Mike Rucci had a winning background as a player, and he expected the success to continue in his first year as a coach. Rucci didn't waste any time spelling out his goal to his West Deptford baseball players.
Before the first practice, Rucci, 28, said even though this was his first head-coaching job, he didn't want to use his inexperience as an excuse. His early message was delivered the same emphatic way he used to crush the ball while an all-South Jersey catcher at Gloucester Catholic.
Rucci let his players know he expected nothing less than to contend for championships.
"He told us that he wasn't here to rebuild," West Deptford first baseman Tom Jakubowski said, moments after the Eagles had defeated host Haddonfield, 6-4, Friday for the South Jersey Group 2 championship. "He's a great coach."
Eventually, he guided a team through a great run, but the success didn't happen overnight.
West Deptford (15-11) was just 11-11 before winning its four Group 2 games. Next, the Eagles will head to Tuesday's state semifinal at Monmouth University against Governor Livingston.
For all the success West Deptford has enjoyed in baseball, and it's been considerable, this was the Eagles' first sectional title.
Rucci won three state titles at Gloucester Catholic, four more for Brooklawn's American Legion team. He was on the 2000 Gloucester Catholic team that was ranked No. 1 nationally in several polls and the Brooklawn team that won the 2001 American Legion World Series.
So that is why he set the bar so high when he took over at West Deptford.
"We had some bumps in the road this year, but I always felt these guys could achieve this," Rucci said.
Haddonfield and West Deptford, which split their regular-season games, have become rivals in several sports. The Bulldogs won the first game, 1-0, and West Deptford took the second, 5-3. And as Friday's score showed, this was just as close.
West Deptford was aided by six Haddonfield errors, which led to five unearned runs. Haddonfield lefthander Nick Cavanaugh deserved a better fate.
"The wind was making it difficult for the fielders," Cavanaugh said. "But we kept battling, and it says a lot about our team."
One thing that West Deptford opponents have learned is that dealing with Jakubowski is not an easy or fun proposition.
The junior first baseman went 2 for 3 and was hit by a pitch. He had three RBIs. His two-run, ground-rule double in the sixth inning broke a 4-4 tie.
"He's been doing it all year," Rucci said. "He's been Mr. Clutch."
And freshman Tyler Castellano has been Mr. Ice Veins. The freshman played most of the game at shortstop, but relieved starter Jason Fox with a 6-4 lead and runners at first and second with no outs in the seventh.
Castellano hit the first batter he faced to load the bases. Then he got down to business, getting the first out on a force at home that deflected off his leg and went to third. Castellano then finished matters by fielding a grounder and completing a 1-2-3 double play.
"That is the only way to end it," Castellano said.
"He is only a freshman and showed great mental toughness," Rucci said.
So to review, there was a freshman pitcher, ending the game with a rookie coach at the helm, making West Deptford a first-time sectional-title winner.
"It's fun to make history," Rucci said.
As it turns out, it was also expected by a coach who knew how to set a winning tone.
West Deptford 3000030 - 653
Haddonfield 2011000 - 486
WP: Jason Fox. LP: Nick Cavanaugh. 2B: H-Chris Davis, WD-Brandon Thayers, Tom Jakubowski.