By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
EGG HARBOR CITY — Earlier this week Cedar Creek senior wide receiver JoJo Bermudez made his college commitment, to the University of Cincinnati — currently the No. 5 team in the nation.
On Saturday, he showed everybody in attendance at the South Jersey Group 3 championship game at Cedar Creek High School why a Power 5 team that’s knocking on the door of the College Football Playoff thinks highly enough of No. 3 in black, maroon and hunter green to offer him a scholarship.
Bermudez was electrifying for the top-seeded Pirates, catching 12 passes for 235 yards and a pair of scores, including turning a simple screen play into a 75-yard highlight reel touchdown catch-and-run. Third-seeded Delsea didn’t have much of a chance after taking an early 7-6 lead, as Cedar Creek improved to 12-0 and won the sectional title by ripping off 18 unanswered points to close out a 30-13 victory.
The win puts Cedar Creek into the regional championship game, where the Pirates will take on Central Jersey Group 3 winner Woodrow Wilson in the final game of the season.
“JoJo is an unbelievable playmaker and somebody I can trust all the time,” said senior quarterback J.C. Landicini. “You see it several times every game — even when there’s not insane separation, when he’s one-on-one with somebody I know I can trust JoJo to just go make a play. I trust every single one of my guys, whether it’s JoJo, Zac (Ricci), Kevin (Dougherty), Quanie (Howard), (Elijah) Smalls — I trust every single one of them.”
“He told me before the game that he wanted to go out with a bang, and he really did. He made plays,” said Cedar Creek second-year coach James Melody. “J.C. did a great job getting him the football, but (JoJo) made a lot of plays for us, especially during that first drive of the second half, he went up and got a couple. But that’s him. I’ve said it time and time again, he’s a really good player. He set the tone for us and he really did go out with a bang here.”
Cedar Creek went down the field and scored on the opening possession as Landicini hit a wide-open Zac Ricci in the right corner of the end zone for a 6-0 lead. Delsea responded on its next possession, taking advantage of a huge kickoff return that put the ball inside Creek’s 10-yard line. The Crusaders (11-1) — who run the Wing-T style offense and rarely use the passing game — scored on a 4-yard toss from Zach Maxwell to Tyson Derenberger. The extra point gave Delsea a 7-6 lead, and the teams traded touchdowns early in the second quarter, with Delsea grabbing a 13-12 lead on a seven-yard touchdown run by Jared Schoppe.
The Pirates answered just before halftime, taking an 18-13 lead after Landicini connected with Ricci again with just 13 seconds left in the second quarter. Cedar Creek then owned the second half, as Landicini finished with five touchdowns, completing 21-of-26 passes for 349 yards.
“He’s been unbelievable for us all year,” Melody said of his signal caller. “He manages this offense the right way and he makes some tough throws, and he made tough throws all day today. I’m so proud of him. He’s been through a lot and he’s one of the most mentally tough kids we have, and physically tough, as well. He was great today.”
Cedar Creek seemed to figure out Delsea’s confusing misdirection offense in the second half and held the Crusaders scoreless over the final two quarters.
“I think that was a challenge for us,” Melody said of facing the antiquated offense. “It was going to be hard for us to simulate their speed in running it. Our scout team did a great job this week, but when you first see it, it’s hard to get accustomed to that speed. But once we were able to contain that, we were in a good spot.”
“In the first half they were digging into us but we just had to adjust, fill in the gaps. We were taking plays off and weren’t mentally right, but we eventually picked it up and in the second half we battled back through adversity. We knew we could do it. They didn’t face adversity like us and week in and week out we play hard,” said senior defensive end/linebacker Elijah Usher. “In practice we were repping it and it hit fast, but in the game it hit way faster. They were running outside with that triple option, it was tough. But we just had to follow our keys, like our coaches said, and that’s why we held them to 13 points.”
Melody’s first year — a covid-shortened 2020 season — ended with a 3-5 record, and the Pirates were blown out in four of those five losses. In 2019, the last year under former head coach Tim Watson, the Pirates went 10-3 and won a sectional championship.
“It’s crazy. From where we were last year to where we are now, it’s a lot to reel in right now and I probably haven’t reeled in the moment fully. This was a good team win. It was our first year with a new head coach last year, our first year with everything, but this year we really got to hone in on what coach Melody was telling us. Going 1-0 every week is the motto we live by and it was the same motto for this week, go 1-0 every week. We’re not going to do anything special, we’re just going to go out and play our brand of football,” Landicini said. “This is insane, how much this school has accomplished in such a short amount of time, but even now no other Cedar Creek team can say they went undefeated at 12-0, so we made some history today.”
Added Melody, “this means everything. I said this a few weeks ago, I always touch upon last year and where we were at. To see the turnaround we’ve made, to be 12-0 now and the first team in school history to be 12-0 — it’s a credit to my kids and my assistant coaches. They did a great job. We got to work in the offseason and it’s come to fruition now.”
“I really can’t tell you what changed, we were just hungry in the offseason, and all season we’ve been working hard,” Usher said. “We put it into our mind that we had to get back to where we were sophomore year. Last year, I think that was a fluke, and this year we came out and did what we had to do and won a championship.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays