By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
GALLOWAY — Less than two weeks ago, Ja’Briel Mace was working on his hall locker combination for the first time. During the first two Friday nights of his high school career, the Mainland Regional freshman has been working over opposing defenses, and the rest of the West Jersey Football League had better stand up and take notice.
Mace followed up a 99-yard, four-touchdown performance in his debut against Overbrook (a 35-0 win) with another dominating outing against Absegami, as he rushed for 203 yards on 35 carries and scored another three TDs to lead Mainland to a 26-7 victory over the host Braves in a key early season Independence Division showdown. Mace scored on a 3-yard run late in the first quarter to give Mainland (2-0, 1-0) a 7-0 lead on the Braves, then added touchdown runs of 51 yards and 1 yard in the second half to help seal the deal.
“I love these guys. These guys are my brothers and I’m going to stick with them. I’m a little surprised (at the early success) but I’m proud of myself and proud that I get to play with a bunch of guys like this,” said Mace, who now has 302 yards and seven touchdowns in the first two games of his career.
“It’s crazy. He’s probably one of the best running backs I’ve ever seen and he’s just a freshman,” said Drew DeMorat, one of the senior leaders on both sides of the ball. “I can’t wait to see what he does later in his career.”
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“We’re lucky to have this kid. This kid is going to be something special,” added Brayden Pohlman, another senior and a defensive lineman who wrecked havoc in Absegami’s backfield all night long. “He’s going to be one of the best to come through here, and we’re glad he’s here.”
Mainland scored on its opening possession, as the Mustangs drove down the field and gave the Absegami defense a healthy dose of Mace and a nice quarterback keeper by Zack Graziotto that brought the ball to the 12-yard line. That set up Mace’s 3-yard score a few plays later, and the Mainland defense was able to hold quarterback Ray Weed and the Absegami offense in check throughout the first half. The Braves (0-1, 0-1), however, forced a fumble on Mainland’s opening possession of the third quarter, and although they couldn’t convert on that possession, on the next one the defense came up with a huge stop on fourth down, and on the very next play Weed threw a 41-yard touchdown to Ryan Wilkins down the right sideline to knot the game, 7-7.
Mainland, however, responded right away, as Mace broke free on a 4th-and-1 at the 49-yard line, slashing his way through the line and up the middle for a long touchdown run. The Stangs misfired on the extra point, but the defense came up big on Absegami’s next possession when DeMorat picked off a screen pass and returned it 46 yards to the Braves’ 18-yard line, setting up another touchdown by Mace that stretched Mainland’s lead to 19-7.
“We called a blitz and luckily I saw that (the offensive lineman) was letting me go, so I sat and watched (Weed’s) eyes, and it came right to me. I’m a little disappointed I didn’t take it all the way in, but we still scored,” DeMorat said.
The Mustangs effectively put the game on ice with 4:53 left when Ja’Quan Mace, Ja’Briel’s older brother, scored on a sweep from a yard out to make it 26-7.
“Offensively, it was mostly Mace. I’m happy they let me get a little more work on offense this week. It was good down on the goal line and let him get free for the touchdown,” DeMorat said. “Defensively, we were sticking to our game plan, making sure we kept Weed locked up in the pocket and trying to limit his rollouts.”
The Mustangs’ defensive effort was impressive, as Mainland limited Absegami to just three rushing yards and had a bunch of negative plays.
“We’re all-in on this, we dig in and we all know how to play defense now. We’re a little disappointed we didn’t get the shutout, they had that one long play. But we really locked it down,” Pohlman said. “The defensive line, I really love those guys. Our coach, Antoine Lewis, he played at Villanova and he has taught us everything. He’s got to be one of the best defensive line coaches around and we can’t thank him enough for what he does. I credit all my success to him.”
As for the hot start to his career, Mace said he didn’t see this kind of success coming, but said he’s willing to tote the rock as much as needed as long as Mainland can keep putting wins on the board. The Mustangs are now 10-3 in their last 13 games after head coach Chuck Smith went just 2-18 in his first 20 games after coming over from Oakcrest.
“I’m excited. I’m so happy I came here so I can play with my boys, and we’re just trying to get W’s and keep working,” Mace said. “I love my offensive line. I should treat them to Charlie’s after this, but I don’t have the money for that. I tell them every day, ‘if you block, I’ll do the rest, and we’ll come out with the dub.’ As many guys as coach calls my name is as many times I’ll carry the ball. I’ll do whatever I have to do.”
What’s next: Mainland hosts Cherry Hill West on Sept. 20 at 6 p.m. Absegami travels to Cedar Creek on Sept. 21 at noon.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays