By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
LINWOOD — Mainland Regional came into Wednesday night’s season finale with a goose egg in the win column, but Thursday afternoon the Thanksgiving turkey will taste delicious.
The host Mustangs avoided an 0-10 season, building a 13-0 lead before holding on to beat rival Egg Harbor Township 13-7 in the annual matchup, which this season took place the night before Thanksgiving. Both teams finished 1-9, but for the Mustangs there was a lot to play for. They players didn’t want to go winless in their first year under new head coach Chuck Smith, and Smith said he didn’t want this senior class to be remembered for having a winless final year.
“It’s nice, because it’s been a long season, obviously, with our record. But I give our seniors a lot of credit. They hung in there, they were positive throughout the season no matter what. Even in the games when the scoreboard was lopsided, they were always encouraging and these kids were always cheering for each other. That shows senior leadership. They did a great job, and I’m just so happy they got to go out with the win,” Smith said. “They are all positive role models. They are great kids. You always remember that first senior class whenever you start a new coaching position. I only got to coach them for one year and I really wish I could have had more years with them. I’m just so happy they could go out with a win.”
Mainland (1-9) jumped on the board early, as quarterback Dean Hall tossed a screen pass to Tyquan Campbell, who took it 46 yards up the left sideline to put the Mustangs up 7-0 less than three minutes into the game. From there, it became a defensive struggle as both teams had a tough time moving the ball.
EHT’s Billy Germana intercepted a pass in the end zone late in the first quarter to stop a Mainland drive, but the Eagles (1-9) couldn’t capitalize, as Mainland’s defensive line spent much of the first half in EHT’s backfield.
“I’ve been doing this a long time, so it’s not really about me. It’s about the kids, and I didn’t want them to be players who were on a winless team. And we harped on that the past two weeks. They rose to the occasion,” Smith said. “There were a lot of times tonight — especially in the second half — when things got a little rocky, but our defense really stepped up. The line kept pressure on the quarterback, got key sacks at times and forced them into some errant throws. We did a good job defensively.”
“It feels amazing. It feels so good, nothing can explain it. The secondary played really well, and the D-line came to play tonight. Everything came together tonight,” said Mainland senior Josh Verret.
Mainland extended its lead to 13-0 in the third quarter when Kobe Roberts found the end zone from two yards out, but the Eagles rallied in the fourth, as Connor Agostino capped off a 43-yard drive with a 15-yard touchdown run up the middle.
“Kobe is going to be one heck of a player. He’s a hard runner, he’s a team player and he’s a great kid to work with every day,” said Mainland two-way senior lineman Matt Epstein. “Agostino is a great player and he deserves all the praise he gets. But we really prepared for their plays and we stacked the box in the beginning. Once we realized they were going to try to spread us out, we changed back into our older defense and spread out with them. Our defensive line had an amazing game.”
EHT forced the Mustangs to punt on their next possession, but the Eagles came up empty on fourth-and-11 at their own 28-yard line, and Mainland was able to run out the clock to secure its first win of the season.
“My feeling right now is off the charts. I know this season wasn’t the way we planned, but at least we finishes strong. The turkey will be the best I’ve ever had,” Epstein said. “Everyone is home from college, and we got to win in front of everyone. I’m so proud of everyone on this team.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays
Mainland finishes strong, holds off rival EHT in annual Thanksgiving game
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN