(Photo courtesy of Jacob Girnius)

By MARK TRIBLE

South Jersey Glory Days Senior Football Writer

EVESHAM — For the first 24 minutes of play here on Saturday at Cherokee High, the South/Central Group 3 state semifinal most of South Jersey clamored for didn’t meet the hype.

Camden’s dominant defense held tall twice inside the 12-yard line and the Panthers tacked on a pair of touchdown passes to boot.

Tasked with a 14-0 deficit, Delsea began its comeback march. The Crusaders did what they have done against everyone else this year — tough defense or not.

They won.

Delsea scored the rest of the game’s points to clinch a spot one of the state’s first-ever public championship games by virtue of a 20-14 win.

Quarterback Jimmy Reardon’s 1-yard touchdown plunge finished the deal with 16 seconds on the clock.

“Our coach always said before we even got here, the team that breaks first is going to lose,” junior back Wayne Adair said. “They thought they broke us.

“They didn’t.”

It took until the final moments for either side to crack, and rightfully so. The teams entered the playoffs No. 1 and No. 2 in the South Jersey Football Frenzy Show Best 11. This one met pretty much every criterion to be memorable.

But it didn’t look like that throughout. The Crusaders (12-0) looked uninspired prior to the third quarter. Enter Reardon and a midline option read that came on the first drive of the half.

The option had been an idea for the club at this point of the season. However, that had been with Zach Maxwell at quarterback. His season ended due to injury in the sectional semifinals.

Coach Sal Marchese knew the club needed a boost and dialed up the option play that Reardon ran 42 yards up the gut. It sparked a drive that ended with Jared Schoppe’s 14-yard touchdown run. After a penalty on the extra point, Delsea went for two and got it.

“When you’re in a war, you can’t think about those little battles that you’re going to lose,” Marchese said. “When you’re in a war, you’ve got to battle to the end.

“You’ve got to be relentless the whole game, every play. That was basically the message at halftime.”

At 14-8 with 8:56 left in the quarter, a classic started to become reality at William H. Foltz Stadium. It marked the first score against the Camden (10-2) after 14 quarters of postseason play.

With 9:06 to play, Wayne Adair took a jet sweep to the field side on 4th-and-5 and found pay dirt. A blocked extra point kept the score at 14-14.

The clubs exchanged three-and-outs. Then, Dom Teti came up with the play that shifted the momentum for good.

His interception on a second-down pass gave the Crusaders the ball at the 22-yard line with 3:41 left.

“He was running corner (routes) all game, so I knew the post had to come at some time,” Teti said. “I just jumped the route.”

From there, it turned into the power ground game on a short field. It is Delsea’s absolute bread-and-butter. It turned into 1st-and-Goal at the 1.

Schoppe got stopped twice.

On third down, Reardon got the call.

“I knew my O-Line was going to give it our all,” Reardon said. “I knew they’d all block their hearts out. I knew I was going to get in there.

“It’s everything we practiced for all year, it came.”

While Reardon put the final touches on the comeback, the defense held the Panthers at bay. Per NJ.com’s Kevin Minnick, the Crusaders held Camden to 48 yards in the second half.

Marchese and his boys will play the winner of Sunday’s tilt between West Morris (12-0) and Old Tappan (10-1) at Rutgers University on the first weekend of December.

For Schoppe, the chance to do it meant plenty. He nearly broke down in tears after the final whistle. A star wrestler, he almost didn’t come back for his senior season on the gridiron.

“This is my life,” the star running back and linebacker, who finished with 128 yards on the ground, said. “Football made me who I am. It feels amazing to get this done.

“Everyone on this team has worked so hard. We’ve done this since the summer, every day. Don’t matter about the talk. …  We had to get there. We had to grind. … We’re the best team in the state and we knew that since the start of the season.”

They are now on step away from a win that will undeniably prove it.

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.