seemed to be one or two walks or bad breaks away from going off the rails.

Monday night was the ultimate illustration of how much has changed. In the fourth inning, he walked two batters to start the frame and it was the perfect situation for the other shoe to drop. Instead, he minimized  the damage to one run, got back to his free-and-easy motion and got out of the inning with two strikeouts. Any time it looked like he might falter on Monday night, he got back to repeating his delivery and correcting himself. That is the sign of a pitcher with a bright future and something colleges want to see. When adversity hits, can a pitcher recover and make adjustments?

Toms River North's first SCT title since 2005 behind Blum's gem meant a water bucket shower for veteran head coach Ted Schelmay. (Photo by Phil Stilton - Ocean County Signal).

"It's all about being comfortable for me and trusting myself,'' Blum said. "I've just got to remember that I'm a good pitcher, and I can trust myself. I just need to calm down and get back to my mechanics. As long as I keep my mind clear, I usually get back together."

"When he got himself into jams, he was very good at composing himself, taking a little bit off his fastball and kind of zoning back in and getting that first pitch across,'' said Jackson Liberty head coach Jim Rankin. "The kid's a competitor. He's obviously going to Duke for a reason. I don't think he had his best stuff tonight, but I was impressed with his ability to compose himself and throw the big pitch when he needed to."

Blum also realized that in order to impress those looking to see the pitcher headed to the ACC, he had to stop worrying about impressing anybody.

"This year he realized he doesn't have to throw the ball 90 miles an hour every time,'' Marinaccio said. "He has smoother mechanics and he throws the ball an easy 85 miles an hour. That's going to get hitters out in high school."

The big right-hander's stamina has also improved dramatically. Where he would often labor to get through five innings in the past, he finished strong on Monday night by retiring eight of the last nine hitters he faced. His willingness to come back on short rest also allowed the Mariners to keep Marinaccio in the lineup. The Delaware recruit went 2-for-4 and scored a run at designated hitter in the win, and said he would not have been in the lineup if Blum had not been on the mound.

"(Blum) stepped up in every situation that he had to,'' said senior outfielder Mike Miraglia, who had a huge three-run double to key the win. "I can't say enough about that kid. He left his heart out on this field."

Blum was going to pitch in the ACC whether this season turned out well or not, but now he can walk away knowing that he showed everyone what the hype was all about the past few years. Much like his team, he translated talent into banners. This Mariners team will go down as one of the most accomplished in Toms River North history with county and conference titles along with a final No. 1 ranking.

"I'm at peace with my career now,'' he said. "For a while, I was really upset that I let my team down a couple times, but now I'm at peace with my career. Now I'm excited to celebrate."