By LARRY HENRY JR.

Correspondent

CHERRY HILL — Three hundred fifty-six days. That’s how long the Cherry Hill West football team had to wait to celebrate a victory. And it couldn’t have come at a more perfect time for the Lions. 

Justin Arabia’s squad took down visiting Atlantic City, 17-8, on Friday night in West Jersey Football League action, ending a seven-game losing streak dating back to last season. Lions senior running back Dhante Johnson’s 132 rushing yards — paired with Cherry Hill West’s three defensive turnovers — played a major factor in the home victory, giving the hosts added momentum heading into next week’s rivalry showdown with Cherry Hill East.  

“Tonight was critical,” Arabia said. “It takes that weight off your back a little bit and now we can focus on what we do well as a team and have some fun heading into what is a great game for the community.” 

Both teams struggled offensively in the first half, combining for five turnovers and three punts. Anthony Faiola’s 22-yard field goal with 3:04 left in the second quarter gave the Lions a lead they wouldn’t relinquish after a much more consistent outing in the final two quarters. 

La’Sean Trussell’s interception on Cherry Hill quarterback Jordon Gonzalez was the Vikings’ top highlight of the first-half, but Keenan Wright’s offense was held to 62 yards. 

“We wanted our guys to be ready on both sides of the ball, offense and defense,” Arabia said. “It wasn’t just the offense delivering in the second half, our guys made some big plays defensively and forced Atlantic City to never really get into sync.” 

The Lions’ defense started the second half like it ended the first, forcing Atlantic City into a punt and turnover-on-downs before getting a boost from the offense. An eight-play, 59-yard drive was capped off by Louis Ragsdale’s 8-yard run with 2:31 remaining in the third quarter. 

Johnson’s consecutive rushes of 18 and 12 yards set up the Lions touchdown, and although he wasn’t on the field due to his helmet coming off the play prior, he was happy to contribute to a major turning point in the game. 

“I have to give credit to the offensive line for opening up those holes, because without them I probably am not standing here with the yards I had tonight,” Johnson said. “We knew we could get after them in the second half and our coaches made some great calls to free myself and my teammates. We knew that touchdown really hurt their confidence.” 

“It’s fun watching (Johnson) make the most of those plays and enjoy himself,” Arabia said. “We thought we could use him more in the second half and he was ready to go for us.” 

Atlantic City tried to get any momentum rolling on the offensive side of the ball, but once again was left frustrated by the Lions defense. Manny Morrison’s interception late in the fourth quarter helped the Lions add to their lead as Gonzalez’s 2-yard score on a 4th-and-goal attempt was the nail in the coffin. 

“It just felt good to deliver for the team,” Morrison said about his interception. “Coming off the field you could hear the difference in the crowd because it really set us up for the final score and the eventual victory. Our defense balled out tonight and it felt good to walk away with our first win of the season.” 

Allan Packard’s 40-yard score with less than two minutes to play gave the Vikings a late consolation, but overall it was Cherry Hill West’s night to celebrate. The Lions held the Vikings to 166 yards of offense while only allowing two offensive plays of 20 yards or more, showing they can compete with anyone in the National Division. 

“Luck hasn’t been on our side in a way, we lost three games by eight points or less, but tonight we played for 48 minutes,” Johnson said. “Now we just have to take this momentum into the showdown with East next week and try to extend this winning run. If we have another game after that, then we focus on it when it comes.” 

The Lions (1-6) will conclude their regular season schedule on Oct. 29 at home against Cherry Hill East, while Atlantic City (3-4) hosts Kingsway on the same night. 

“It was fun to just see the energy the kids put out tonight and to see the smiles on their faces,” Arabia said. “We’ve completed hard this season with a young roster and maybe are a bit unlucky with some of the results, but tonight will be one the kids will feel proud of. They deserve it.”

Larry Henry Jr. covers Burlington County sports for Glory Days Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @lhenry019.