Top 20 Sports Stories of 2017

It's Only Part 1, But the Bottom 10 Is a Fantastic Bunch

By DAVID BIGGY | Jan 01, 2018
Photo by: David Biggy In just a few months’ time, Pinelands Regional’s Carly Jannsch became one of New Jersey’s better javelin throwers, and that’s why she comes in at No. 11 on The SandPaper’s Top 20 Sports Stories of the Year.

In case you didn’t realize it, 2017 was a really good year for sports here in Southern Ocean County. In fact, for as long as The SandPaper has been publishing its Top 20 Sports Stories of the Year, this may have been one of the best years to date.

For one thing, there was a lot of diversity among the candidates. Secondly, there were a lot of “firsts” highlighting the list. And third ... well, who really needs a third reason, even though we probably can come up with one. Just read for yourself:

20. SRHS Girls Volleyball Program Rebounds – With a 16-12 record in 2016, what may have seemed “pretty good” to many who follow high school girls volleyball wasn’t good enough for Southern Regional head coach Eric Maxwell. Yes, the man has high standards and, yes, he expects his squad to be at its best year in and year out, and that typically equates to 20-plus-win seasons and a championship or two, or three.

This past fall, the Rams bounced back from three “mediocre” seasons and put together a campaign of which they can be really proud. No, they didn’t win a Shore Conference Tournament championship (more on that elsewhere within the Top 20) or an NJSIAA sectional crown. But going 14-0 in the Shore Conference Class A South division and reaching the SCT semifinals before losing to another excellent team in three games, while going 25-7, truly is a “pretty good” season.

19. Ice Hockey Team Reaches Another SCT Final – After capturing a Shore Conference Tournament title in 2016, the expectations were high for the Southern Regional ice hockey team last winter. And rightfully so, since the Rams had several solid scorers capable of lighting the lamp multiple times per game and some good defensemen still patrolling behind the blue line.

A slow start to the season – against a very tough schedule – was OK with head coach Matt Hayes to some degree, knowing his squad eventually would crank things up. And they did just that in January, buzzing through opponents with relative ease. That momentum carried into the latter third of the season, and the Rams again made a run at an SCT crown, this time reaching the Handchen Cup tourney final. Unfortunately, Jackson Memorial had Southern’s number in that contest and the Rams fell short of a second straight SCT championship. Still, an 18-8-1 season is a darned good one.

18. Southern Girls Track Teams a Consistent Force – It’s common knowledge around here that the Southern Regional girls track and field team is a force to be reckoned with, no matter the season. In 2017, Jason Church took over as head coach of the program, replacing long-time head guy Brian Zatorski after he took an administrative position within the district, but the results were not much different – the Rams won, a lot.

During the winter season, Southern won the Ocean County, Shore Conference and South Jersey Group IV titles, then placed fourth behind a loaded field in the Group IV meet. In the spring, the Rams weren’t the best team in the Shore Conference Class A South division for the first time in 10 seasons, but they still fared very well, taking third in the Ocean County Championships and fourth in the Shore Conference Championships in what was a stellar spring for conference teams. The Southern foursome of Sabrina Woodlee, Rachel Ornstein, Taylor Mulch and Karagan Bulger capped the season with an awesome third-place finish in the 4x800-meter relay at the Meet of Champions against a really good field.

17. Wrestlers Win Another Title, in a New District – Prior to last winter, the NJSIAA made colossal changes as it realigned the state’s wrestling districts and regions. Not only did the state athletic association dismantle what had been an all-Shore Conference Region VI, in doing so it scattered many of the conference’s teams to new districts – including Southern Regional, which ended up in District 29, Region 8.

But it didn’t matter. After dominating District 24 for a dozen years, the Rams captured their first team championship in their new district. Winning a title in two different districts was a first for the Southern wrestling program and it came on the heels of some difficult circumstances. Twelve days before the district tourney, Southern was disqualified from the team sectional tournament because of a weight-certification snafu during the preseason. Six days before, senior Dan Lynch’s father passed away. Still, the Rams found a way to win the district title and send 11 wrestlers to the region tournament.

16. Local Gymnasts Have Fantastic Season – It’s not much of a secret that gymnastics is as much a team sport as it is an individual one. And this past fall, one local squad and a bunch of individuals not only were consistently good, but also, at times, reached new levels of success. For Southern Regional as a team, going through the entire season scoring 100 points or more in each contest – including a whopping 105.9 against Point Pleasant Borough – and finishing 11-2 marked a phenomenal season. The Rams’ only two losses were to high-powered Jackson Memorial and Brick Memorial, two of South Jersey’s best teams.

Individually, Barnegat senior Kylie Picaro led her team from start to finish during a really rough, injury-plagued season for the Bengals, while Southern freshman Maria Mezzo made her high-level impact felt, and both ended the season at the NJSIAA Individual Championships. Against an extremely deep and talented field, Picaro placed 36th, capping her career with a solid 34.650 in the finale, while Mezzo finished right behind Picaro in 37th with a 34.625.

15. Southern Girls Swimmers Get it Done – A tie in swimming is a rarity. But when it happens in the state tournament, that’s one hairy situation. The Southern Regional girls swim team was faced with such a situation last February, as it took on Vineland in the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV tourney and ended up in an 85-85 deadlock. Of course, the state has a tiebreaker method – the criteria for doing so is based on some convoluted points formula – and the Rams were deemed the winners that day, marking the first time they had won a state tournament meet in program history.

But the fifth-seeded Rams didn’t stop there. Two days later, they knocked off fourth-seeded Eastern Regional in the sectional quarterfinals to accomplish yet another first – their first time in the semifinals. Ultimately, top-seeded Cherry Hill East bounced Southern. However, finishing 11-2, placing third in the Ocean County Championships a few weeks earlier, and scoring a pair of sectional victories needs to be rewarded.

14. Penn State’s Gesicki Caps Stellar Career – For many years, it’s been widely known around here that Mike Gesicki is a fantastic athlete. But this fall, all of college football found out the depth of the former Southern Regional star’s athletic prowess as he delivered on another excellent season and capped a stellar career at Penn State. From acrobatic receptions to high-flying leaps over would-be tacklers to powerful blocks on the outside to help spring one of college football’s best running backs, Gesicki was a leader for the Nittany Lions.

While PSU finished 11-2 with a 35-28 win over Washington in the Fiesta Bowl on Dec. 30, Gesicki finished his career with a six-reception, 62-yard effort in which each of his catches resulted in first downs. A Mackey Award finalist as one of the best tight ends in the country, Gesicki ended his season with a team-leading 57 receptions for 563 yards and 9 touchdowns. Both his reception and touchdown totals were single-season records for tight ends at PSU. For his career, Gesicki finished with 128 receptions for 1,481 yards and 15 touchdown grabs – all Penn State records for a tight end.

13. PRHS Baseball Team Pulls Off Stunning SCT Run – Midway through the spring season, the Pinelands Regional baseball team, on paper, looked like an average team and was in danger of missing the Shore Conference Tournament, again. But a winning spurt just before the qualification deadline earned the Wildcats a spot in the tournament for the first time in program history. And then ... they added to that history, not only within the school but within the tournament.

As a lowly 24th seed, the Wildcats knocked off No. 9 Manasquan in the preliminary round to earn a shot at No. 8 St. Rose, which the Wildcats ousted three days later. Four days after that, on the heels of an eighth-inning, 1-0 loss to Mainland in the NJSIAA South Jersey Group III first round, Pinelands got its chance to play the SCT’s top seed, Toms River South. It was the first time a 24th seed had ever advanced to the tourney quarterfinals and through the first three innings, it looked as if Pinelands might pull off the impossible. They didn’t, as an Indians run in the fourth was the difference and the Wildcats couldn’t equalize later in the contest.

Still, it was a highlight week during an otherwise average season – Pinelands finished 12-12 – and one the Wildcats can remember forever.

12. Coast Guard’s Mooney Has Awesome First Season – Somehow, if you were paying attention in June 2016 and followed the Southern Regional girls track and field program, you had to know Kaitlyn Mooney was going to do good things at the Coast Guard Academy once she got there. Of course, she first had to take a year for training, and apparently that went well, because Mooney was able to join the Academy’s cross-country squad this past fall.

Well, Mooney made her mark, that’s for sure. En route to becoming the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association Athlete of the Year, Mooney not only shattered the Academy’s 5K and 6K records but also won five of the seven races in which she competed, including the Division III New England regional championship, which earned her a spot in the NCAA Division III National Championships on Nov. 18. No, Mooney didn’t win the national title, finishing fourth overall with a time of 20:48.30, but it was the best overall finish by a Coast Guard Academy runner in program history.

That’s a darned good way to start a collegiate career, and sets up the chance Mooney may be an All-American for four years.

11. Pinelands’ Jannsch Becomes Javelin Star – During the past 13 years at Pinelands Regional High School, several athletes made throwing the javelin their bread and butter. The first was former three-sport star Katie Librizzi, who at the height of her career placed third at the prestigious Penn Relays. Then came along Noel Hartman, who graduated in 2016 after winning multiple county titles. Last spring, Carly Jannsch, best known for her prowess on the volleyball court, joined the track and field squad and was an instant hit.

But what Jannsch did in her first season as a javelin thrower is quite mind-blowing. After placing second in Ocean County and third in the Shore Conference, the junior Wildcat fired the spear 126 feet, 9 inches to win the NJSIAA South Jersey Group II crown, then followed it up with a second-place, 125-8 effort in the Group II meet to qualify for the Meet of Champions. Keep in mind, these accomplishments came about within two months of first throwing a javelin.

At the Meet of Champions, Jannsch didn’t throw her best and finished 16th in the state. Oh, yeah ... Don’t forget it was her first season throwing a javelin. Can you say “impressive”? We can.

Former Southern Regional running star Kaitlyn Mooney had an awesome first season with the Coast Guard Academy cross-country squad, and lands at No. 12 on The SandPaper’s Top 20 Sports Stories of 2017. (Courtesy of: Coast Guard Academy Athletics)
Joey Ventresca and the Pinelands Regional baseball team made an amazing run in the Shore Conference Tournament as the 24th seed, and for that the Wildcats ended up at No. 13 on The SandPaper’s Top 20 Sports Stories of 2017. (Photo by: David Biggy)
Former Southern Regional star Mike Gesicki had another excellent season at Penn State, capping a stellar career, and takes the 14th spot on The SandPaper’s Top 20 Sports Stories of 2017. (Courtesy of: Penn State University Athletics)
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