By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
OCEAN CITY — Midway through the third quarter on Thursday night at Carey Stadium, Mainland Regional junior Cohen Cook was lined up at quarterback. He took a high snap, ran left, found a seem and raced down the sideline. Eventually he was tripped up at the 1-yard line, but one play later he punched it in to give the visiting Mustangs a 20-7 lead over rival Ocean City.
The Red Raiders looked as lifeless as a dead car battery.
Through the first six-plus quarters of the 2022 season, they had scored a grand total of seven points, and it was looking as though they’d be lucky if they only lost to Mainland by three scores.
But momentum is a funny thing in high school football. It’s kind of like the mist that rolls in off the ocean at Carey Stadium sometimes in October — it’s there, then it’s not.
Two possessions after Mainland went up by 13 points in the Bunting Family Pharmacy Game of the Week, Ocean City marched down the field and scored to cut the deficit to 20-14. The Red Raiders had seized the momentum, and didn’t let it go, rallying for an improbable 21-20 victory — their fifth straight over Mainland.
“We just talked at halftime about being a fourth-quarter team. We knew (this season) we were going to be in games, we just have to keep competing. We’re very young and I just think they needed a little bit of confidence,” said Ocean City coach Kevin Smith. “When it got to 20-7 you could see us kind of slump a little bit, and sometimes we (as coaches) have to be cheerleaders for the guys in some ways. You could feel the momentum starting to turn. Our guys got confident up front, we started to block, and Riley Gunnels — that dude was under pressure all night and he stood in there and was tough and kept executing the offense. It was just one play at a time, next play. The momentum turned, and these are young kids, 15 and 16 years old, they get influenced by that. I’m so proud of the effort and the way they kept grinding.
“They went up, 20-7, and the next drive that we put together was a lot of little things we were doing right, and those little things always add up to big things, and you could see the momentum turn.”
“We had a great stop on defense and we capitalized on that,” said Ocean City senior quarterback Riley Gunnels. “We pushed down the field really well. This win means a lot, especially after last week. This was a major bounce-back game. Everyone sees what we’re fully capable of now.”
Early in the fourth quarter Mainland was driving deep into Ocean City territory, but junior defensive back Jon Moyer came up with a huge play, picking off a pass near the goal line and returning it to the 45-yard line. That started what proved to be the game-winning drive, as running back Duke Guenther — who only had a handful of touches prior — ripped off a 29-yard touchdown run down the left sideline. J.P. Forster nailed the extra point, which proved to be the difference.
“This is a big accomplishment. I know this rivalry has been going on for decades. It’s a huge rivalry,” Guenther said. “(On that run) I just saw a seam, went straight through it and scored. This is a big win.”
“I saw (Mainland quarterback John Franchini) drop back and I was running with (the receiver). I heard everybody call, ‘ball!’ I looked up, turned around and knew I could get it,” Moyer said of his game-changing interception. “I just had to go for it, and I ran it back as far as I could. That got the momentum going. That definitely kept our sideline motivated to stay energized.”
Mainland looked as if it would run away with the game in the first quarter as star senior running back Ja’Briel Mace — who rushed 16 times for 138 yards — capped off the Mustangs’ opening drive with a 5-yard touchdown run. Ocean City (1-1, 0-0 West Jersey Football League Independence Division) answered later in the fourth quarter on a 90-yard catch-and-run from Gunnels to Jack Hoag, tying the game, 7-7. But one play later, Mace struck again, racing 79 yards around the left side to put Mainland up, 14-7.
Mainland (1-1, 0-0 WJFL United) scored again early in the third quarter after Cook’s big play, but a bad snap on the point-after left the Stangs with a 20-7 lead. Ocean City forced a punt on Mainland’s next possession, and that started the momentum swing. Gunnels began to heat up, and throughout the fourth quarter he made some big-time throws that kept drives alive and allowed Ocean City to get back into the game. He completed 20-of-34 passing attempts for 344 yards and two touchdowns, and in just two games so far this season he’s passed for nearly 500 yards.
“Last week was tough, but one game doesn’t define who we are, as you can see today,” Gunnels said. “We were down, 20-7, and we come back and win. It’s a great feeling. When we got a defensive stop (in the third quarter) that got everyone fired up. Everyone’s energy stayed up throughout the whole game and no one put their heads down.”
“He’s one of the best quarterbacks around,” Hoag said. “It’s easy when you get perfect passes to you every time. It’s each to catch the ball when he’s throwing it to you.”
The win couldn’t have come at a better time for Ocean City, which has a brutal schedule coming up, including games against Cedar Creek, Delsea Regional, Winslow, St. Joseph Academy and Millville — all state playoff qualifiers in 2021.
“This is a huge turning point for our team. We took a really tough loss last week, we didn’t play our best, and coming out and playing our rival and proving everyone wrong — even all the people in the media — that’s huge for us,” Hoag said. “Everyone was trying to keep their heads up and I respect my teammates for that. Our coaches kept us in the game, and right when we went down the field and scored (to cut the deficit to 20-14), all the energy just went up and momentum was on our side.”
“I’ve been a part of this rivalry for a long time and I remember the 2015 game. We had a big lead on them and we hadn’t beaten them in six years in a row, and they started to come back and we got that doubt in our heads because we hadn’t beaten them in a long time. Now, it’s the opposite. We put it on them for the last four years pretty good, and as good as that team is (this year) there had to be some doubt in their minds when it started to go the other way,” Smith said. “A lot of unproven kids came up huge. J.P. Forster, a sophomore kicker, made all three of his kicks. We have a young offensive line with three sophomores and two juniors. Mainland was taking it to those guys for about two-and-a-half quarters, but they stayed in there.”
What’s next: Ocean City travels to Cedar Creek on Saturday, Sept. 10 at 1:30 p.m. Mainland hosts Oakcrest on Friday, Sept. 9 at 6 p.m.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays