TOMS RIVER, N.J. - The special thing about Group 1 sports isn't the quality of play or the level of competition.

There are better athletes in Group 4, or more of the better ones, anyway. There are stronger teams in Group 3 and Non-Public A, and often in Group 2 as well.

Group 1 is unique. Group 1 teams are town teams. Group 1 teams have star pitchers who sat in the stands as preschoolers and watched the high school's basketball team win back-to-back state titles.

Group 1 teams also have kids who ride the bus to the baseball state championship game and compare themselves not to professionals, but to local heroes who remain legends in their leafy little towns.

"We're riding up here on the bus, and Dylan Colgate says, 'We're like Joe and Jon Crispin,' " Pitman pitcher Steve Schuler said after leading the Panthers to a 5-0 victory over Whippany Park in the Group 1 state championship game Saturday at Toms River East.

That's rarefied air in Pitman - being compared to the Crispin brothers. Those guys led the Panthers to state titles in boys' basketball in 1997 and 1998.

Now Pitman has its first state title in baseball, thanks to a pitcher and a third baseman who used to play Wiffle-ball as 8-year-olds, and a bunch of other guys who grew up together in the small town in Gloucester County.

"Steve is the biggest competitor there is," said Colgate, the Panthers' junior third baseman who had two hits, including an RBI double, in the title game. "He was the same way when he was 8 and we used to play Wiffle-ball in my backyard. We'd have fights at the time."

Sure, there are guys on Group 4 or Group 3 teams who used to play Wiffle-ball in grammar school. Sure, there are guys on non-Public teams who watched the same high school play in the state tournament as wide-eyed youngsters.

But it's more common at the Group 1 level. The larger schools often are regional or bring together students from a sprawling township.

There's something special about that, too. One of the best things about Group 4 and Group 3 athletic programs, besides the high level of competition, is the way kids from different towns or middle schools mesh at the high school level.

Group 1 is different. Group 1 teams and some Group 2 teams often have kids who have been playing together since Little League. They've known each other since kindergarten.

All that familiarity adds to the small-town atmosphere. It adds to the sense of pride and air of excitement when one of those teams drives deep in the state tournament - and half the town packs up and comes along for the ride.

You could see it Saturday at Toms River East, when the Pitman stands looked like a mini-Flyers game with all those bright orange T-shirts.

"I remember watching the Crispins play every day in the state tournament," Schuler said. "When something like this happens in this town, it's just so special. You can see all the people who came out. I don't know if there's anybody still back in town."

Schuler looks like he could still be in middle school. He's 5-foot-10, maybe, and he says he's 150 pounds.

"On a good day, soaking wet," Schuler said.

But he's got a great left arm. He struck out 13 in the state final. He finished his senior season with a 10-1 record and 109 strikeouts.

"He's just a fierce competitor," Pitman coach Gene Reid said of Schuler, who plans to continue his baseball career at Philadelphia University.

Schuler has a great sense of his town and its athletic history. That's another thing about Group 1 programs. Schuler said he was overwhelmed to be on the mound in the state title game, leading Pitman to victory as hundreds of hometown fans cheered every strike.

"This is unfathomable to me," Schuler said.

Not so long ago, Schuler was a bright-eyed kid who watched those big high school stars win state titles and dreamed of someday doing the same thing. Maybe there was another preschooler in the crowd on Saturday thinking the same thing.

That's how it works in Group 1 towns, with Group 1 teams.

"Maybe someday people will talk about the kid who had 13 strikeouts in the state-championship game," Schuler said.

In Pitman, you can count on it.

Contact staff writer Phil Anastasia at 856-779-3223 or panastasia@phillynews.com.