By MARK TRIBLE
South Jersey Glory Days Senior Football Writer
HAMMONTON — How long does it take to move 83 yards with no timeouts to win a sectional championship game on the road in a tough place to play on soggy turf?
For most teams? Maybe forever.
For Millville? One hundred seconds.
That’s what the Thunderbolts did here in nine plays on Hammonton’s Robert Capoferri Field. They erased a 10-point deficit in the final quarter and made the top-seeded Blue Devils much bluer.
With Na’eem Sharp’s 4-yard touchdown run, second-seeded Millville took home a nearly unthinkable 18-16 win. That’s back-to-back South Jersey Group 4 titles for the Thunderbolts (9-2), who now will play in next weekend’s state semifinal at Cherokee against Mainland.
“You’ve got to have all faith, you can’t have any doubts,” sophomore receiver Lotzeir Brooks said. “If we had doubts, we would have lost the game.”
In addition to faith, you may need the player who gave that quote. Brooks, the sensational star who celebrated his birthday on Friday, made the most important conversion of the drive in the Atlantic Chrysler Jeep Fiat Game of the Week.
On 4th-and-5 at the 22, he caught a screen and somehow maneuvered his way through traffic for 26 yards.
“Things started clicking,” junior quarterback Jacob Zamot said.
Indeed, they did. In large part due to Zamot. He scrambled for 15 on the next snap and got out of bounds.
At the 37-yard line, his first-down pass went over the middle to an open Thomas Smith III. Smith went to the ground for the slight underthrow and dropped the ball. Remember that one may have thought to as the opportunity seemed missed. It needed to be filed away for another reason, instead.
On the next snap, Zamot extended the play to his right and found Brooks with a feather-touch pass along the sideline. First down at the 25, a swing pass went incomplete.
Zamot back to pass on second down, he found Smith over the middle again. The ball hit both hands and popped in the air — seemingly another missed chance — but the tough-as-nails upperclassman plucked the ball out of the air just as he absorbed a hit at the 11. He fought for extra yardage to the 4.
Redemption. Reason enough for recall of the close call a few plays prior.
“The whole route, I felt it,” Smith said. “I couldn’t give up on that play. I go back and grab it, try to fight for more yards.
“It felt great.”
The completion covered 21 yards. It also caused Hammonton (9-3) to use one of its timeouts. The hosts knew they needed time with the ball should Millville score.
On the first snap, that’s exactly what the Thunderbolts did.
“Get the push that we need and get him in the end zone,” coach Humberto Ayala recalled of his message during the stoppage. “That was it. Go win the game.”
Sharp got in on the right side. The 2-point conversion failed. The damage had been done. On the third play of the next drive, Thunderbolts safety Kyon Conyers plucked a pass to start the celebration.
Those chants of “O-B-G! O-B-G! O-B-G!” began soon after. They’d seemed retired for the year when the final stanza began.
Down 16-6 after Kenny Smith’s remarkable tackle-breaking 51-yard touchdown in the third quarter, the Orange-and-Blue-Gang’s helmets hung on the sideline.
Things perked up for the visitors when Sharp got in from eight yards out on 4th-and-2 with 9:08 to play. His run capped a 12-play, 65-yard drive.
Smith and the Blue Devils went back to work. The stellar back ran for 207 yards on the night and it felt like none would be bigger than a 4th-and-2 where he maneuvered for a first down after contact.
It came down to a final stand — a new set of downs for Hammonton at the Millville 49. The Thunderbolts had all three timeouts.
They held strong three times, most notably Marcus Offer’s tackle for loss on 3rd-and-9. Coach Jim Raso’s club held the ball for nearly six minutes, but needed one more first down to ice it.
The punt came next.
“We were trying to hold the ball as long as we can,” Raso said. “We saw an opportunity to go for it a couple of times and were fortunate enough to get it.
“We needed to make one more first down. They came up with the stop and we didn’t … It’s tough. It’s tough. The kids played their hearts out … It’s football. You look back and it’s would’ve, could’ve, should’ve, but I think the kids gave everything they’ve got. Just came up on the short end of the stick this time.”
Instead, the trophy went to the O-B-G as their shouts echoed into the night.
“I trust my guys. I know when it comes down to crunch time, I know I can trust them,” Zamot said. “I’m so grateful to be able to play on a team like this.”
A team like this.
That’s what can move 83 yards in 100 seconds with no timeouts to win a sectional title.
“They’ve been in this big moment,” Ayala said. “So, it wasn’t bigger than them. They knew how to continue to fight through that moment.
“That’s what they did.”
Mark Trible is a special high school football writer for South Jersey Glory Days. You can follow him on Twitter @MTrible. Also, catch his high school football show (The South Jersey Football Frenzy Show) every Wednesday at 7 p.m. at facebook.com/sjglorydays, and his “Hat’s Off” Podcast every Sunday at 9 a.m.