By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
ABSECON — The way Cedar Creek’s defense played Friday night against host Holy Spirit — the No. 1 team the past two years according to Glory Days Magazine’s “Best 11” rankings — the Pirates might want to think about changing their moniker to the sharks.
When Creek smells blood in the water it swarms, and that defense — which didn’t even allow a point until Week 5 and has surrendered just two touchdowns in six games — showed why it’s one of the best in South Jersey. The Pirates locked up Holy Spirit’s normally fluid offense all night and the defense’s effort, coupled with a mammoth 8-minute drive by the offense to close the game out, led to a grind-it-out 7-6 victory in the Bunting Family Pharmacy Game of the Week that has to have Creek being considered as one of the top five teams in the West Jersey Football League.
Sophomore fullback Justin Castillo punched one in from a yard out with 2:36 remaining before halftime and junior place kicker Matthew Best added the extra point and Cedar Creek’s defense made that one scoring drive stand up. Spirit scored with 4:22 left in the third when receiver Sean Burns — filling in at quarterback for a few plays for injured senior Trevor Cohen — hooked up with receiver Elijah Steward on a long pass play down the left sideline that set up Burns-to-Steward again from 17 yards out and what appeared to be the tying score. But Holy Spirit, which had missed a field goal on its opening drive of the game, saw the extra point attempt sail wide left.
“I feel great, and in terms of signature wins — it’s not about me and it’s never going to be about me. It’s about these kids and this program,” said second-year head coach James Melody, a former assistant at Union High who took over in 2020 after a great decade-long run by Tim Watson. “That’s the big thing, these kids buy into what we’re teaching them right now and they are playing at a high level. We still have so much more work to do but this was good for them to get this win.”
The Spartans had one more shot at it in the fourth quarter, but again Cedar Creek’s defense stood tall, stopping Spirit on downs inside the Pirates’ 20-yard line. From there, the Pirates conducted a grueling eight-minute drive that spanned nearly the length of the field and ended with quarterback J.C. Landicini taking a knee twice inside Holy Spirit’s red zone. Running back Ja’Quan Howard ran the ball 10 times for 66 yards during that drive.
With the win, Cedar Creek — a team that went 3-5 a year ago — improved to 6-0 and has outscored opponents 213-14 this season.
“This is an amazing, surreal feeling. I think this will put some respect on Creek’s name. We’re No. 1. All that talk they were talking all week, we ignored it, we didn’t answer back — we just showed it on the field today,” said Kevin Dougherty, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound senior defensive end. “Our defensive line and linebackers played great, just too much pressure. Every team we’ve played, they can’t handle us. Holy Spirit has some athletes and they are a great team — it was a great football game. We watched a lot of film, we were prepared and we have a helluva coaching staff. We practice every day and do our job with 100 percent effort, and we get it done on the field.”
LOCK-DOWN DEFENSE: Vegas odds makers probably had the over-under on this game at about 10 points the way these teams had been playing defense all year, and both squads lived up to their reputation for not giving an inch on the line of scrimmage. Holy Spirit drove the length of the field to start the game, but when the Spartans got inside the 5-yard line their drive was shut down by Cedar Creek’s run defense, forcing an errant field goal. Both teams forced turnovers on downs and fumbles and sacks.
“We had blowouts early in the season, but we still didn’t allow anybody to score and that’s no easy task,” Dougherty said. “All it takes is for one person to make a mistake for six points, so our defense is doing what it has to do and our offense has been doing what it has to do to win football games.”
This game was the polar opposite of last year, when Spirit rolled to a 41-0 victory and current Vanderbilt freshman Patrick Smith racked up more than 300 rushing yards.
“It felt amazing to get revenge and quiet them a little bit. It felt good to come out with the win. They have Elijah Steward who is a big-time wide receiver for them, and he did make some plays, but our defense held out and held them to only six points,” Howard said. “They are a good, well-rounded team, so we had to ball out and make plays. We had certain schemes to stop certain plays we had seen on film and we just came out here and executed.”
“They are so fast and so disciplined,” Melody said of the Pirates’ defense. “They tackle well, they fly to the football, we have a lot of leaders out there and a lot of guys who have played a lot of varsity football. That’s the backbone of this team, it really is.”
THE TURNING POINT: Holy Spirit (3-2) was driving early in the fourth quarter with Cohen back under center and had gotten all the way inside Cedar Creek’s 20-yard line with about eight minutes remaining. On 4th-and-2, however, Gavin Roman was surrounded by a host of Cedar Creek defenders and stopped just short of a first down.
From there, Cedar Creek challenged its offensive line to go out and win a ball game, and that’s just what Connor Laughlin, Mandell Pettiford Jr., Mike Sears, Jaden Sarao and Javy Acevedo did. The Pirates mounted a drive that killed the final 7:47 of clock and featured a huge third-down conversion pass from Landicini to Elijah Smalls that kept the drive alive.
“We have a talented backfield,” Dougherty said. “We have the best quarter back in South Jersey and the best running back in South Jersey, stats-wise — not even going off my own opinion, that’s just what the stats say. They all do the job (on offense) and in the fourth quarter those guys are clutch players.
“If you want to win, put Quanie in, that’s what I like to say,” Howard said. “The offensive line knew the game was on the line and it was up to them, and they gave us what we needed. Their push allowed me to get yardage. That whole drive was on them, definitely.”
“I think we ran off eight minutes of clock during that drive. We got a big third-down pass from J.C. to Elijah Smalls, but we grinded that drive out,” Melody said. “The offensive line did a great job and got a good push up front, and Ja’Quan is just an animal. He was asking for the ball. He knew that was the pivotal point in the game and he was going to be the guy to carry us, and everybody did a great job. All 10 guys blocked great on that drive — that was a statement drive right there, it really was.”
WHAT THE LOSS MEANS FOR HOLY SPIRIT: It means the Spartans likely won’t hang on to the No. 1 ranking in South Jersey or their spot at No. 3 in the nj.com state poll. More importantly, though, the Spartans need to get healthy before the state playoffs. They were missing some key players due to injuries, including linebacker Michael Weaver and defensive back Jahmir Smith. And things don’t get any easier for Spirit — the Spartans’ next three games are against St. Augustine Prep, Woodrow Wilson and Winslow.
WHAT THE WIN MEANS FOR CEDAR CREEK: This is a big confidence booster for a team still getting used to a second-year coach, but more importantly than that it sends a message that the Pirates are for real.
“The transition period was tough with Covid but we didn’t use that as an excuse. That was our rallying cry from the start last year, that we would hold each other accountable and try to get better each day and each week. The kids are really buying into that mantra of going 1-0 each week. That’s the most important thing right now,” Melody said. “Our mantra, regardless, is to go 1-0 each week so we’ll reset after tomorrow and just get after it. We’ll watch film and make some corrections. Obviously, we have to do some things offensively to get going. That’s a great defense we faced tonight and we just picked our spots to have some big drives.”
When Mark Trible’s “Best 11” rankings come out on Wednesday during The South Jersey Football Frenzy Show presented by Glory Days Magazine (7 p.m., facebook.com/acglorydays), the Pirates fully expect to make a leap into the top five.
“Honestly, if you ask me and the rest of our guys,” Howard said, “we feel like we’re the best team around here.”
WHAT’S NEXT: Holy Spirit hosts St. Augustine Prep on Oct. 8 at 6 p.m. Cedar Creek hosts Oakcrest on Oct. 9 at 1 p.m.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays