By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
GLOUCESTER TOWNSHIP — Timber Creek High seemingly had all the advantages on Friday night in the Central Jersey Group 3 semifinals. The Chargers were at home, came in with a sparkling 9-0 record, were the top seed in the playoff bracket, and had an offense that had scored 30 or more points in five of those nine wins.
Meanwhile, fourth-seeded Cedar Creek was banged up, got absolutely torched by Delsea Regional less than a month ago in a 50-14 loss, and was shut out by Winslow in the final game of the regular season.
But the Pirates came to play on Friday night, wiping out an early 14-6 deficit with an inspired second half that saw Cedar Creek outscore the host Chargers 20-7 in the second half. That offensive explosion in the final two frames added up to a 32-21 Cedar Creek victory in the Bunting Family Pharmacy Game of the Week. The Pirates advance to take on No. 3 Camden — a 21-7 winner over No. 2 Holmdel — in the sectional championship game next Friday night in Camden.
“This is a huge win. When we got into the red zone it was huge to cash in there. The defense gave us a lot of opportunities and we just made the most out of it. They have some dudes (on the defensive line). I told my guys on the offensive line to just do their job, get a push up front and give our quarterback some time,” said Cedar Creek senior offensive lineman Nate Tunnat. “Coming out of the locker room in the second half, we knew we had to come out in a different mode. We had to get some points on the board. We’ve just been buckling down in practice, watching film and doing what we have to do.”
“This is a very big win, but now we’re 0-0 again — that’s how I think about it,” added senior quarterback Billy Smith. “Tomorrow, we’ll be 0-0 going into practice and preparing to play the best game we can play and be the best we can be. This team has come a very long way. I’ve been in the weight room every day with these guys for a year and a half. I’m just blessed to be here.”
Smith was picked off on Cedar Creek’s first drive of the second half, but the Pirates returned the favor when Jamal McClellan pilfered a Timber Creek pass. That set up the drive that put the Pirates (8-3, 2-2 West Jersey Football League Independence) ahead, as Cedar Creek drove 63 yards in a little more than four minutes. Sophomore running back Aamir Dunbar plowed his way into the end zone from two yards out to put the Pirates up, 18-14. The Chargers (9-1, 3-0 WJFL Memorial) answered right back, however, as senior quarterback Victor Oquendo guided his team down the field and scored on a 3-yard run up the middle to put Timber Creek up, 21-18, with 3:58 left in the third.
The fourth quarter belonged to Cedar Creek, however.
Smith hooked up with Christopher McAfee on a 6-yard scoring strike in the back corner of the end zone with nine minutes to play and Christopher Sandoval’s extra point put the Pirates up, 25-21.
Cedar Creek’s defense then forced and recovered two Chargers fumbles in the next two minutes, and the Pirates’ offense made Cedar Creek pay. The Pirates took over at the Timber Creek 25-yard line with six minutes to go, and a nifty throwback pass from receiver Alim Parks to Smith helped keep the drive alive and set up the clinching touchdown. Smith found Parks in the front left corner of the end zone on a perfect back-shoulder throw as Cedar Creek took a 32-21 lead with 3:16 remaining.
“Coming in, I had a great attitude. My objective today was to just slow the game down a lot. That was my main thing, just slowing the game down and taking it play-by-play. I just wanted to live this moment; now we have the chance to play next week and live this moment again. I’m just grateful and glad to be here, and grateful for the opportunity,” Smith said. “Alim Parks — he’s a very good receiver, one of the best receivers around here. We also have Darius Benjamin, another great receiver, and an underclassman, Jahmir Campfield, who is a sophomore. Our offense, just going down and putting together drives and executing. It all comes down to chemistry, being in practice every day and just knowing my guys. These are my guys, and I love them.”
Smith (20-for-26 for 192 yards) and Oquendo (21-of-34 for 287 yards) combined for nearly 500 yards and Parks added 88 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns.
“I definitely give a lot of props to those guys, they are very well coached,” Smith said of Timber Creek. “It just comes down to the better team, and that’s what we were tonight.”
Cedar Creek is just a year removed from a disappointing 4-7 season, but they did manage to beat Timber Creek, 28-7, in the opening round of the state playoffs. This year, the Pirates did it again and now get a chance to play for a sectional title.
Said Tunnat, “everything is on the line now. It’s do-or-die.”
WHAT’S NEXT: No. 4 Cedar Creek at No. 3 Camden on Nov. 10, time TBD, in the Central Jersey Group 3 championship game. Timber Creek’s season is complete.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays