By Tim Kelly
Ocean City was one yard and one play away from scoring the tying touchdown in Friday’s rain-soaked New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association Playoff game, but like so many other times this year, the ultimate payoff didn’t happen.
Nevertheless, Ocean City again acquitted itself quite well in a 28-14 loss at Highland Regional.
The Raiders had drawn to within 21-14 just before halftime on Ian Aungst’s pass to Brian Beckmann, a play worthy of NFL Films.
Operating from the Highland 8 yard line, the Raider QB threaded the needle between a group of would-be Highland defenders and Henry Souto added the PAT.
On a night with off-and-on rain that was mostly on, the teams slugged it out during a scoreless third quarter. Ocean City got its opportunity when a bad punt snap gave the Raiders the football at the highland 44 with 3:36 remaining.
Brandon Lashley, Ocean City’s leading receiver was facing double coverage most of the game, so Aungst found Jake Schneider for a 12-yard gain and then a 24 yarder with Jake adding significant yards after the catch.
That brought up first and goal from the Highland 8. Two runs by Kevin King, who earlier became only the second Raider to score a rushing touchdown all season, brought up a fourth-and-goal from the one.
However, King and Aungst could not make a clean exchange on an option run, giving Highland the ball back and the opportunity to run out the clock.
Instead of taking a knee, Highland’s sophomore star running back Johnny Martin III broke loose for a 93 yard touchdown. The PAT produced the misleading final score.
With the win, Highland advanced to the semi-final game to be played at their Blackwood, Camden County home field against Clearview, which advanced by beating Hammonton.
Ocean City will play a consolation game on the road against a yet-to-be determined opponent at a date also to be determined, probably this Thursday, but possibly Saturday, according to the NJSIAA.
Early on it appeared that Highland, which came into the game with a 7-1 record and the heavy favorite, would be the team needing consolation.
In front of its home crowd, the Tartans ran into an Ocean City buzzsaw in the early going.
The Raiders went 80 yards on their first possession with Aungst and the passing game clicking with Lashley and Schneider. From the one-yard line, Kevin King plunged in for the score and Souto added the PAT.
This set off a soggy celebration on the OC sideline and the visitors’ stands, where a good sized crowd had made the trip from OC north to the foot of the Atlantic City Expressway.
Showing supreme confidence, Highland made it to the Ocean City 48 on its next possession where coach Brian Leary elected to go for it on fourth and 4.
That move blew up in the Tartans faces when Austin green blew up the play and dropped Highland’s Javon Randall for a two-yard loss.
But OC could not capitalize and turned the ball over on another bad snap. The rainy conditions would make every long snap, pass and handoff an adventure with both teams showing difficulty to hold onto the wet pigskin.
Randall made the Raiders pay just four plays later when he broke free for a 35-yard TD. The two-point conversion pass attempt failed, allowing OC to cling to a 7-6 advantage.
But on its next possession, Highland made it 14-7 on a 43-yard Martin run and the PAT.
It looked as if the Tartans might be headed for a blowout victory, but an apparent 61-yard Randall TD was called back on an illegal procedure penalty flag.
If the Raiders dodged that bullet, it wasn’t for long. Randall broke off a long run for a first down and Martin capped the drive with an eight yard TD to open up the 21-7 lead.
That set up OC’s drive in the final four minutes to make it a one-score game and produce some momentumand confidence for the visitors just before halftime.
Ocean City’s defense stacked the line of scrimmage to stop the run, and they did a good job most of the game. But once Martin and Randall got past that first level of defenders, they found a lot of open space for running room, resulting in several long gains.
Still, the Raiders gave no quarter and received great defensive efforts from Green, and Travis Stoerrie, Brandon Pokrass, among others. Punter Joe Repetti, whose directional punts and booming kicks, including a 55-yarder, kept Highland facing a long field most of the night.
The loss was Ocean City’s fifth straight and dropped the Raiders’ overall record to 3-5. But four of those losses could have easily gone the other way. There was an overtime loss to Oakcrest, a walk-off 41-yard field goal by Mainland, a fourth-quarter comeback win by Triton, and now this near-miss against a heavily favored opponent on the big stage.
Ocean City also had winning seasons from its Freshman and JV teams. The future looks bright for the OC football program after a decade-long absence from the playoffs.