By DAVE O’SULLIVAN

Staff Writer

LINWOOD — These days, when Mainland Regional freshman quarterback John Franchini is faced with a Hail Mary situation, the ball travels about three feet. Just far enough to turn around and put it into the gut of star senior running back Ja’Briel Mace, get the heck out of the way and let him do his thing.

With just 0.8 seconds left in the first half of the Bunting Family Pharmacy Game of the Week on Friday night, host Mainland — the No. 3 seed in the Central Jersey Group 4 state playoff tournament — held a 14-0 lead on No. 7 Long Branch and the Stangs were faced with second down at the Green Wave 39-yard line.

Mace ripped off a run that will live in Mainland lore, heading toward the left sideline around the 20 before reversing field, shedding a tackle, dancing past several suddenly bewildered Long Branch defenders, racing across the entire length of the field — horizontally — before turning on the jets (into yet another gear) and zipping down the right sideline before diving into the end zone.

That score gave Mainland a 21-0 lead, and the Stangs eventually weathered a spirited second-half comeback attempt by the Green Wave to survive, 34-20, and advance to next weekend’s sectional championship game at No. 1 Middletown South, a 24-10 win over No. 5 Winslow.

Star senior running back Ja’Briel Mace finished with 122 yards and a touchdown to help lead Mainland into the Central Jersey Group 4 championship game. (South Jersey Glory Days photo/Sully)

“He’s unbelievable. What he can do is unbelievable,” said junior running back and safety Stephen Ordille. “I was blocking for him, I came around the edge, I see him cut back and run across the field and I was like, ‘this kid is unbelievable.’ The things he does, I don’t know how he does them. He’s a helluva running back. He’s our playmaker. He does everything for us. Get the ball in his hands, and he can make something happen.”

“Teams game plan against me a lot so I know it’s going to be hard for me to get multiple touchdowns, but I knew I wanted to get in the end zone at least once,” said Mace, a Villanova University recruit. “I saw the whole defense trailing, so I was like, ‘why not cut it back?’ Cohen Cook made a good block and my line just followed me.”

Mainland improved to 9-1 and vanquished some recent state playoff ghosts, including a 41-7 drubbing in the first round last year, a 21-14 setback against Ocean City in 2019 and a 25-7 loss to Shawnee in 2018. It wasn’t easy, though, as Long Branch (5-4) refused to go quietly. The Green Wave cut the deficit to 21-7 on their first possession of the second half, as quarterback Earnest Reevey ran for an 11-yard touchdown around the left side.

Mainland, however, responded a few plays later as Ordille ripped off a 55-yard touchdown run — this third of the game. He finished with 110 yards to go along with 122 for Mace. That pushed the lead out to 27-7, but again Long Branch refused to quit. Late in the third quarter Reevey found Shamar Williams on a 33-yard scoring strike to get the Green Wave within 27-14, and after a successful onsides kick, Long Branch shaved the lead further, to 27-20, when Williams made a sensational catch in the right corner of the end zone on a 25-yard pass play from Reevey.

But Mainland’s defense came up huge in the fourth quarter, forcing Long Branch to punt three times and also getting a turnover on downs. Cohen Cook scored on a six-yard run for Mainland with 2:49 left to push the lead out to 34-20 and essentially ice the game.

Mainland’s Jack Venneman reacts after making a big defensive play late in the Mustangs’ state playoff win over Long Branch. (South Jersey Glory Days photo/Sully)

“It was tough. They did a helluva job on offense in the second half, but our defense stuck together and came up with some big stops,” Ordille said. “Our defense, from the beginning, we haven’t let up a lot of points. It’s time we got our respect. We’ve been putting in the work every day, and we deserve it.”

“He’s amazing, I love that kid,” Mace said of Ordille, who was a huge difference maker in the game for the Stangs. “He’s a hard worker. He’s just a dawg. A lot of people sleep on him, but when you sleep on him, that’s what happens. I’m glad he’s getting that recognition he deserves. He’s going to be a great running back next year and I can’t wait to come back here and watch him.”

Ordille certainly was the beneficiary of Long Branch keying on Mace, and he took advantage of that throughout the night.

“No. 4 opens up some big spots for me,” Ordille said. “We went under center a lot this game, the line opened up big holes tonight, and I was able to hit them. We’ve been running the same offense the whole year, but playing tougher teams — especially in the playoffs — we know we have to change some things up.”

Mainland now makes it’s return to a sectional title game for the first time since 2008, and is three wins away from capturing an overall state championship.

“We’ve been through some ups and downs, but getting to this championship — Mainland hasn’t been here in a while — this was a huge opportunity for us, but now we have to go win this game (against Middletown South),” Ordille said.  

“We’ve been through a lot of ups and downs the past few years, but I’m excited to be a part of the team that is taking Mainland to the championship,” Mace said. “We’ve been talking about this since my freshman year, and here we are. We’re going to go celebrate in that locker room.”

What’s next: No. 3 Mainland Regional at No. 1 Middletown South for the Central Jersey Group 4 championship, Friday, Nov. 11, time TBD. Long Branch travels to Red Bank Regional on Thanksgiving at 10 a.m. to close out its season.

Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sullyglorydays@gmail.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays