By LARRY HENRY JR.

South Jersey Glory Days Correspondent

MARLTON — Around this time last year, the Woodbury High football team watched its 2021 season come to a sad ending at the hands of Salem in the Group 1 Regional Championship at Rutgers University.

Fast forward close to 12 months since that showdown in Piscataway, and Woodbury got to exorcise their demons as it was Anthony Reagan Sr.’s squad that brushed aside the Rams to become the first team in state history to punch its ticket to a state championship game. This is the first year that New Jersey teams will get to do what nearly every other state does and play through to an overall state champion in each size grouping.

Woodbury snapped a three-game losing streak to Salem with an emphatic 22-7 win at Cherokee High School and now will take on Mountain Lakes for the overall Group 1 state championship the first week of December. Mountain Lakes won the battle for North Jersey Group 1, edging Weequahic, 29-23, in the other regional semifinal.

Woodbury’s JaBron Solomon celebrates as the final seconds tick off in the Group 1 semifinals at Cherokee High School. (South Jersey Glory Days photo/Sully)

Anthony Reagan Jr. rushed for 84 yards and two touchdowns, quarterback Bryan Johnson threw for 148 yards and one score, and the Thundering Herd defense limited Salem to less than 200 yards of total offense. 

“This feels special right now because we knew we could beat those guys,” Reagan Jr. said. “We’re going to celebrate and enjoy this tonight and then tomorrow it’s right back to work because we have Gateway for Thanksgiving and then it’s time to go to Rutgers.”

Woodbury (10-2, 3-1 West Jersey Football League Diamond) started fast and never looked back as the Thundering Herd cashed in on their opening drive of the game. An 11-play, 74-yard drive was capped off by Reagan Jr.’s 5-yard touchdown run, bruising his way past multiple Salem defenders into the end zone. 

After stopping the Rams’ offense on their first four offensive series of the game, Woodbury extended its lead before halftime as Reagan Jr. powered his way in from 2 yards out. It was his second touchdown of the first half and an important score, giving the Thundering Herd some needed breathing room with a 14-0 lead.

“He’s just a great player,” Johnson, a senior, said about Reagan Jr. “I know he was disappointed to not be on the playoff run last season (because of an ACL injury), but he’s been huge for us down the stretch this season and you saw that again today with his touchdowns and his never-say-die running.” 

Marquis Taylor continued Woodbury’s impressive first half by intercepting Salem quarterback Jahki Coates on the Herd’s side of the field. Woodbury’s offense needed just three plays to extend its advantage once again. 

Lineman Bryant Banks and Woodbury will be headed to Rutgers University in early December to play for the chance to win a state championship. (South Jersey Glory Days photo/Sully)

Johnson lofted a pass into midfield, allowing senior wide receiver JaBron Solomon to rise high and bring it down. Solomon cut back and scampered 42 yards for a 20-0 Thundering Herd lead. Johnson then hooked up with his brother, Jayden, on the two-point conversion to push the lead to 22-0 late in the second quarter.

Coates answered for Salem just before halftime by racing down the right sidelines and sneaking into the end zone for a 7-yard touchdown. Although Salem got on the scoreboard and made it 22-7, it was the Woodbury defense’s time to steal the show in the second half. 

“We knew how dangerous No. 10 (Coates) was for Salem and it was a big part of our defensive game plan to try and limit his touches on the ball,” Woodbury coach Anthony Reagan Sr. said. “As a defense you want to take out the head of the opposing offense and we felt he was the head because he did damage against us before. Gang tackling was huge today and it certainly helped against a player like that.” 

Despite Salem’s best efforts, Woodbury’s defense held the Rams to only 51 yards of offense during the final 24 minutes of action. The Herd secondary did well to hang tough in pass coverage, especially with Coates occasionally having lengthy time in the pocket. They forced Salem into 20 incompletions on the day.

Woodbury’s final defensive stop late in the fourth quarter ended a 19-play drive for the Rams and capped off a strong two-way performance for the Herd in their second meeting with Salem this year. Salem won the regular-season matchup, 21-20, coming back from being down by two scores in the fourth quarter.

“We wanted this game to come against them because we had revenge on our minds,” Solomon said about the Woodbury-Salem playoff rematch. “The loss to them at Rutgers last season definitely hurt and then when we lost to them in the regular season earlier this year. But we always believed in ourselves and knew if we played our way, we could win.”

Woodbury has now won four straight games heading into this week’s rivalry showdown with Gateway before making the trek to Rutgers in early December. The Thundering Herd are already excited for the opportunity to play for a state title, but know any slip-up vs. Gateway could be impactful to their confidence. 

“It’s a great opportunity to play Gateway because we can practice some more and use that as another stepping stone,” Reagan Sr. said. “We are not looking past them, no matter who the opponent is, we cannot overlook that opponent. Starting tomorrow, our record is back to 0-0 and we prepare once again for a good test.” 

Larry Henry Jr. covers Burlington, Camden and Gloucester counties for South Jersey Glory Days. Follow him on Twitter @lhenry019.