For years, when it came to junior college baseball in South Jersey, all we heard about was Rowan College of South Jersey-Cumberland, formerly known as Cumberland County College. And rightfully so. Head coach Keith Gorman transformed the Dukes into a regional and national powerhouse, even winning a junior college Division III national title in 2019 before taking the head coaching job at NCAA Division II Barton College in North Carolina.

But all of a sudden there’s another program that is captivating baseball fans in the area and it’s a story nobody really saw coming. For most of coach Rod Velardi’s 10 years at the helm at Atlantic Cape Community College, the Buccaneers were one of those teams Cumberland would beat up on during a run to another Region XIX championship.

This season, everything is topsy turvy, as ACCC already has two wins over the defending national champion Dukes, who won their title in 2019. (There was no juco world series in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic). And — don’t look now — but the Bucs are off to a torrid 8-2 start that has featured everything from offensive explosions during blowouts to thrilling come-from-behind victories. One of those was a 6-5, 11-inning walk-off win over Cumberland that had the Bucs sitting at 4-0.

One of the biggest reasons for the turnaround has been ACCC’s offense. A team that in years past struggled to score runs has been on fire in 2021, scoring five or more runs in all but one of its eight victories, and racking up double-digit runs in half its games.

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On March 26, ACCC beat Salem Community College 12-3 in the first game of a doubleheader, then came from behind three different times in the nightcap to win, 11-9. First baseman Logan Petty had five hits on the day, including a two-run double in the first game and a game-tying, 2-run homer late in the second game.

ACCC finally lost a game this past weekend, dropping a doubleheader to Mercer County College, but still the Bucs are ranked No. 10 in the most recent National Junior College Athletic Association Top 10 national poll.

“That just speaks a lot about this team. We don’t ever give up. You saw that in an 11-inning game against Cumberland. In the top of the 11th they came in and scored one, we came in and tied it and one of our guys in the bottom of the lineup (Nate Goodrich) came through with a walk-off hit. That really shows the heart of this team. We’re not going to give up and we have a lot of teams looking at us like, ‘wow, they are actually coming to play this year,’” Petty said.

“We started out a little iffy, but we never give up. But we do all this in practice, even in practice we’re giving that energy, and it’s all about the energy. ACCC is not really well known, but with us doing what we’re doing, this should bring some eyes to this program,” added third baseman Angel Murray, an Egg Harbor Township High graduate who also had a big day at the plate against Salem. “It feels amazing. ACCC never started off like this, and this is the team that’s doing it. We’ve been down in a couple games, but we come back. We have the right guys. It’s been a great start for us. This is special. These guys, I love them. We come in and practice hard and when we’re in a game and we get down, we never give up.”

Velardi, who was an all-state pitcher in high school at Toms River South and who coached at Egg Harbor Township High School for several years, said when he first took over at ACCC the Bucs fielded teams consisting of guys who may have been decent players in high school and just figured they would go out for the team since they were attending the college anyway. These days, Velardi and his staff, which includes veteran baseball guys such as Jeff Ball and Bert Rosica, are winning recruiting battles with various other South Jersey community colleges.

“We’re excited about that,” Velardi said. “Being here, this is my 11th year now, we’ve seen the transition from, ‘oh, ACCC has a baseball team?’ To, ‘you know what, I’m here at ACCC taking classes, I might as well play baseball,’ to guys transferring in because it didn’t work out somewhere else, to now finally we’re winning recruiting battles. Now we have kids reaching out to us, which is kind of a new thing for us.”

Getting a guy like Petty has been huge, Rosica said. Petty brings with him the pedigree from Mainland High School, where he graduated in 2019. That’s a program that consistently competes for sectional championships and won an overall state title in 2014. Petty’s younger brother, Chase, currently is a senior at Mainland and the righty pitcher has been clocked as high as 100 miles-per-hour, and is squarely on the radar of every Major League Baseball team. Logan Petty began his college career at Hood College in Maryland, but he suffered an injury and just didn’t feel that program was the right fit for him.

“I graduated from Mainland in 2019, went to Hood, had an injury and that wasn’t the best fit for me. I actually transferred to RCGC (Rowan College Gloucester County) in the fall and got cut, but I came here and I said, ‘you know what? I’m going to show people. I’m going to put my name out there. My little brother is really making a name for himself, so I might as well do the same,’” Petty said. “I came into this program and saw a lot of kids who I thought could put the chemistry together, and put a good team together and win a lot of games. It’s a short season, so we have to win as many as we can. We want to get to Tennessee this year and get a chance to win the World Series. That’s what we’re going for. You take some of the kids from winning high school programs, and some of their best players, and put them on this team and it’s all going to work out in end. Everybody on this team comes to play.”

Luis Sauri was a standout at Buena Regional High and he’s now the Bucs’ shortstop. Right fielder Nate Goodrich played for a Cedar Creek team that made it to a sectional final two years ago. Murray, Alex Gallagher and Frank Moreta all played for a very good Egg Harbor Township program that also made a sectional finals appearance. And Sleiter Suriel, a Pleasantville graduate, helped lead Ocean City to the Atlantic County Baseball League title last summer.

Not only do a lot of this year’s players come from winning cultures, Velardi said, but they really are taking ownership of the program, putting time in working on their home field at the Sandcastle in Atlantic City, pushing each other in practice to be better. The players understand they are beginning to tap into something special, and that carries over into everything, including academics.

“We push them and we demand a lot from them. We ask them to excel academically, we ask them to excel on the field, and with some kids if this isn’t their passion or their goal this can be a shock to them, what we’re asking of them,” Velardi said after that sweep of Salem. “This field was a mess today (from the previous day’s rain) and these guys were here at 7:30 in the morning taking buckets of water and dumping them over the fence. It was foggy out, 48 degrees, the wind was blowing — and we still had two games to play. But they understand that’s what is necessary if we’re going to come out here and try to win two ballgames. Other kids might not be so fired up about doing stuff like that.”

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