By Tim Kelly
The playoffs. This is why the players lift weights in July. This is why the coaches watch hours and hours of game footage throughout the season. All for a shot to go up against the best and to become a South Jersey champion.
The NJSIAA football playoffs begin Friday night. Though Highland is the prohibitive favorite over Ocean City, the players, coaches and hundreds of fans are upset-minded and will show up at Highland’s Gloucester Township campus.
The first round Group 4 game kicks off at 7 p.m. and pits the seventh-seeded Red Raiders (3-4) against the second-seeded Tartans (7-1), whose lone loss was by a single point to Burlington Township on October 20.
Ocean City won its first three games before losing four straight. However, they hung in there against physically-imposing St. Augustine, lost in overtime to Oakcrest and last week dropped a 24-21 nailbiter to archrival Mainland on a 41-yard field goal with three seconds left in the game. They also lost to Highland’s sister school Triton on the road after leading the game in the fourth quarter.
Despite the four-game slide, Ocean City is in the big dance for the second straight year after a nine-year absence, which, along with the success of the Freshman and JV teams, says a lot about the positive direction of the program.
“These games are probably a lot of fun to watch, but they are nerve-wracking to coach,” said OC head coach Kevin Smith. It doesn’t figure to get any easier. Highland has a high-powered offense and a defense that can shut people down. They averaged 38 points a game in three shutouts over Oakcrest, Moorestown and Paul VI.
Highland has a punishing running game that averages an astounding 263 yards a game. The key to stopping the Tartans –if there is one– is to limit the damage sure to be inflicted by their sensational sophomore running back Johnny Martin III.
Martin was held to under 100 yards on the ground just once all year, an 86-yard effort against Clearview, and Highland still won. He churned out a season high 244 yards against Kingsway, 184 against Oakcrest and 186 last week against Paul VI in a 55-0 romp. If he puts up similar numbers on Friday, it could be a long night for Ocean City.
The Red Raiders offense has been uneven except for a consistent passing game. They have also had several costly special teams breakdowns and their defense has at time been vulnerable to the big play. That said, they’ve played hard all year with no quit and have been in every game.
The teams have one common opponent, Oakcrest which beat OC 20-14 and lost to Highland, 30-0.
But all that goes out the window on Friday.
“It’s a new season,” Smith said of the playoffs, and at the moment everyone is 0-0.
In Ocean City’s favor, the Raiders have played hard and made some big plays against quality opponents. With a few breaks, they could easily have three more wins. Quarterback Ian Aungst and the passing game have clicked when he’s had time to throw. Opposing defenses have not been tested much against the Raider running game, allowing them to dial up a variety of blitzes and leave the Raider QB susceptible to sacks.
That hasn’t stopped the offense from moving up and down the field through the air. Their most impressive drive of the season may have happened late in the fourth quarter against Mainland when OC went 80 yards against the wind for a touchdown and two-point conversion to tie the game. Brendon Lashley and Jake Schneider have been among Aungst’s favorite targets.
The defense has also looked very strong at times during the season. D-lineman Austin Green, linebackers Travis Stoerre, Billy Kroeger and Brandon Lin are a few of the standout defenders.
Ocean City has been burned several times by big plays against the special teams. All three phases will have to be on their A-game in order for Ocean City to have a chance.
The winner of Friday’s game advances to the semi-finals on November 9 against the winner of the Clearview – Hammonton first round contest.
CORRECTIONS: In last week’s Mainland game story, we misidentified the receiver in a key 31-yard catch and run. Senior Tom Meehan actually made the play. Also we incorrectly stated Jake Schneider caught a touchdown pass and Brendon Lashley caught a pass for the two-point conversion. It was the other way around. We regret the errors.