By TIM KELLY
It has been a season like few others for the Ocean City High School football team.
Their 45-10 triumph over Long Branch last Friday not only gave the Red Raiders an 11-0 record for just the second time in school history, it set up Friday’s matchup against Millville in the South Jersey Group 4 championship game.
“This is playoff season, the real season,” Head Coach Kevin Smith said of the postseason in an email to friends of the program.
The Raiders will be advancing to the sectional final for the third straight year. In 2019 they lost to Shawnee and last year’s game vs. Camden was never played because of Covid-19 concerns.
The three straight finals berths make Ocean City and Paulsboro “The only South Jersey schools, public or private, that can make that claim,” said Smith.
Millville, the top seed in the playoff tournament and the highest ranked public school in New Jersey (No. 3) will host the game at 6 pm. Tickets were sold online and will not be available at the gate. Nor will passes of any kind be honored, according to a school statement.
Those lucky enough to make it inside the Thunderbolts’ stadium should be in for a great contest.
“Millville is an explosive football team that has a ton of talent on both sides of the ball,” said Frank LaSasso, a Raider assistant coach. “They are undoubtedly the best team we will have played this year, and it is going to take our best performance to beat them. That should be expected in a championship setting.”
Millville running back LeQuint Allen exemplified LaSasso’s comment last week when he ran for 217 yards and two TDs in the ‘Bolts’ 50-15 destruction of Pennsauken in the other South Jersey semi.
The Thunderbolts can also chuck it, as evidenced by quarterback Nate Robbins (4-for-8 for 130 yards against Pennsauken, and 2,000–plus yards for the season).
His first quarter 57-yarder to Ti-yon Cephas was the opening salvo in an offense that at times looked like a machine.
Coach Dennis Thomas’ defense can bring the heat as well. They posted shutouts over common opponents Mainland (62-0), Hammonton (50-0), and a 40-7 pasting of Williamstown.
On the other hand, O.C. plays a disciplined “assignment style” game where each player has a defined role, sticks to it and trusts the guys playing alongside to do the same. It has worked almost to perfection so far, with the Raiders trailing only once – briefly – in a game this year.
“The last three games have been very similar,” LaSasso said. “We were able to wear opponents down in the second half with our running game, which has been a key to our success. Our players know how to prepare and execute.”
In a recent email, Smith said running back Sean Mazzitelli “went over 1,000 rushing for the season against Long Branch, the first OCHS player to do that since Frank Woolley in 2013.”
The Raiders ground game also got a boost with the return of Jacob Wilson, whose career has been marred by injuries but who is capable of breaking out anytime his hands touch the ball, such as his 172-yard, two TD performance against Hammonton.
Since returning from a six-game injury-related absence, Wilson provided another key weapon in the Ocean City offensive arsenal.
On the other side of the ball is one of Ocean City’s greatest strengths.
It’s a suffocating defense, racked up three consecutive shutouts to open the season and five whitewashes in the first seven games. They are strong in the trenches and also have solid linebacking and secondary.
Among the many stars are the Mazzitelli twin brothers, seniors, Sean and Zach. Zach Mazzitelli is a two-way lineman who helped open holes in many of OC’s blowout wins.
“They are good leaders, hard-nosed kids,” Smith told a reporter. “Our whole senior class comes to practice on Tuesday with a Friday night mentality.”
Junior quarterback Riley Gunnels III is seen by some as a game manager, even though he is one of the team’s leading rushers and at 6-2, 215 pounds is tough to bring down in the pocket or the open field.
Gunnels, is the grandson of Riley Sr., a member of the Philadelphia Eagles 1960 championship team and son of Riley Jr., a former OC star. Young Riley has a delicate touch in the passing game.
He sees the field well and can drop a 40-yard bomb right on the money or exploit opposing defenses underneath to keep the chains moving.
Ocean City might have South Jersey’s best kicker in Brandan McGonigle (field goal and 6 PATs vs. Long Branch). That 9-point explosion made him the highest scoring kicker in Cape Atlantic history. He also handles Ocean City’s punting.
“These are the games that you coach for and play for,” said LaSasso. “I am excited for our players, especially the seniors, for the opportunity they have in front of them. We have full confidence in their preparation and in their ability to execute. It’s going to be very exciting on Friday night.”