South Jersey Football: Mainland Holds Off Oakcrest to Remain Unbeaten
LINWOOD — The first half of the Bunting Family Pharmacy Game of the Week between host Mainland and West Jersey Football League Independence Division rival Oakcrest may have had fans looking around for a pillow to take a nap. The second half was like an adrenaline shot straight to the heart.
After a relatively uneventful first half that saw Mainland take a 7-0 lead into the break, the teams combined for 28 points in a raucous third quarter, and it took a 60-yard scoop-and-score fumble recovery by Mustangs defensive lineman Ben Arena to keep Mainland undefeated. That touchdown, which came with 2:26 left in the third, proved to be the decisive score in a 21-14 Mainland victory, but there was plenty more to come in the fourth quarter, including a huge goal-line stand by Oakcrest and interceptions by both defenses.
Mainland improved to 6-0 and 3-0 in the WJFL Independence, and moved into a first-place tie with idle Ocean City (4-1, 3-0), while Oakcrest — which played perhaps its best game of the season — fell to 2-4 overall and 1-2 in the division with the hard-luck loss.
“They have great athletes on that team and they really took it to us,” said Mainland senior defensive back Amir Vick, who had an interception. “We were just trying to execute on the run (on defense). Our front seven has been great this year and the secondary is really stepping up. (With guys injured) we knew we had to step up, play our roles and do our best. Oakcrest gave us a run for the money, for sure, but we came out with the dub.”
“The effort was outstanding. Our guys were executing. To be down 7-0 at half and to respond like that in the second half, it was awesome. Everybody was rallying, playing together and playing hard. The effort was outstanding, we just came up a little short,” said Oakcrest coach Eric Anderson. “We believe in each other, we believe in ourselves, we had a really good week of practice and everybody was buying in. They were really focused this week and they were hungry. They knew we were going up against an undefeated team and they wanted to give it to them. We fought hard, we just came up a little short. It was fun, it’s just a shame we came up a little short.”
Added Mainland coach Chuck Smith, former head coach of the Falcons who is now in his fourth season as Mustangs skipper, “They have a great group of guys and a lot of guys I’ve known since my years over there. They came to play today and they are a good team — they’re not what their record indicates, that’s for sure, and I don’t think anybody ever wants to play them twice. Kids sometimes look at the record and think that’s what it is, and as coaches we were telling them that Oakcrest is much better than what their record indicates. You walk onto the field and you see the athletes they have, the size they have — we were fortunate to come out of here tonight with a win.”
The only scoring in the first half came on a 5-yard touchdown pass from Zack Graziotto — who is back after missing time due to a concussion — to senior wideout Jake Cook with 7:27 remaining in the second quarter. But things got wild in the third quarter. Oakcrest tied the game, 7-7, on its opening possession of the second half when senior quarterback Angel Casanova ran left for a 9-yard score; then, a few plays later, defensive back Imaari Andrews picked off a Graziotto pass and returned it 40 yards for a touchdown to give the Falcons a 14-7 lead. Mainland, however, answered right back, driving 55 yards and tying the game at 14 with a little trickery on 4th-and-goal from the 10-yard line. Ja’Quan Mace took a jet sweep right, stopped and threw back left to a wide open Graziotto in the end zone.
The very next play decided the outcome, as after a failed onsides kick Oakcrest took over at the Mainland 40-yard line, but Arena came up with a fumble recovery and raced 60 yards down the right sideline. Brady Panas’ extra point put Mainland up, 21-14, and that’s how it stayed until the final whistle. Oakcrest had a big goal-line stand in the fourth quarter, but Mainland’s defense forced a punt before the teams traded interceptions. Mainland got the ball back with 4:44 left and was able to run the clock down to just five seconds, and Oakcrest’s last-gasp play was snuffed out.
“That was a real tone-setter, I’ll tell you that. I was screaming from the 50-yard line. I didn’t know if he was going to get in,” Vick said of Arena’s heroics.
“Three other times this year I just pounced on the ball, but I saw no one and said, ‘let’s do it,’ and just picked it up and ran. I didn’t even know it was 60 yards, I thought it was closer until somebody told me. I just ran as fast as I could to try to get into the end zone. I was like, ‘I need to get in the end zone because we need points.’ Our offense was moving the ball a little bit, but we haven’t had a defensive touchdown yet (this season),” said Arena, who had to come up big as the Mustangs were missing linemen Brayden Pohlman and Sam Epstein due to injury. “The toughest thing was their quarterback running around, but our linebackers really stepped up. We got Jack (Connolly) back and he really stepped up, and Chris Campbell had some good plays. Our linebackers really set the tone, our defensive backs are good and our line has stepped it up.”
Mainland takes on Middle Township next week then has a bye in late October before a big showdown with rival Ocean City on Nov. 1 — a game that likely will decide the Independence Division champion.
“This feels great, but we can’t be satisfied because we still have a lot of work to do down the road,” Vick said.
Added coach Smith, “We take it one at a time. Our goal is to always stay undefeated at home and we’re one step closer to that. And this game was huge because it was a division game and it was a big power points game for us. We have one more game and then the bye week before the (playoff) seeding comes up, so we had to take care of business tonight and thank God the kids came out and responded in the second half.”
What’s next: Mainland travels to Middle Township on Oct. 18 at 6 p.m. Oakcrest hosts Cedar Creek on Oct. 18 at 6:30 p.m.