South Jersey Football: Mainland Tops Rival Ocean City in “Battle for the Bridge”
A wide receiver who had never played the position prior to this season — and who didn’t even play football as a junior last fall — and a kid nobody outside the Mainland football program has ever heard of made the biggest impact in the biggest game of the year so far for the Mustangs on Friday night in front of a raucous home crowd at The Corral.
Wideout Jake Cook hauled in a pair of tackle-breaking touchdown passes and senior linebacker Sean Bradley finished with four of the team’s seven sacks as Mainland stayed undefeated with a 21-6 victory over bitter rival Ocean City in a game dubbed “The Battle for the Bridge.” A new trophy featuring a football up top and a photo of the 9th Street bridge that connects Ocean City to Somers Point on the side was unveiled prior to the game, and the Mustangs hoisted it high in the south end zone following their toughest test to date.
Cook’s second scoring catch of the night — which came on a quick slant from the 16-yard line and featured a broken tackle by the 6-foot-2, 200-pound senior — gave Mainland a 21-6 lead with 10:26 left in the fourth quarter and was the back breaker for the Red Raiders, who were looking to stay in contention for the West Jersey Football League Independence Division championship. Ocean City fell to 6-2 overall and 4-1 in the division, while Mainland improved to 8-0 overall and 4-0 in the division. The Mustangs can wrap up their second straight title with a win over Egg Harbor Township on Thanksgiving.
Cook’s touchdown catch was set up by a big kickoff return from freshman running back Ja’Briel Mace after Ocean City had shaved the lead to 14-6 late in the third quarter. Mace went for better than 100 yards in the game, eclipsed 1,000 yards for the season and also scored Mainland’s first touchdown on a nifty 40-yard run down the right sideline late in the first half that staked the Mustangs to a 7-0 lead.
“I just had fun tonight and let loose. I’ve always been so tight during games, but tonight I just said I’m going to have fun with it, it’s my last regular-season game with my brothers that I grew up with. This is awesome,” said Cook, a basketball star who played quarterback his first two years but decided not to play football last fall. “I have been really locked into the games, which isn’t a good thing for me because I’m a kid and I have to have fun with it, too. I’ve been too professional with it, I have to have fun with it, and I had a lot of fun tonight.
“I started at quarterback after about four games my sophomore year and we didn’t have a very good season. I took a beating, and I came in the next year and was like, ‘I don’t know about this.’ I regret not playing (last year),” he added. “I just wanted to finish with the people I started with, my dad really motivated me to come back on the field, and I give big props to my uncle. I didn’t want to miss out on this because I’ve been playing football since I was 5 years old. I kind of missed it.”
“He was our quarterback a couple years ago, didn’t come out last year but I kind of convinced him to come out this year and told him we’d play him at wide receiver. I told him that I didn’t think anybody was going to be able to cover him at this level,” said Mainland coach Chuck Smith. “He has tremendous hands, size, strength and he can run by people. The thing I admire most about him is he’s a devastating blocker on the perimeter. I think (earlier in the season) he was nervous about what he could do in a new position, but he’s really come into his own and become one of the better receivers in the league.”
Ocean City’s offense had been hot coming in, led by quarterback Joe Repetti as well as running back Issac Wilson, receivers Jake Schneider and Brian Beckmann, and tight end Brad Jamison. But Mainland’s front seven had Repetti scrambling for his life all night long and the Mustangs were also able to bottle up the Red Raiders’ big play guys — Wilson and Schneider. Ocean City did get on the board late in the third quarter when a big third-down run up the middle by Repetti set up a touchdown pass that was tipped by a Mainland defender right into the hands of Schneider. But that’s all the offense the Red Raiders could muster against Bradley & Co.
“The past few weeks we’ve been working on pass rush moves with coach (Antoine) Lewis. It all depended on the alignment, we just had to find a way to get by (the offensive linemen). We’ve been preparing for them the past two weeks. Getting seven sacks is crazy, but I felt like we could have gotten even more. (Getting pressure) was a big part of the plan because they have good wide receivers and if they get into the open field, who knows what can happen?” Bradley said. “Since freshman year we’ve been talking about being undefeated, and here we are — and to beat an arch rival to get that, it’s huge for the whole team.”
“We knew, watching film, (Repetti) has had a lot of time to throw the ball all season long and he’s very good at finding his receivers. He puts the ball spot-on for a high school quarterback, so we knew we had to get some kind of pressure on him to have a chance. If we gave him time we weren’t going to be able to cover Schneider and Jamison on those crossing patterns. We can’t keep up with them, they are too good, but our defensive line did a tremendous job of getting pressure, especially in the second half. We had a couple of blitz packages in there, but credit Repetti — a couple of times he scrambled out of trouble, hit receivers, had that big run on a draw play on third-and-15. He’s a gamer, but it was huge with our defense coming through in the second half,” said Smith, who was once a college teammate of Repetti’s father, Cliff. “(Bradley) plays both sides of the ball, he plays offensive tackle and linebacker, never comes off the field, he’s in on all the special teams. Arguably, he’s the hardest worker on our team and he had a tremendous game on both sides of the ball tonight.”
Cook finished with six catches for 137 yards, including touchdown catches of 44 and 16 yards, and Mace added 112 rushing yards and a touchdown. Defensive back Elijah Williams also had a game-changing interception in the end zone that stopped an Ocean City drive in the second quarter, and Mainland limited the Red Raiders to just 15 rushing yards in the second half.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Cook said. “Against our rival, tied for the division, this is awesome. I’ve been too tight so I needed to relax and have fun with it, and this was definitely the game to do it.”
“We both have had our down years, or one of us is up and the other isn’t, so it was nice that both of us came in here like the old days, competing for playoffs and the division title at stake,” coach Smith said of the rivalry, which seems to have reached the kind of fever pitch it had in the late 1990s. “It’s a fun game all the time — no matter what sport it is here, Mainland vs. Ocean City is just a fun week to get ready for.”
Gutsy performance: Senior linebacker Brayden Pohlman, one of the architects of Mainland’s impressive resurgence the past two seasons, tore the ACL in his left knee during the Mustangs’ win over Bridgeton on Sept. 27. Normally, that would be a season-ending injury, but Pohlman decided to give it a go against Ocean City after sitting out the entire month of October, and his defensive teammates were obviously inspired by the courageous effort.
“He was injured at Bridgeton a while back and his goal was to go against Clearview because the defensive end there is going to Kent State and dominated him last year. That was his goal, to go against him, but he didn’t get that chance,” Smith said. “The day after he blew his ACL out he told me he was going to be back for Ocean City, and there he was tonight, all taped up and bandaged up.”
Added Bradley, “That’s other worldly. I’ve never seen that from anybody, but if it’s going to be anyone it’s going to be that man right there.”
What’s next: Mainland and Ocean City await seedings for the South Jersey Group 4 playoffs, which begin next Friday night.