By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
If you’re a high school football fan in South Jersey, today is your Christmas morning.
The second annual Battle at the Beach kicks off at 10 a.m. with Mainland Regional facing former Thanksgiving Day rival Egg Harbor Township, and that’s the start of 11 games in three days that features some of the best teams in the region. It’s a season kickoff showcase event that quickly has become a go-to event.
It all takes place in beautiful Carey Stadium, nestled between Ocean City high school and the world famous boardwalk.
“We’re really excited about it. We get to play EHT, one of our rivals, and it’s the first game in the state (today),” said Chuck Smith, Mainland’s head coach. “It’s a great venue for all these teams to come in, and for other teams to get to see your program. The games are being streamed live, so we’re excited to be a part of the whole thing.”
The event features some really heavyweight teams, including Salem, Millville, St. Augustine Prep, Cherokee, Holy Spirit and Washington Township from South Jersey, a couple of really good Shore Conference teams like Toms River North, Red Bank Catholic and St. John Vianney, some powerhouses from North Jersey such as St. Peter’s Prep and Cedar Grove, and some standout teams from Pennsylvania, including Thomas Jefferson from the Pittsburgh area.
“I think this is great for football in the area and the state, and it’s great for our program because it showcases our facilities. The organizers have done an excellent job putting together some really interesting matchups. We’re going to play Neshaminy from Pennsylvania and that’s a team we’ve never played before. I look at them on film and they play a whole different brand of football, really, than what we normally see. It’s going to make for a really interesting contrast in styles,” said Ocean City head coach Kevin Smith. You get a chance to watch some teams you never really see. I’m looking forward to seeing that Cedar Grove team from North Jersey. They’ve always had a great program, and it’s cool to get a look at how successful programs do what they do — what their culture is like, you can always pick up little things by looking at great programs.”
“Our goal is to give our West Jersey Football League kids as much exposure as possible. We want to try to get some of these programs the chance to play in something like this,” said Collingswood head coach Mike McKeown, one of the West Jersey Football League organizers along with John Emil of Penns Grove. “When I first saw the vision of doing this — I always wanted to play at Ocean City’s field. We were going to play a team from California (at Carey Stadium) and then covid hit in 2020. As I got more involved with the WJFL, I said to John, ‘yo, man, I see all these showcases (around the country), why can’t we do this for our kids? We have some good football players (in South Jersey) who go unnoticed.’ At the end of the day it’s such a positive thing for this area, and it’s blown up. I was never expecting what happened last year. The weather wasn’t even that great and we did 4,300 in walk-up tickets and had almost 8,000 people for the weekend. The hype was great, and this year we had more than 4,000 tickets sold before the event.”
Ocean City takes on Neshaminy in tonight’s marquee matchup at 7 p.m. and Saturday features some great parochial school matchups with St. Augustine Prep taking on St. Peter’s at 4:30 and Red Bank Catholic going up against St. John Vianney in the premier Saturday night game at 7:30.
“This is something to be excited about and celebrate. Everybody is going to be excited. I think there are going to be great games and great crowds. I think our game will draw a massive crowd because Downingtown West plays right before us against Highland and they’ve sold a bunch of tickets, and I know Neshaminy has sold more than 1,000 tickets. I’m sure that Downingtown West crowd will stay because Neshaminy is their big rival. I think it’s going to be a packed house and it feels like a positive thing that everybody can rally around,” Kevin Smith said. “I think South Jersey is starting to make a serious name for itself. When you look in the NFL now you have guys like Isaih Pacheco (Vineland), Bo Melton (Cedar Creek), Mike Gisicki (Southern Regional), Ryquell Armstead (Millville), Jonathan Taylor (Salem) — those are all South Jersey guys playing in the league, and you have a bunch of South Jersey guys showing up at the NCAA Division I level. I think football is really taking off in South Jersey, and this is a chance to pit South Jersey teams against teams from all over — North Jersey, Pennsylvania, last year we had a Maryland team here. It’s a showcase for an area that is really on the rise in terms of football.”
Only in its second year, McKeown said this showcase has gotten so popular that he’s fielding calls for 2023 and 2024 from as far away as the west coast.
“My phone never stops ringing and I have guys from Texas, Ohio, California saying, ‘hey coach, we want to be in this in 2023 or 2024.’ I’m sitting there trying to figure out how to match these guys up,” he said. “This year we have Neshaminy playing Ocean City and Thomas Jefferson (from the Pittsburgh area) playing Millville. These games would have never happened without this. I think this is a good thing and I think it’s going to really help South Jersey football going forward.”
HERE’s a look at the complete schedule. Tickets can be purchased at the stadium for $10 and are good for one full day.
Battle at the Beach
10am EHT vs. Mainland
1pm Cedar Grove vs. Salem
4pm Downingtown West vs. Highland
7pm Ocean City vs. Neshaminy
10:30am Wayne Valley vs. Delran
1:30pm TR North vs. Washington Township
4:30 St. Peter’s Prep vs. St. Augustine Prep
7:30 St. John Vianney vs. Red Bank Catholic
11am Thomas Jefferson vs. Millville
2pm Holy Spirit vs. Cherokee
5pm Edison vs. Cedar Creek
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays