By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
EVESHAM TOWNSHIP — The Lenape High football team has been through a lot this fall, having to deal with shutdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic that limited the Indians to just four games, including none in November. Head coach Joe Wojceichowski kept telling his players to keep the faith, that he and his staff, and the athletic administration at Lenape, would do everything in their power to get the team back on the field again.
The Indians, ranked No. 3 in the state, got their chance on Sunday afternoon at No. 7 Cherokee, and walked off winners after a thrilling 31-28 victory over the top team in South Jersey. The win in the Turnersvillejeep.com Game of the Week puts Lenape, the No. 4 seed in the West Jersey Football League’s top playoff pod, up against No. 2 seed Holy Spirit on Friday night for the pseudo-South Jersey championship. Spirit took care of Winslow, the No. 3 seed, on Friday with a 34-0 win. The Spartans will now host Lenape on Nov. 20 at 6 p.m.
It will be a short turnaround for the Indians, but considering what they had to overcome this season — and the team they had to overcome on Sunday — they wouldn’t care if the championship game was tomorrow. They had just one day of practice to prepare for this game coming off their second COVID-19 shutdown of the season. The first came at the start of the season, as Lenape didn’t begin playing until Oct. 9.
We stayed prepared, stayed focused, counted on each other and trusted each other,” said senior receiver Tyler Davis, who had a second-half touchdown catch. “We’re going to be right back at it. I don’t think playing games on short rest is going to be a problem for us, I think we’re going to keep on pushing and have a great week of practice. We’re coming for Holy Spirit.”
“I have so many emotions going on. I’m just so proud of our senior class. I can’t even begin to tell you how much leadership they displayed through both of our shutdowns — throughout this whole thing, these guys have been fully committed and left every inch of it out there,” coach Wojceichowski said. “We have a senior captain (Luke Cole, No. 10) who put on (jersey number) 66 on that final drive so he could play left tackle at 190 pounds because he wants to win a football game. You just don’t make that kind of stuff up. It’s no shock, the kid is an animal of a football player, and he said, ‘just put in the football game, I’ll go block.’ He just so happened to have to block Josh Toner, so when you have guys like that on your football team, they just refuse to lose.”
The game, played at William H. Foltz Stadium, featured two of South Jersey’s premier programs, and they showed why as they traded punches throughout regulation. Lenape (5-0) built up a 14-0 first-half lead on a pair of touchdown passes from senior quarterback Brady Long, to Hamza Bruce and Xavier Coleman, but Cherokee (5-1) responded with less than three minutes to go before halftime as senior wideout Mark Phillips made a tremendous catch to haul in a 40-yard touchdown pass from fellow senior Billy Osborn. That shaved the lead in half, 14-7, but Lenape mounted a nice drive coming out of the break to take a 21-7 lead. Long found Davis on a fade route in the left corner of the end zone, and suddenly Lenape had all the momentum.
But Cherokee responded on its next drive, as a big run by Brandon “Bam” Boria set up Osborn’s keeper that shaved the deficit to 21-14. The Chiefs then mounted a long drive that carried over into the fourth quarter and was capped by a Boria 3-yard touchdown run, and after forcing Lenape to punt, Boria struck again, ripping off an 82-yard touchdown run to give Cherokee its first lead, 28-21, with 6:49 remaining.
Lenape refused to quit and went on an incredible 20-play drive that featured several fourth-down conversions and was capped by Long plowing into the end zone on fourth down from the 8-yard line. Junior kicker Dylan Shank calmly put the extra point through to knot the game at 28 with a minute remaining, setting up overtime. In the first overtime, Shank came through again, drilling a 48-yard field goal with the wind at his back to give Lenape a 31-28 lead. Cherokee had a chance to tie when it took possession, but a 27-yard field goal attempt sailed just wide to the right.
“It’s amazing, we’re in overtime and I walk over to the guy and say, ‘from here, are you good?’ He goes, ’31-yard line? Yeah, I’m good.’ So I said, alright, we’re going to kick the field goal, and he’s like, ‘OK, coach.’ When you have that kind of mindset as a kicker, when you have that kind of mentality, you can do a lot of things,” Wojceichowski said. “You’re talking about a resilient group. You don’t understand the leadership that’s in this senior class — they don’t understand what losing is; they don’t understand how to not give everything. I’m not shocked by their perseverance. They never blinked, not one time, and they got it done. I’m just so grateful.”
“This is the greatest feeling in the world right now. (That drive) just shows the fight in our guys, we knew it was going to be a dogfight, we said that coming in off one day of practice, we said we’re going to have to fight, fight, fight. We said it over and over, stamina is not a thing in this game, you’re not coming off the field. We just kept on going and believed in each other every single play. We kept moving forward and we got in the end zone. I can’t even describe it to you, I don’t even know what I’m feeling right now,” Davis said. “It’s two completely different worlds. When we got that message that we were shut down, as soon as I heard the words I started bawling my eyes out. I stayed at the field for about two hours, just thinking. I would not want to be anywhere other than here right now, beating the orange school — the biggest rivalry in Jersey, I think — in pretty much a state championship game, it feels great.”
What’s next: Lenape travels to Holy Spirit on Friday at 6 p.m. for the West Jersey Football League championship game.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays