By MARK TRIBLE
Glory Days Football Writer
WOODBURY — With 4 minutes, 40 seconds to go in the first half on Saturday, the undefeated top seed in the South Jersey Group 1 playoffs appeared on the ropes.
But the ropes aren’t the canvas.
In the next 2:21, Woodbury landed a combo that put it well on its way to a semifinal knockout.
The Thundering Herd landed two shots in that span — a body blow with an 11-yard pass from junior quarterback Bryan Johnson to brother Jayden Brown and an uppercut from Dominic Abbatelli’s 23-yard scoop-and-score — and went up 20-16.
Awake and in a lather, Woodbury picked up where it left off in the second half and rolled to a 44-23 win over fourth-seeded Penns Grove.
“We told them it was going to be a battle, each round that you’re in, it’s going to be harder,” coach Anthony Reagan said. “They knew they were going to get Penns Grove’s best shot.
“The biggest thing for us is we knew it would be a four-quarter football game. We continued to have faith in what we said we were going to do.”
Coach Reagan’s Herd (10-0) will host No. 3 Woodstown (8-2) in the championship game next Saturday at 10:30 a.m.
Senior back Teddy Lockhardt, the team leader whose 14-yard run made it 28-16 after the third quarter’s first drive, soaked in the moment. The four-year starter beamed at the prospect of a shot at the trophy.
“It feels so good, my freshman year we talked about ‘ship chasing’,” he said. “This game was personal today because two years ago to get to the championship they knocked us out.
“I said, ‘We’re going to work to get back to that point, to bring a ‘ship back to Woodbury.’”
But with the defense of the Red Devils (6-5) keyed in on Lockhardt, Johnson put on the biggest gloves.
He completed 24 passes on 34 attempts for 278 yards and two scores. His accuracy stood out in a first half that saw him go 16-of-19.
“Ah, man, he was a star today,” Reagan said. “He did everything we asked him to do and really saw the opportunities we had from the last time (a 20-6 win on Oct. 8) and knew he’d be able to compromise them again this time around.
“To me, that was the difference in the game.”
Credit went to Jamal White. An offensive coordinator who’s thrived at Woodrow Wilson and Timber Creek most recently, Reagan called him “the last piece of the puzzle.”
His calls and quarterback both remained on-point throughout.
Johnson coolly delivered from the pocket and kept the same demeanor afterwards. He made his work in delivery of a sectional title game berth seem easy, even though it hasn’t happened since 2012.
“Getting Teddy back, he didn’t play the first time we played them,” the southpaw signal caller indicated as a key piece of the victory. “The passing game was open.
“Our receivers ran their routes and line blocked great. It just brings it all together.”
In the second half, Wilson Torres’ 1-yard run put the exclamation point on a run of 30 unanswered points. The defense continued to swarm. JaBron Solomon also added a 25-yard run to the tally.
On a mostly picturesque day save for some scattered raindrops, Woodbury painted a portrait of a winner with its hand raised in the ring.
Abbatelli detailed what changed.
“We just had to tighten up and get tough,” he said. “We had to get stronger up front, we switched it up and it worked.
“We’ve been rocking out since we were little kids. I have full trust in all my guys, I know they’ll get done at the end of the day.”
They savored the ability to do it in front of many Woodbury Steelers, the area youth team. Johnson loved that the players look up to him and that it added an extra layer to the triumph.
Then, of course, the man in the corner of all these young men, smiled and gave his answers with that gravelly voice of his.
Reagan, a Herd alumnus, never got to this stage.
He came two points short on the same field in 1996, 13-12 against Glassboro.
“It feels great because I tell these guys as a player, that was the standard,” he said. “And I never was able to play in one.
“… I said, ‘I’m living through y’all right now and it’s an honor to be in this position.’”
One round to go.
Mark Trible covers high school football for Glory Days Magazine. Check out his weekly Facebook Live show every Wednesday at 7 p.m. The South Jersey Football Frenzy Show can be seen at facebook.com/acglorydays. You can also take in Mark’s “Hat’s Off” podcast every Sunday at 9 a.m. at our Facebook page.