The Northfield Cardinals, led by manager Joe Bunting, were feeling pretty good about themselves after beating Hammonton to win the 2018 Atlantic County Baseball League championship, the first title during Bunting’s tenure as skipper. With a loaded lineup featuring a lot of young talent, the Cardinals were thinking a dynasty was possible.

But perennial powerhouse Margate Hurricanes showed the Cardinals that it takes more than one title to be considered a dynasty, as Margate took down the Cardinals in last year’s five-game championship series to get back to the place it believes is its birthright — the top of the ACBL standings.

The back-and-forth these teams have shared the past couple of years, with the up-and-coming Cardinals eager to prove themselves and the Hurricanes looking to show they are still the class of the league, should set up a wild 2020 season that will be less than six weeks long due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Both teams are scheduled to open their 2020 season tonight, with the Hurricanes taking on the Margate Green Wave at 7 p.m. in Margate, and Northfield hosting Ocean City at 7 p.m., weather permitting. The Hurricanes and Cardinals will do battle in Northfield on Friday night at 7 in their first meeting this season. Tonight’s other season opener features Hammonton at Egg Harbor City, and two other teams — Absecon and Ventnor — have home games scheduled on Tuesday for their season opener.

The Hurricanes have a ton of talented veterans, guys such as Jason Law, Jared Lenko, Monny Strickland and Doug Hiltner who have led the way for years now, and Northfield is just as talented. The Cardinals rely on guys such as captains Justin Epifanio and Brandon Riggs (Egg Harbor Township High graduates), Tommy Burns (Holy Spirit), J.J. Swentkowski and Mike Desenzo, and have added some outstanding talent such as the Mejia brothers, Juan and Junior, who played for Hammonton the past couple of years and helped lead that team to a title a few years ago.

Bunting also has nabbed former minor league star Luke Tendler, a 28-year-old outfielder from North Carolina who was drafted by the Texas Rangers in 2014. His best season in the minor leagues came in 2016 when he hit .297 with 23 homers, 38 doubles and 97 RBIs for the High Desert Mavericks, a single-A advanced affiliate of the Texas Rangers. In nearly 700 minor-league games, Tendler compiled 88 home runs and nearly 400 RBIs while hitting .269.

There’s also plenty of young talent on the Cardinals’ roster, including the likes of Michael and Ethan Dodd (EHT), C.J. Brown, Devin Sharkey and Cole Campbell (Mainland Regional). Bunting has also added speedy outfielder Bobby Baxter, a 2020 EHT High graduate who missed a big portion of his high school career for a number of reasons. He had to sit out half his sophomore year after transferring back from Ocean City, then broke his leg in the third game of his junior season. He returned late in the year to help lead the Eagles to a sectional championship game appearance, then lost his entire senior year to the coronavirus pandemic.

“I was pretty bummed our (high school) senior season got canceled, but we have the ‘Last Dance’ tourney coming up and that will be our last chance to play alongside our high school teammates. But hopping on this Northfield team is a good opportunity to get me ready for college. There’s great competition in this league,” said Baxter, who is slated to play his college ball at Columbia University. “In my case, I didn’t play many high school games. I had to sit out after transferring from Ocean City, so getting at-bats is the main thing I need. The longer you go without at-bats, the tougher it gets, so I’m out here trying to get as many at-bats as possible, and hopefully help this team win another championship.”

Epifanio, a graduate of Montclair State, said he thought his playing days might have been over after entering the work force and moving to Philadelphia to take a job at a casino.

“I’ve had almost a year off. The year before last — I didn’t play my senior year (at Montclair State) — so it was kind of the same thing for me. So this is something I got used to last year, trying to get all my preparation in before the season. I think a bunch of us from last year’s team weren’t sure if we were even going to play again (this year) because I was moving to Philly and other guys have jobs, so this year is awesome. I wasn’t expecting it to be a thing, so anything we get now is a bonus, especially with the coronavirus,” he said. “I’ve been trying to hit as much as possible the past couple of months, and I lift and work out all year, like most of us do, so, physically, we’re in good shape. But we’ve been trying to get guys out here once or twice a week on the field to hit and shag flies. We’ve been doing as much as any ACBL team can possibly do, and I hope it yields some results.”

There are plenty of storylines in the Atlantic County Baseball League this summer, and a myriad reasons why guys are still playing, even past their high school or college days, which is what makes one of the country’s oldest summer leagues so intriguing. Guys on all eight teams are eager to get started, and it will be a quick race to the finish, as each team has just 12 games scheduled as opposed to a normal 24 in the regular season, and the postseason with have the look of the NCAA College World Series, with two brackets and a three-game championship series.

“It’s a lot better feeling being relaxed and being able to play locally and not on the travel circuit, and getting to play with some ex-high school teammates,” Baxter said. “It helps to be healthy, too. One of my best assets is being able to run, and having a broken leg last year, that was tough.”

Epifanio has been out of work since March because of Covid-19, and for the time being he has moved back home with his parents, but for now that’s a sacrifice he’s more than willing to make if it means getting back on the baseball field.

“Now that I had moved out of my parents’ house — I don’t love being back, but the fact that I have been back with them is because of (the ACBL) season, so I can work out with my friends and stuff like that. It’s been keeping me sane the past couple of months, for sure,” Epifanio said after a recent workout in June. “I love this. As soon as the season ended last year I’ve been waiting for this summer. It’s been a long nine months, but I guess that’s what mothers deal with — they’re waiting for their kids and we’re waiting for an ACBL season. It builds up, and once it gets here, the excitement — I can’t even contain it. I’m pumped.”

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