By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
When Ja’briel Mace lays on his bed at night, tossing a football up in the air, he doesn’t think about the numbers. All the yards he gained during his record-setting career at Mainland Regional High, all the touchdowns he scored (a school-record 56, to be exact), all the wins he was a part of, the 2022 sectional championship run.
What comes to mind most often are the things he’ll miss the most about high school football as he embarks on his college career at Villanova University — hanging out in the locker room on Friday afternoons; the buzz from the crowd as the Mustangs made their way through the smoke an onto the field on Friday nights in Linwood; hanging out at Jack Venneman’s house after games, chowing down on food Jack’s mom prepared while going through the game film, sharing laughs and jokes.
Mace is one of the best running backs to ever lace up cleats in South Jersey, having rushed for 3,867 yards (second in school history to Calvin Robinson, who had 4,020 yards from 1977-80) and 56 touchdowns. But the numbers are secondary to what he set out to accomplish during his Mustangs career — bring Mainland back to prominence and be a great leader for the next generation of Mainland stars.
“Those four years fly by. All the guys, like Paul Lombardo, Jack Venneman, I miss those guys. We worked hard our freshman, sophomore year, junior year. That freshman meeting we all looked at each other like, ‘hey, when we’re seniors we’re going to be a problem.’ I still remember going to that meeting with Coach Smith and just talking to Jack and just me and all the guys — we knew that we had a special team,” Mace said. “The goal was to get Mainland its first state championship. We wanted to get Mainland back to where Mainland used to be at back in 2008. And I felt like me and all the other seniors that were there worked hard. I wanted to be different, and so did all the other seniors. I think that’s why we were so good, because we wanted to be different. We wanted to be able to say we went to Mainland (instead of a private school) and made Mainland great. I had a helluva senior year. If I could go back, I would.”
That senior year included more than 1,200 yards and a whole host of touchdowns, and even in the games when he didn’t rush for 100 yards the Mustangs won. A big reason why was opposing defenses had to spend so much time worrying about No. 4 that other guys were able to score big touchdowns. Guys like Stephen Ordille, Jamie Tyson, Cohen Cook, Rocco DeBiaso and even freshman quarterback John Franchini — they all benefitted by having Mace in the backfield.
“It’s been about 10 years since we’ve had a running back as dynamic as Ja’briel. And the thing that’s really awesome about him is the past two years we asked him to play defense. He had three interceptions in a game and ran one back to kind of seal the game. He’s that kind of guy. He didn’t have a great offensive game that day because people were keying on him, but he did it on the other side. We’ve had him on kickoff return, and I think he returned maybe two kicks because nobody wanted to kick to him. There are all these other elements of the game that we benefit from as a team because of Ja’briel,” Smith said. “He’s great. He’s another kid who is always positive and is great to be around in practice regardless of what’s going on. Even in the down years he was always a positive kid and the outlook was always going to be good. It’s fun because you can tell he loves the game, he loves his teammates, he loves being around these people. He has a great rapport with every coach on this staff. Guys like him are a pleasure to coach, and you take a lot of pride when you get kids like him because you don’t always have that.”
It wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns for Mace during his Mainland career, however. He burst onto the scene as a freshman and was instantly one of the best running backs in South Jersey, leading Mainland to a 9-1 record that included a West Jersey Football League division title. But the next year, Mace missed some time after suffering a concussion, and the Stangs went just 2-4 in a covid-shortened season. As a junior, Mainland was in a rebuilding phase and posted a 4-6 record, including a playoff loss to rival Ocean City — the second such loss in his three years as a varsity starter.
In addition, Mace had to deal with a complete offensive change, as the Stangs went from a spread offense to the Delaware Wing-T when Mace was a junior.
“He was in the backfield his first three years and we put him in the wing/slot position (in 2022), and that’s a lot to learn in one year, especially with the offense we’re running,” Smith explained during the season last fall. “It’s very complicated, and that’s the hardest position in the offense aside from the quarterback, and he embraced it. He said, ‘if this is where you need me, this is where I’ll play.’ If he only carried the ball five times a game and we won, he’d be OK with that. He cares more about the team. He knows he’s going to break big (school records) that have stood for 40 years, but he doesn’t talk about it. What the team needs to get the job done on Friday nights is all he cares about.”
“I always wanted to play as a freshman. That was one of my dreams, so I worked really hard and once I got the opportunity in the scrimmages to show them what I was capable of, I took advantage of it. I never looked back since then. I had a good freshman year, but sophomore year our season kind of got cut short. Covid was everywhere and all that stuff, but I actually ended up getting a concussion my sophomore year against Absegami in the second game of the season. I missed two or three games and once I came back, I played in one game and the next game our season got cut short because of covid. But junior year I kind of got kind of got back on track, and senior year, that’s why I really wanted to take advantage of (the season),” Mace said. “I wouldn’t consider myself THE guy because my first year we had a lot of older guys and there are still guys still there now who are leaders. I always considered myself a leader and I feel like I always have that leader mentality. I had to grow up early because of some of the circumstances, but I’ve always wanted to be a leader and I always wanted to be that person who people look up to or people could always go to when it comes to certain things. That’s just my character. I feel like before you can be a good athlete, you have to be a good person.”
“Ja’briel is impressive to me because he was able to do what he did in two completely different offenses. The program was building as he showed up, so he kind of blew onto the scene his freshman year in the spread offense. As we evolved to change the offense to what fit our talents best, he had to learn a whole new playbook and new blocking schemes. And it’s different being a running back a zone scheme and then a running back in the Wing T, but he excelled in both. I think that’s just a testament to his ability,” said assistant coach Billy Kern. “He played defense, too. He always wanted to play defense and we always shied away from it first couple years because he was so valuable to us on the offensive side of the ball. and then. But by the time senior year rolled around, we just couldn’t keep him off the field, he was too talented. I’m excited for what’s going to happen with him at Villanova. He made a 40-year decision, not just a four-year decision. He’s going to get a degree from Villanova and he’s going to have a ton of doors open for him. I’m excited for what Villanova will do for him long term.”
Kern said he and the coaching staff had gotten so used to seeing Mace do special things out on the football field that they got a little spoiled. They are seeing now that not all of those 20-yard runs were because huge holes were being blown open in front of him. Mace had a lot to do with all those yards he stacked up.
“As freshman running back, you’re the guy. You’re 15 years old and facing grown men who are 18. Some teams have to do it out of necessity and then there are guys like Ja’briel who come come along and force your hand. He wasn’t out there because we had a lack of options. He was out there because we had to get him out there because he was that talented,” Kern said. “We’ve had a couple of practices and you start to see holes that you thought were good holes last year that now only go for two yards. You start to realize what kind of Band-Aids and camouflage a guy like Ja’briel did for you. He was always one play away from getting into the end zone or breaking a big run and switching the momentum of the game. I think you sometimes you get a little bit spoiled with what he could do on the field. There are multiple memories in my head of him running to one sideline and ending up scoring on the complete opposite side. He looked like he was playing at a speed that that couldn’t be matched.”
Mace said it was awesome how everything came together his senior year. Mainland went 10-2, won its first sectional championship since 2008 and was leading Millville late in the state semifinals before the Thunderbolts rallied to win and advance to the state championship game.
“You never want to lose, but I felt like I’ve learned a lot since that Millville game. Don’t ever slow down, no matter how tired you are. I was just sitting on the bus (after that game) thinking, wow, that was really my last time playing in a mainland uniform. Obviously, I was upset, but then I also started thinking about what I accomplished and what like the team accomplished. Going into the season, we never thought that we’d actually be in a position to be a game away from the state championship, because we lost our starting quarterback four days before the first game,” Mace said. “Every Friday just felt good because we had guys who were healthy and we knew that we were about to go out here and put up 50 against any given team. So many memories. My senior year we really came together as a family. We spent so much time together and did everything together. If I wasn’t with Johnny, I was with Stephen Ordille; if I wasn’t with Stephen, I was with Paul Lombardo; if I wasn’t with Paul, I was with Jack Venneman. We would all go to Jack’s house (after a Friday night game) and just chill, his mom would make us food and we would watch the game over again. I spent a lot of time with those guys, and I miss that.”
Last fall, during the state playoff run, Mainland beat Moorestown 63-10 then took down a couple of perennial Shore Conference powers — Long Branch and Middletown South. The Stangs went on the road, in terrible weather, and came back from a 17-14 halftime deficit to take down Middletown South, 34-24, in the sectional title game.
“My favorite moment is that sectional championship game against Middletown South, just seeing how happy the Mainland community was and the support they gave us,” Mace said. “It was raining like crazy — we didn’t even know if we were going to play that night — but they came out and supported us. And after that game, seeing coach Smith look in our eyes and how happy he was. No one really gave Mainland a chance. But that night I feel like we proved to everybody that Mainland is here now. I took that game really personally, and even though I didn’t score a touchdown I tried to do other stuff to help us win. I saw tears on coach Smith’s face because I felt like he, and us, proved people wrong.”
The Mainland coaches no doubt will be telling their memories of Mace for years — maybe even decades — to come. But after describing some Herculean feat on the field they saw Mace accomplish, they’ll always come back to talking about Ja’briel, the person, and what he meant to this program.
“He was a kid who was very mature about his classes, messaging about future assignments, trying to stay on top of things. He was super committed to the weight room. Just a really focused kid who had a goal of playing division of Division I football and then did everything he could, he checked every box to make sure that happened,” Kern said. “He’s a great leader. With high school kids, you can start to see a change in humility as they get older but nothing changed with him. It was always about everybody else. It was always about the team so. He’s a guy of tremendous character and I’m proud of his success.”
Added Smith, “I always take a lot of pride as a coach when other teachers in the building come up to me and talk very positively about the kids, because usually you only hear the bad things. I always take pride when they come up to me and say what a good kid somebody is or what a great role model, and Ja’briel is a class act.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays