By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — The Egg Harbor Township defense — led by the Mahana brothers, John and James, along with guys like linebacker Evan Mensh and defensive lineman Michelot Sine — played about as well as anyone could have asked in the season opener against Mainland on Friday night.
But trying to keep tackling Mustangs junior quarterback Marlon “M.J.” Leslie — a 6-foot-2, 212-pound beast of a transfer from Pleasantville High — for four quarters can wear any defense out. And with temperatures in the 90s and the humidity off the charts Friday night at the newly renovated Silver Eagle Stadium, it nearly wore out Leslie, himself.
Leslie rushed for a game-high 187 yards and scored the go-ahead touchdown early in the fourth quarter as Mainland fought off a 6-0 deficit to beat its former Thanksgiving Day rival, 14-6. It was anything but pretty, but a win is a win, especially in the season opener.
“We had to get rolling. We came out a little slow so the offense had to pick up the pace,” Leslie said. “The first three quarters, it was a struggle. They were running the ball down our throats and we couldn’t move the ball down the field. Penalties killed us. We knew we had to come out (in the second half) and put some points on the board.”
EHT looked sharp on the initial drive of the game as running backs Rondell Vaughan Jr. and Mohamed Soumaworo were eating up chunks of yards. A drive that began at the Eagles’ own 30-yard line stalled, however, inside the Mainland 20 as Joe Sheeran came up and stopped Soumaworo short of a first down on a fourth-down swing pass. The Eagles mounted another long drive late in the first quarter that carried over into the second, but that, too, ended with a turnover on downs inside the Mainland 20-yard line. Eventually, EHT got on the board with 6:23 left before halftime as Vaughan Jr. capped off a drive with a 5-yard scoring run to give the Eagles a 6-0 lead.
After taking the lead early in the fourth, Mainland added on with six minutes remaining when Leslie rolled to his right on third-and-11 from the 12-yard line and hooked up with junior receiver Will Spolen in the back of the end zone. Brady Panas’ second extra point of the game gave Mainland a 14-6 lead.
MISSED OPPORTUNITIES: The Eagles had two long drives into the Mainland red zone end with no points in the first half, and even after going down 14-6 with six minutes to play, EHT had two more drives as Mainland struggled to run time off the clock.
THE TURNING POINT: Facing a third-and-16 at their own 15-yard line, the Mustangs got the break they had been looking for all game, as Leslie took a designed run to the right, found a crease and broke free up the sideline for a 65-yard run that put the ball at the EHT 28. Then, on fourth-and-5 at the 24, Ja’Briel Mace picked up the first down, dragging defenders to the 13-yard line. Leslie then ran the ball down to the 1-yard line before punching it in himself on the next play, and Panas’ P.A.T. gave Mainland a 7-6 lead.
DEFENSIVE ADJUSTMENT: Mainland run defense was getting gashed early but the Stangs were able to make enough adjustments in the second half to slow EHT down and force the Eagles to throw the ball a little more.
“On defense, I just want to make sure that everyone out there, all 11 players, are giving all they can and playing really hard with a lot of energy so we can get 11 hats to the ball,” said junior linebacker Nate Wagner. “We just had to keep watching our keys and make some plays when we’re able to make plays. We figured out that when they were running their traps they were taking off up the middle, so our inside linebackers had to fill those holes and the outside linebackers had to pinch tight.”
GUTSY EFFORT: Both teams really struggled with leg cramps all night long in the stiffling humidity and both teams’ athletic trainers were kept busy. At one point, following Leslie’s 65-yard run, Mainland was forced to spend a critical timeout just so coach Chuck Smith could get his offensive unit a breather before another set of plays.
“It was tough, but I worked all offseason for this and I came out ready,” Leslie said. “It’s exciting, my debut as a Mustang and we got the win.”
STARS OF THE NIGHT: Obviously Leslie, but Mainland got some great defensive efforts, too, especially from guys such as Wagner, sophomore inside linebacker J.J. Sinclair and senior defensive back Noah Torres, who had two big sacks in the final minutes to help snuff out EHT drives. DB Joe Sheeran also had a big game, snuffing out a fourth-down pass in the red zone and also breaking up a potential touchdown pass in the corner of the end zone to stop another Eagles drive. For the Eagles, Vaughan Jr. finished with 142 yards and a touchdown on 25 attempts, and keep an eye on Soumaworo — he and Vaughan could end up being a really explosive 1-2 punch.
WHAT THE LOSS MEANS FOR EHT: This will be a tough one for the Eagles to swallow simply because they had opportunities throughout the first half to put the game out of reach, but they’ll have to figure out how to score inside the red zone. Defensively, the Eagles have a lot to be proud of coming out of Friday night — trying to stop Leslie and Mace is no easy task, and they rose to the occasion all night. That defense will get tested again, however, on Sept. 2 against Washington Township, which has perhaps the best running back in South Jersey in senior Jo’Nathan Silver.
WHAT THE WIN MEANS FOR MAINLAND: This will be a big confidence boost for a team that is playing a lot of first-year starters. The Stangs proved that if they do what they are being coached up to do, they have the talent to be a pretty good defense. And, offensively, you know what you’re getting in Leslie and Mace. The big focus for coach Smith and his staff will be keeping those two guys healthy and finding some other ways to move the ball to take some of the load off of Leslie’s shoulders.
“I think this is great to be 1-0 and it’s a great start to the season for us,” Wagner said. “We’re 1-0 now, we have to just put this game in the past now and get focused on beating Millville next week.”
Mainland will get tested, and soon. Next week the Stangs travel to Millville, then another road game looms, against Hammonton.
WHAT’S NEXT: Mainland at Millville, Sept. 3, time TBD. EHT travels to Washington Township on Thursday, Sept. 2 at 7 p.m.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays