By DAVE O’SULLIVAN Staff Writer Football fans in South Jersey might not really understand yet what they just witnessed along Route 9 in Linwood this past fall. Mainland Regional put together one of the most jaw dropping seasons — one that will be talked about for decades to come, and a team that will be debated among the best in South Jersey history. The Mustangs went 14-0 and won the first state overall state championship in school history (since that became a thing just one year ago), bludgeoning opponents along the way and leaving a wake the size of an aircraft carrier in Barnegat Bay. Get this — the Mustangs NEVER trailed, at any point, the ENTIRE SEASON. Not once did they have to play from behind. Such was the totality of their domination. It started with a 26-7 thrashing of Washington Township at the Battle at the Beach in Ocean City way back on Aug. 25. That team went on to play for a sectional championship. Along the way, all Mainland did was beat eight teams that made the playoffs this year, including Millville, the defending state champion in Group 4 and consensus No. 1 in South Jersey the entire year — up until Mainland dismantled the Thunderbolts, 35-13, in the sectional championship game. “The one thing that really stands out to me — which I didn’t even really realize — the team never trailed all season,” head coach Chuck Smith said. “Besides the work ethic and the kids and the commitment and dedication to position and all that stuff, the other thing that is kind of mind boggling and perplexing to me is our playoff run. I know a lot of people were like, ‘oh, you guys kind of have a soft schedule.’ I think people still were questioning us when we got to the playoffs, and then when we fell into Millville’s bracket I think people thought, ‘well, that’s as far as you’re going to get.’ But we had dominating wins in every single playoff game.” Some were skeptical of the Mustangs because of the regular-season schedule they played, and rightfully so. Teams like Ocean City, Oakcrest, Bridgeton, Clearview and Egg Harbor Township were clearly overmatched by the powerful Mustangs, but Mainland showed during its five-game state playoff winning streak just how good a football team this was. The Stangs crushed Manalapan in the opening round, scoring 56 points. Then they whipped Colts Neck, 49-7. Millville was no match in the sectional final, and in the state semifinals Mainland routed Winslow — one of the most athletic teams in the state — 41-7. And fans’ coffee didn’t even have time to get cold before the state championship game against Ramapo became a blowout. It was 14-0 after one quarter and 42-0 at halftime after Mainland exploded for 28 points in the second quarter. “If you’re a high seed, your first-round game could be a blowout and your second-round game might be a little lopsided, but when you get to that sectional final they are close games. From that point on you expect close games because your competition is so much better, but we didn’t have any close games. Even against Millville, we jumped out to a two-score lead right away,” Smith said. “Then we go into Winslow and win 41-7, and go and play a perennial North Jersey power (Ramapo) and I still think there were a lot of doubters out there. It’s unfathomable what happened in that game. “I’ve been around two games in my lifetime that were maybe perfect games,” Smith continued. “One was in 1995 against Woodrow Wilson when we upset them 42-14. We played an almost perfect game on both sides of the ball, and I think this year’s state championship was as close to perfect as you could possibly get from a coaching perspective. Everything we did offensively worked, and defensively we held down a first-team all-state quarterback and a top-notch receiver. What we did really says something about this group of kids and this coaching staff. It showed how good this football team really is.” Mainland lost to Millville last year in the state semifinal, blowing a fourth-quarter lead and having to watch the Bolts go on and win a state title. Never, it seems, has a team been more laser focused on redeeming itself the following season. “There was a singular focus, there was a togetherness, a cohesion and a chemistry with this team that that I’ve never seen, and I’ve been around some really good teams,” said defensive coordinator Tim Watson, who won several sectional championships during his time as head coach at Cedar Creek. “Man, they just had something about them. They didn’t care who got credit. If somebody did well on offense or defense or special teams, they were all fired up about it. And then you throw on top of that the effort that they played with and the talent that they had and their ability to be coached — the intangibles that this team had were remarkable and it would have been a shame to not see them live out the dream of a state championship. We played 14 games and that last week everybody was still super fired up to just go to practice, and it was it was because of the kids. It was just an awesome group of kids. They did everything that they wanted to do.” The numbers almost look like those out of a video game. Quarterback John Franchini (still just a sophomore, mind you) completed 60 percent of his passes for 1,240 yards and 20 touchdowns while throwing just two interceptions. The Stangs rushed for more than 3,700 yards, including a single-season school record 1,841 from senior Stephen Ordille, and scored 57 rushing touchdowns. Nate Kashey, another sophomore, missed just four PATs the entire season, out of 75 attempts. The defense was just as incredible, as Mainland had more than 200 tackles-for-loss, including 53 sacks, and they added 22 interceptions, including eight that were returned for touchdowns. Senior Jamie Tyson had 12 interceptions, including half of those eight returned for touchdowns, and was named the state’s Defensive Player of the Year. Middle linebacker J.J. Sinclair finished with 132 tackles while fellow linebackers Cohen Cook and Rocco DeBiaso racked up nearly 200 more. The more you look at all the numbers on the state sheet, the more absurd it seems. “Coach Watson does a great job with getting us prepared. He really takes to the next level with us and really keeps us focused week in and week out. We knew we had an easier part of the schedule early on, but we knew each week we had to come out and get it right and that was going to prepare us for the playoffs. We knew what the task was and the only way we could get where we wanted to be was to stay focused every week and come out and dominate,” Ordille said. “We didn’t care what anybody else had to say, we’ll go out there and we’ll show it. That’s just part of how we approached everything we did. It felt great to go out there and prove how good we actually were.” Perhaps the greatest attribute this team had was the willingness of every player to do his job, whether that meant coming off the bench in certain situations or playing every down. Most of Mainland’s best players played both offense and defense, a bit of a rarity for a Group 4 school. They never asked to come off the field, and as good as they were, coach Smith wasn’t about to take them out of the lineup until the game was in hand. “We had leaders all up and down the roster. Kids were helping each other every day, making each other accountable. We were coming out, working every day, putting 110 percent effort into every practice. It was rare that we had any kids come to practice and slack off or anything like that,” Ordille said. “We were really focused all year, and that’s a credit to our kids, whether it was (Dan) DeFeo in the weight room hyping everybody up or Rocco on the field, Cohen, Hunter (Watson), whatever the case may be, we had leaders all around the field and that was a big part of why we were so successful. Everybody chipped in no matter who it was. Everybody was encouraging each other, everybody was vocal. I think we left a good mark for the younger kids coming up, we kind of set the standard of how it should be, and if you work together, how successful you can be.” “We had a lot of guys play both ways, but they never asked to come out. I had a little rotation going for a long time, but when we hit the money games in the playoffs that rotation got minimized because we wanted our best players on the field as much as possible. We had a lot of guys play both ways and we got lucky, injury-wise. We lost Chase Hoag, and Liam Kennedy for a bit when he broke his hand, but he came back and played with a cast. We got banged up, but these kids did whatever it took during the week to get through so they could play on Friday nights,” Smith said. “The great thing about this team is they never looked ahead. When we hit the playoffs, nobody was looking at the bracket. They really focused on one game at a time and stayed with that. I was worried in the last week of the season that we hadn’t played from behind and we didn’t play a bad half of football all year. Those things usually happen a few times during the season, but we never had that happen all year, which is a tribute to the kids. Winning week to week is hard, but these kids had their vision and were able to focus on each test in front of them.” Smith certainly is a nostalgic coach and often talks of great Mainland teams of the past, like the 2008 team that won a sectional championship. Chances are, he’s going to be talking about this group until the day he dies. “I’m going to remember these kids and their dedication, the camaraderie that they had. It was a special group of kids who truly loved being around each other. We had no problems the last few years, no issues in the locker room, no issues in the classroom,” he said. “I think I’ll reflect on it down the road, how special this group was and how special this staff is. We made memories together, and that’s what we always talk about, making lifetime memories. When we went into the last game we talked about leaving a legacy and what they could accomplish by winning that championship game. Ten or 20 years from now when you’re being called the greatest football team in school history, that’s a bond that can never be broken. It’s like that old saying, ‘win today, walk together forever.’” Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays
Sully, as he’s known throughout South Jersey, began his newspaper career in 1995 and has worked for some of New Jersey’s top papers, including The Asbury Park Press and Press of Atlantic City, as a writer and editor. He’s earned several New Jersey Press Association awards and continues to produce high quality reporting, writing and photography.
A native of Ocean County, Sully played high school baseball at Lacey Township High and college baseball at Pfeiffer University in North Carolina. After a successful 15-year career in the newspaper business, Sully launched Glory Days Magazine in 2013 and for nearly a decade has been bringing fans outstanding and insightful coverage of high school sports throughout South Jersey.