By TIM KELLY
It was fitting that the Ocean City defense was on the field for the final minute and seven seconds of the Red Raiders’ 26-0 defeat of Pleasantville on Thursday in their traditional Thanksgiving Day game.
“It’s been that way all year. Putting up shutouts (Thursday was their fifth of the season) or holding teams to very few points,” said Michael Rhodes, whose blocked punt in the third quarter set the Raiders up for the touchdown that essentially put the game on ice.
Ocean City held a 12-0 advantage on a pair of first quarter Brendan McGonigle field goals of 22 and 36 yards, and quarterback Joe Repetti’s 18-yard pass to tight end Brad Jamison. Then Rhodes made his big play.
“Nobody picked me up,” said Rhodes, a 6-5, 228-pound junior two-way lineman, who had a clear path to punter Zahir Washington and the ball.
“I knew I had it,” he said of the clean block, which could be heard throughout Carey Stadium. “My hand is still numb,” he said with a laugh.
Rhodes provided another big moment for the defense when he intercepted a third quarter pass to snuff out the Greyhounds’ deepest penetration to the O.C. 35, and rumbled an unofficial 55 yards on the return.
Ocean City, which finished 9-3 for the most wins in a season since 2001, played with energy and intensity all game. The Raiders kicked things up a notch following Rhodes’ block.
Taking over at the Pleasantville 32, they went on a seven-play drive featuring a Repetti-to-Jake Schneider 10-yard pass, three Jake Inserra runs, and the capper, a three-yard scoring burst by Issak Wilson to make it 19-0.
“This is a great group of kids. They have great character,” Ocean City Head Coach Kevin Smith said. “They genuinely enjoy playing together. This week at practice you could see they were savoring some of their last times spent as a group.”
The Raiders finished their best season in almost two decades, taking second place in the West Jersey Football League’s Independence division, and winning two Group 4 playoff games to advance to the South Jersey sectional title game. There, they fell to two-time defending champs Shawnee.
In Thursday’s bowl game of sorts, the Raiders finally got their chance to raise championship hardware. By beating the Greyhounds in one of South Jersey’s oldest Thanksgiving rivalries, they hoisted the Mike Slaveski–Bob Thomas trophy, named after legendary former coaches at each school.
With the win, Ocean City leads Pleasantville 51-41 in a series that dates back 98 years. The ’Hounds won last year’s game 20-7, but Ocean City has now taken nine of the previous 10 meetings.
Things were understandably less jovial for Pleasantville. The Greyhounds finished at 8-3, their best showing in years, won their division of the WJFL and defeated Collingswood, 35-0 in the first round of the Group 2 playoffs. Then things took a very dark turn on Nov. 15.
Trailing 6-0 in the third quarter of their home playoff game against Camden, play was suspended after gunfire erupted in the Pleasantville stands. Micah Tennant, a 10-year-old spectator from Newark, reportedly a nephew of one of the Greyhound players, was caught in the crossfire.
Tragically, Micah died five days later, hours prior to the Greyhounds and Panthers final 17 minutes of the playoff game, held in Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field, at the invitation of the Eagles. Camden went on to win the aborted and re-started game, 22-0.
Pleasantville police almost immediately arrested the alleged gunman and five other men, all from Atlantic City, in connection with the incident.
“It’s been tough,” admitted a Pleasantville staff member who declined to provide a name. “We have tough kids, kids who have seen a lot, but they are good kids. Something like this sticks with you as an adult. Imagine how a 15, 16 or 17-year-old would react.”
Ocean City held a moment of silence for Micah before the game. The team wore stickers on their helmets in tribute, and donations were solicited at halftime to be presented to the boy’s family. The postgame handshakes appeared especially heartfelt.
Pleasantville was further hampered by the absence of their primary offensive threat, Ernest Howard, who suited up but only made it through three plays. Howard sprained his ankle in the resumed portion of the playoff game in Philly last week. He tried to go against Ocean City but re-sprained the ankle, according to a Pleasantville coach.
Played on a seasonably cool morning with brilliant sunshine, Carey Stadium’s notorious winds – recorded at nearly 30 MPH at their peak, according to weather.com – were a big factor. Every throw, placekick, punt and long snap was an adventure.
Leading 3-0 late in the first, Smith used a timeout to ensure the wind would still be at McGonigle’s back for his second field goal try, after five straight running plays placed the ball on Pleasantville’s 15 and an incompletion brought up fourth down and the successful kick.
McGonigle, named as the WJFL’s first team all-star kicker, also booted an extra point into the wind in the third quarter.
Ocean City’s final score came after the Hounds turned it over at their own 37 on downs after going for it on fourth down, rather than risking another against-the-wind punt. Issak and Jacob Wilson combined on runs to take it to the 13. From there, Jake Inserra ripped off a nine-yard run and a four-yarder for the score.
Backup kicker Henry Suoto tacked on the game’s final point.
Though the Raiders’ sometimes explosive passing game gave way to the elements and a chains-moving ground attack, it did have its moments. Jamison’s consecutive catches from Repetti were key in the first field goal drive and he was wide open on his TD, a Repetti dart from the 18.
The star of the show was the defense, which along with racking up its fifth whitewash of the year, yielded an average of just under 11 points per game.
The defense held Pleasantville to just one first down until 4:38 remained in the third quarter, three for the game and 57 total net yards, unofficially.
“They play really well as a unit,” Ocean City Defensive Coordinator Sean Matthews said. “You can do your best as a coach, draw up anything you want. It’s still up to the players to go out there and play and execute. This team is really good at that.”