By TIM KELLY
Five yards and 51 seconds separated Ocean City from its first football playoff victory in 18 years – or possibly its second loss to archrival Mainland in eight days.
Mainland, which had trailed the Red Raiders 21-7 with under seven minutes to play, had come roaring back with a nine-play, 80-yard scoring drive, a defensive stop and a hook-and-lateral gadget play to advance the ball 53 yards inside the Ocean City 10.
Then a penalty for too many players on the field pushed it inside the 5 and Ocean City called timeout with 51 ticks on the clock.
Defensive Coordinator Sean Matthews and Defensive Line Coach Mike Eisenstein urged their troops to stay calm and rely on their technique.
The advice paid off on the next play as the O.C. defense flew to the ball, Louis Conte popped it out of the hands of the Mustangs running back and senior co-captain Chris Armstrong made the biggest fumble recovery of the season.
The play enabled the Red Raiders (7-2) to run out the clock on a pulsating 21-14 opening round win in the South Jersey Group 4 playoffs.
“I saw the ball come out, fell on it, and celebrated with my teammates,” Armstrong said of his big play.
And a raucous celebration it was for the seventh-seeded Raiders, who will travel to sixth-seeded Long Branch at a time and date still to be determined as of Saturday.
“I don’t know those details,” Red Raider Head Coach Kevin Smith told his team. “What I do know is we are advancing in the playoffs!”
What a difference eight days makes. Last Friday, Mainland handed O.C. a 21-6 regular season loss on the same field in a game with the “Bridge Trophy” at stake as well as the right to have the Ninth Street Causeway bridge lit up in green. The Stangs’ win then improved their record to 8-0, and clinched at least a tie for the West Jersey Football League Independence Division title.
Then to the surprise of most observers, the state paired the two rivals for the rematch, again at the home field of the second-seeded Stangs. Originally scheduled for Friday night, the clash was moved to Saturday afternoon because of security concerns. For the second week in a row, a big crowd nearly filled the “Mustang Corral.”
“Last week (Mainland) was tougher than we were,” Smith said. “Things were different this time. As the game went on, you could see the kids’ confidence building.”
It didn’t start out that way. The Raiders looked tentative on their first two possessions, consecutive three-and-outs. Mainland then went 62 yards on nine plays, capped by Zack Graziotto’s 15-yard TD pass to Mike Ordille, and the extra point kick made it 7-0.
Ocean City answered with a drive of its own to close out the first quarter and start the second. The Raiders, who failed to generate many big plays the week before, connected on a 49-yard Joe Repetti-to-Jake Schneider TD.
Even though Jaquan Mace blocked the point after attempt and Mainland would take the 7-6 lead to the locker room at the half, the TD seemed to awaken the Raiders and their fans.
“You know kids,” Smith said of the momentum shift. “Sometimes they don’t know what they can do until they actually do it.”
Just before halftime, Brian Beckmann, who was all over the field all day for O.C., blocked a 30-yard Mainland field goal attempt, recovered the ball and returned it as time expired.
The momentum swing continued to open the second half. The O.C. defensive line rotation of Will Drain, Michael Williscroft, Michael Rhodes, Matt Christy, Mike Gray and Armstrong, which had its way with the Stangs’ O-line most of the game, forced a three-and-out. Then, Gray crashed through to block the Mainland punt, giving the Red Raiders the ball at the Stangs’ 20.
“I read a statistic somewhere that stated teams that block a punt win 90 percent of the time,” Smith said.
Four plays later, Repetti and Schneider cashed in with their second TD connection of the game, a 7 -yarder.
Smith elected to go for the two-point conversion. Tight end Brad Jamison made a spectacular catch in traffic of Repetti’s rollout and delivery. The call and executed conversion effectively wiped out the earlier blocked extra-point try, making it 14-7, O.C.
A remarkable sequence unfolded later in the third. Repetti’s pass to Beckmann was tipped by defender Amir Vick, then by Beckmann and caught on the fly by Vick for Mainland’s third interception of the game.
The Mustangs proceeded to march to their 44, where they faced a fourth-and-one. Mainland Coach Chuck Smith elected to go for it. However, Graziotto’s keeper was stuffed for a loss by most of the Ocean City line.
Repetti, who earlier converted a third down with a 13-yard run, this time saw an opening up the middle and scampered 33 yards for the touchdown, with Brendan McGonigle’s point after boot making it 21-7 and setting the stage for the frantic closing moments.
“You guys showed a tremendous amount of heart,” Smith told his Red Raiders afterwards.
He patted his chest as he said it, perhaps indicating his own heart had skipped a beat during those closing seconds.
Playoff Game Notes: Linebacker-running back Jake Inserra, recovering from a broken finger, was a major presence on both sides of the ball, running it seven times for 27 yards, unofficially.
“I felt that in a game like this, Jake was going to do a good job for us. He went from a large cast to a smaller one,” Smith said, explaining why Inserra got the call more often than in some previous games.
Mainland had an apparent Ja’Briel Mace TD called back on a seldom-seen penalty: assisting the runner. Mace, who torched the Raiders most of the first meeting, was mostly held in check by the D-line.
Mainland’s Jake Cook, who had two touchdown receptions against the Raiders last week, had a 27-yard reception in the second quarter and took the lateral on the Stangs’ stunning late hook-and-lateral play. Gaziotto’s pass went to Dan Misa, who turned his back on the oncoming defenders and flipped the ball back to Cook.
Smith attributed part of their success to the team’s “next play” mentality. In this concept, the coaches stress putting bad plays and dubious calls by the officials – of which there were several, affecting both teams – in the rear view mirror and moving on.
The loss was a bitter pill for Mainland, which came into the game undefeated and with high expectations. Last year, the Mustangs made the playoffs and lost in the first round to eventual South Jersey champ Shawnee.
This time around, their hope was to advance in the postseason and keep their perfect record going. Despite their disappointment, the Stangs showed a lot of sportsmanship with their postgame comportment and gracious comments toward the visitors.
Following Armstrong’s fumble recovery, Ocean City killed off the final seconds, with Repetti taking a knee in “victory formation” to set off wild celebrations on the field and sideline, and in the crowded O.C. stands. Even the O.C. coaches were unrestrained, embracing each other and their charges.