Triton began the baseball season by losing its first four games and appeared headed on a road to nowhere.

Instead, the Mustangs are preparing for the NJSIAA South Jersey Group 3 playoffs - and, based on their recent play, they will not be an easy team to beat.

After its dismal start, Triton has won eight of its last 12 games - including wins over highly regarded teams such as Washington Township, Winslow Township and Cherry Hill East - to earn a Group 3 playoff berth.

Teams with at least a .500 record at Friday's cutoff date earned a spot in the tournament. Triton was 8-8 at the cutoff.

Triton began its season by losing to four area heavyweights: Cherokee, Winslow Township, Seneca and Holy Cross.

"In the beginning, we were giving teams four or five outs an inning," said first-year Triton coach Frank Marciano. "Since then, our defense has done the job and really tightened - and our pitching has stepped up."

Craig Carroll, Mike Nardone and Dave Stieg have given the Mustangs a dependable staff. Carroll has led the way with a 3-0 record and a 2.20 ERA.

Offensively, the Mustangs have been paced by senior catcher Nigel Shockley (team-high .457 average) and the Piccioni brothers, Mike and Joe. Mike Piccioni is a senior outfielder, while Joe is a senior shortstop.

"When they've come up with runners in scoring position, they've done damage almost every time," said Marciano, who replaced veteran coach Bill Reilly.

The Mustangs secured a playoff berth by overcoming a 12-7 deficit and scoring a 22-13 win over Paul VI Thursday. Joe Piccioni slugged three homers - a grand slam and two solo shots - and collected seven RBIs.

Triton is a dark-horse contender in Group 3, a section that features Deptford, Seneca and West Deptford, Delsea and perhaps Shawnee.

"With our pitching, if our defense comes through, we can scare some people," Marciano said.

Hail, Delran. Delran clinched an NJSIAA playoff spot for the 30th time in 32 years. Rob Workman has five homers for Rich Bender's Bears (11-4), who have won seven of their last eight games.

Woodstown stopped. Woodstown, which has lost six straight to fall to 5-11, had a remarkable streak stopped: The Wolverines had qualified for the NJSIAA tournament in 33 straight seasons.

Diamond Classic observations. The Olympic Conference dominated, while Cape-Atlantic teams struggled in Saturday's opening round of the 34th annual Joe Hartmann Diamond Classic.

Olympic teams went 5-1, while the Cape-Atlantic entrants lost all four of their contests.

The Olympic winners: Eastern, Seneca, Camden Catholic, Cherokee and Bishop Eustace. Winslow Township was the lone Olympic team to lose, dropping a 7-3 decision to Holy Cross.

Sacred Heart, Egg Harbor Township, St. Augustine Prep and Buena were the Cape teams that were knocked off.

Here is Saturday's quarterfinal schedule:

At Deptford: West Deptford vs. Eastern, 10:30 a.m.; Seneca vs. Holy Cross, 1:30 p.m.

At Washington Township: Camden Catholic vs. Gloucester Catholic, 10:30 a.m.; Cherokee vs. Bishop Eustace, 1:30 p.m.

The semifinals will be played Sunday at 1 p.m. at Deptford and Washington Township. At 6 that evening, Campbell's Field in Camden will host the championship game.

Riverside, Gloucester rolling. What do Riverside and Gloucester have in common?

Both started the season 2-5 but have put together hot streaks and appear to be strong South Jersey Group 1 contenders.

Riverside has won eight of its last 11 games to raise its record to 10-6. The Rams have won their last seven games.

Gloucester, now 11-6, has won nine of its last 10 games.

Gloucester's only loss in that span was a 6-5 defeat to Pitman, which looks like the Group 1 favorite.

Colonial domination. Maybe they should call the South Jersey Group 2 playoffs the Colonial Conference tournament.

Six Colonial teams qualified in Group 2: Gateway, Haddon Township, Collingswood, Sterling, Audubon and Haddonfield. (Haddon Heights barely missed qualifying, losing to Audubon Friday to slip to 7-8 at the cutoff.)

West Deptford qualified in Group 3, giving the Colonial seven playoff entrants.

Impressive sophs. Deptford (14-3) relies primarily on hard-throwing senior righthander Sheldon Johnson (5-1), but it should be noted that the Spartans' future looks bright.

The reason?

The Spartans are using four sophomore pitchers: C.J. Baney (2-1), Mike Dicken (2-0), Jason Mordica (4-0) and Dean Schaber (1-0). The sophs have a combined 9-1 record.

Extra bases. Cherry Hill West (12-7) has won six of its last seven games to earn a Group 4 playoff berth. . . . Keep an eye on Shawnee (10-8) in the Group 3 playoffs. The Renegades have played a tough schedule and are much better than their record might indicate. . . . Bryan Miller, Gateway's slugging outfielder, has committed to Gloucester County College. . . . Three of Cinnaminson's last four wins have been shutouts. . . . Camden and Pleasantville each notched their first wins during the week. . . . HR Derby: In last Saturday's Diamond Classic, Eustace shortstop Dan Sieracki and Buena second baseman Wade Battelini, who share the South Jersey leadership with eight homers, were matched against each other and each batted cleanup. Sieracki went 1 for 4 with three strikeouts, while Battelini went 0 for 3. . . . Holy Cross has won nine of its last 10.

Contact staff writer Sam Carchidi

at 215-854-5181

or scarchidi@phillynews.com.