Top 20 Sports Stories of 2017

The Local Boy From Mayetta Zips to the Top of the List for 2017

By DAVID BIGGY | Jan 10, 2018
Source: Furniture Row Racing Martin Truex Jr., from the Mayetta section of Stafford Township and a Southern Regional High School graduate, captured the 2017 NASCAR Series Cup championship and swipes the top spot on The SandPaper’s Top 20 Sports Stories of 2017.

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. Second, there were a lot of “firsts” highlighting the list. And third ... well, we really don’t need a third reason, even though one probably can be conjured up. Just read for yourself:

10. Pinelands Regional Boys Soccer Team Takes Big Step – With the loss of former scoring stud Matt O’Connell and several others to graduation, it was easy to wonder whether the Pinelands boys soccer team had the scoring clout needed for another big season. However, despite just two seniors on the squad this past fall, the Wildcats were loaded with young, talented players, and a lot of them had been playing together for years. They knew they were good enough to keep the program rising higher; it was just time for them to prove it.

The result was a 17-4-1 season in which they captured the program’s first Shore Conference Class B South championship. It was the first division title since the 1980s, when Pinelands was in some sort of Class C division. But the Wildcats didn’t stop with a division title. Once they qualified for the Shore Conference Tournament, they really took the program another step higher by reaching the quarterfinals – their first time past the first round.

Sure, sixth-seeded Pinelands ran into a bigger and more physical Jackson Memorial team and lost, but the squad rebounded nicely to reach the NJSIAA South Jersey Group III semifinals. The Wildcats finally were bounced by Mainland in what was a tight game until the last 15 minutes.

9. Southern Field Hockey Squad Rises High – Yes, the Southern Regional field hockey program lost some valuable defensive players to graduation following a solid 2016 season. Yes, the Rams were going to face some stiff competition in the Shore Conference Class A South division again. And, yes, at the beginning of the season coach Jenna Lombardo claimed not to be completely sure how everything was going to come together early on in the season.

Whatever. Not only did the Rams cruise to a 14-0 record to win the A South title, they gave up only seven goals to division opponents, and the closest divisional game was a 2-1 win over Jackson Memorial in early October. But then the Rams did something truly special – they avenged an early-season, one-goal loss to Shore Regional by shutting out the Blue Devils in the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals and reaching the championship game for the first time since 2002, and for only the second time in program history.

After losing to state power Eastern in the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV semifinals, Southern fell to two-time defending SCT champ Rumson-Fair Haven on the last day of the season, ending up with 21 wins, a new Southern single-season record.

8. Local Wrestlers Step Onto the A.C. Podium – In high school wrestling, the team stuff matters to a large degree, no doubt. But let’s face the reality: The real stuff happens later in February and the beginning of March, when hundreds of wrestlers are pared down to a few dozen per weight class as they seek individual championships inside Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall. That’s when we find out who the really great wrestlers are and why they are so great.

In this spot, we have two local wrestlers who last winter flat-out proved to the rest of the state why they belonged in Atlantic City – Pinelands senior Chris Nielsen and Southern sophomore Nick O’Connell. At the beginning of the season, both were expected to get to the state finals, and, interestingly enough, both ended up on the Boardwalk Hall podium in the eight positions of their respective weight classes.

For Nielsen, getting to A.C. wasn’t as big a deal as how he got there: by becoming the first Pinelands wrestler in 15 years to win a region championship. A week after coming back to beat Delsea’s Vince DeGeorge in the District 31 final, Nielsen beat him again, handily, in the Region 8 final. Nielsen reached the quarterfinals of the 182-pound bracket in Atlantic City before he finally ran into enough better wrestlers with more experience.

As for O’Connell, he took the hard road into Atlantic City, forfeiting the 145-pound third-place bout at the Region 8 tourney. Nonetheless, O’Connell was impressive in Atlantic City, knocking off the eighth- and ninth-seeded guys to take on top-seeded and eventual champion Nick Palumbo, who didn’t exactly dominate O’Connell in a 7-3 win. For sure, O’Connell made a statement as he headed for his junior season.

7. Harvey Cedars Beach Patrol Is Island’s Best, Again – Heading into the beach patrol competition season in July, two questions were on the table – could the Harvey Cedars crew win a third straight Island Tournament crown, and would any other team on the Island challenge the Vikings? Interestingly, a week before the summer’s main event, the Ship Bottom Beach Patrol delivered what appeared to be a pretty clear message by surging past Cedars during the final two events to win its Jack Donlon Memorial Invitational.

However, the Donlon Memorial doesn’t have nearly the number of events as the Island tourney, and the Island event is not a big multi-competitor relay tourney. So, when Aug. 4 rolled around, Cedars had a distinct advantage. Still, the Vikings had to execute. They did, and in doing so left zero doubt which beach patrol was the best on the Island.

Unlike in 2016, when Cedars needed a last-event victory to edge Barnegat Light, the Vikings simply ran away with the title in 2017, securing it with several events to go and outdistancing itself from The Light by 30 points. Unfortunately for HCBP, it has been a dominating force for several years now, and the Vikings winning another title is becoming a bit ho-hum these days. Still, its Island tourney three-peat – matching its previous three-peat of 1972-74 – needed to be among the top seven.

6. Pinelands Girls Volleyball Program Reaches New Level – As the girls volleyball season began, what were mere murmurs over the summer had started getting louder. The question was a simple one: “How good would the Pinelands girls be this season?” It wasn’t a secret to any other team in the Shore Conference – the Wildcats were loaded, ready to take their program to another level. But something kind of weird occurred over the summer at Pinelands Regional High School. We’ll just call them “school building issues” and get on with it. Nonetheless, the Wildcats were without their home gymnasium, and nobody knew when they’d get back into it.

So, how did coach Kathy Bennett’s team respond? With a stellar season, that’s how. The Wildcats not only shattered their single-season record for wins by racking up 26, they went on to be the Shore Conference’s top team – first by knocking off many-time champ Southern in a three-game semifinal contest before following it with a three-game finals victory over Donovan Catholic, which somehow decided it was going to be a conference power this year as well.

Unfortunately, Pinelands ran into eventual section champ and state runner-up River Dell in the NJSIAA Group II quarterfinals, but the co-division champion Wildcats – they shared the title with Donovan – absolutely raised the bar in 2017, making history in the process.

5. SRHS Boys Volleyball Crew Snags Another State Crown – Like the Harvey Cedar Beach Patrol a couple of spots away, the Southern boys volleyball program winning titles isn’t anything new. In fact, the Rams have won as many state titles in its history as the Cedars beach patrol has won Island tournaments. The only difference is that Southern has won its titles in a much shorter time span. Hence, why the Rams are in the No. 5 spot following another amazing season in which they not only won their sixth state crown but did so in a dominant way while going 39-1.

Wait ... what? The Rams didn’t win 40 matches this year? OK, no big deal. A lot of teams don’t even play 40 matches in a season, never mind win 39 of them. But consider one factor here – Southern graduated its most successful outside hitter of all time the previous year. Replacing Liam Maxwell’s ability on the court was a big deal, and the Rams didn’t even miss a beat. Yes, they were still good enough to get to the state final, and getting there was the key, because Bridgewater-Raritan almost ended the Rams’ season a match short of its goal.

But once the Rams got to the state final, Fair Lawn had nothing to counter what Southern brought to the court, and state title No. 6, and its second straight, was wrapped up in two somewhat easy games. By the way, that’s six state titles in nine years. Impressive, to say the least.

4. Swimmer Gabby Cabaron Becomes Southern Legend – Every once in a while, a really special athlete comes through the high school ranks and simply lights up the world. At Southern Regional High School, that occurs a little more frequently than at most high schools. And last winter, Gabby Cabaron was that star shining brightest of all.

What was so special about her, you ask? Well, if you weren’t paying close attention, allow us to provide the list of reasons. First, Cabaron won an Ocean County title in the 100-yard breaststroke. A couple of weeks later, she became Southern’s career points leader, shattering former standout Julie Tate’s mark. A week or so later, she not only snagged the program’s first Shore Conference individual title by winning the breaststroke event, she broke the school record in the 100-yard backstroke in the same meet – the last of the school records she needed to own every record on the books. In the meantime, she helped her team to a pair of state tournament victories, the first two in program history, en route to an 11-2 record.

Forget the fact the young woman is as humble as it gets and was completely surprised to learn she had set the points record – after overcoming a fever during the day so she could swim for her team that afternoon. Gabby rightfully deserves this spot.

3. Southern Baseball Team Returns to Glory 50 Years Later – The spring provided plenty of opportunities for local fans to cheer, and the Southern baseball team’s season was just one of them. But, man, what a season! With a baker’s dozen worth of seniors leading the way, the Rams were primed to have a big season. But don’t forget, this program plays in one of the toughest divisions in one of the toughest conferences in the state. An 18-8 record didn’t even tell the story.

Instead, the story was told within a three-week stretch during which the Rams did what no Southern baseball team had done in decades. First, Keith Cocuzza’s crew reached the Ocean County Tournament championship game for the first time since 1983. Unfortunately, the Rams didn’t win that contest against Toms River North, and didn’t get too far in the Shore Conference Tournament two days later.

However, in the midst of three tournaments being played simultaneously, the Rams utilized their pitching depth to make a run at the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV title, and on June 2 they knocked off Lenape, 6-2, to capture the program’s first section championship in 50 years, when Southern won Central Jersey Group II. The Rams were bounced in the state semifinals by Hunterdon Central, but that simply culminated a season for the history books at Southern Regional High School.

2. Pinelands Softball Squad Finally Snares Section Title – For the previous few seasons, the Pinelands softball team had maneuvered its way into the upper echelon of NJSIAA South Jersey Group III but kept falling short in the quest for a section crown. But much like the Southern baseball team, the Wildcats were in one of the toughest divisions in one of the toughest conferences in the state, and they were well-prepared for state tournament play. Besides that, with a whole crew of seniors leading the way, Pinelands had the tools to win big. It was just a matter of whether the Wildcats could put it all together for a two-week stretch.

While making their way through the Ocean County Tournament and reaching the final for a third time in four seasons, the Wildcats used timely hitting and the pitching prowess of junior lefty Jessie Rising to buzz through to the SJ3 final, where they met Seneca on May 30. Again, the bats came alive when they needed to and Rising was simply phenomenal, limiting Seneca to four hits in a 3-0 shutout, giving Pinelands its first section title in school history.

Defending Group III champion Steinert didn’t make things easy for Pinelands in the state semifinals, and the Wildcats’ season was all but over at 21-9. And even though it wasn’t the way coach Keith Lowe wanted the season to end, Pinelands was awarded the Ocean County title when Donovan Catholic opted to forfeit the championship game in lieu of playing for a state title the next day (sidenote: the Griffins lost to IHA). Having another county title was a nice way for the seniors to go out.

1. Martin Truex Jr. Drives Home With the Championship – It’s been known for years that Martin Truex Jr. is one of NASCAR’s top drivers. But he’s had his moments with some bad luck, mainly due to mechanical issues in various forms, over those years. In 2016, as part of the Furniture Row Racing crew, the local boy from the Mayetta section of Stafford Township and Southern graduate appeared to be turning a corner away from that bad luck. In 2017, he was lights out.

Winning a NASCAR Cup Series championship is one thing. It’s entirely another to do it in such a dominating way over nine months of professional competition. Truex was, by far, the most consistent driver of the season. From Daytona in mid-February clear through to the final playoff race at Homestead in mid-November, he proved, once and for all, just how darned good he is. And whatever formula Furniture Row came up with to keep Truex on the track for 30 races, it worked.

Truex registered eight victories –tying a NASCAR single-season mark – of which seven occurred on 1.5-mile intermediate speedways. Of his 36 races, he finished 19 of them among the top-five (for you math gurus, that’s 52.7 percent of his races). In addition to his eight victories, he was either the runner-up or third-place finisher in eight more of those races (that’s a ridiculous 44 percent of his finishes being in the top-three) – meaning he finished fourth or fifth only three times. Oh, and for the record, Truex only finished outside the top 10 in 10 races. What?!?!?!

We don’t even need to get into the fact he led for a career-best 2,253 laps or that his previous career win total was seven through nine seasons – yes, that means he more than doubled his career victories in one season, his 10th on the circuit. Truex’s dream season clearly is the best sports story of the year around here.

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