By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
OCEAN CITY — The Ocean City football team was fired up on Friday night. It was the start of homecoming weekend, the stands were packed and the arch-rival Mainland Mustangs were in town. The Red Raiders might have been too hyped up.
Ocean City coughed the ball up on their first two kickoff returns and Mainland’s special teams came through with a field goal and a pair of 90-yard kickoff returns as the Mustangs took a 16-14 lead into halftime. But the break might have been just what the Red Raiders needed, as they scored three second-half touchdowns to take the lead and cruise to a 34-16 victory that put them at 5-1 and clinched a spot in the South Jersey Group 3 playoffs.
“I think, overall, it being a rivalry game just got to our heads and we came out too geeked up. We were thinking we were going to shut them out. We were playing over our head, there’s no doubt,” said Ocean City senior lineman Jimmy Rice. “We didn’t talk much (at halftime). We realized what we were doing wrong. They’re not a pushover team. They’re not an easy team to face and (we knew) this was something we were going to have to take seriously. But the coaches motivated us to come out (in the second half) and play the way we played. We realized we were too geeked up and we had to get our heads out of our rear ends. We had to play like we had everything to lose, with our hearts on the line.”
“I think it was just butterflies. It’s a rivalry game and everybody was amped up. We were thinking about the rivalry and not the game; with all the fans, it was a chaotic atmosphere. We had to focus in and calm down in the second half, go out there and play our game,” said Arthur Spackman, another senior lineman. “They were pretty good up front and we had some blown assignments early on, but we calmed down and went back to the basics of running the ball because that’s what we do best.”
The only scoring in the first quarter was a 20-yard Sean Carey field goal that put Mainland up, 3-0, after Ocean City fumbled the opening kickoff. But a flurry of points came midway through the second quarter. Kevin King scooped up a fumbled snap and ran it in 20 yards to give Ocean City (5-1, 3-1 WJFL Independence) a 7-3 lead, but Mainland (1-5, 1-3) rebounded on the ensuing kickoff as Kobe Roberts burst through the middle, then down the left sideline for a 90-yard touchdown to put the Mustangs up 9-7.
The Red Raiders responded by driving 75 yards on their next possession, and Issac Robertson capped the drive off with a 15-yard scoring run up the middle to put Ocean City up, 14-9. But again Mainland struck on special teams, as Tq Campbell brought the ensuing kickoff back 90 yards to give the Mustangs a 16-14 lead heading into halftime.
“Those were really demoralizing, but coach Matthews and coach Smith have preached to us all year, ‘next play,'” quarterback Harry Pfeifle said. “Me and Tommy Meehan, and the other senior leaders, were just chanting, ‘next play, forget about it.’ We were able to rally on offense and get some things going.”
The Red Raiders got refocused after the halftime homecoming festivities and got back to their trusted option run game. They started wearing down the Mainland defense with runs by Pfeifle, Robertson and Liam Bergman, who had a huge second half and scored the final touchdown.
After stopping the Mustangs to start the second half, Pfeifle connected with Bobby Shallcross on a short slant pattern, and Shallcross broke free down the left sideline, bringing the ball to the 2-yard line before being shoved out of bounds. That set up a Pfeifle touchdown one play later, and Ocean City had the lead for good at 20-16. Robertson added a 1-yard touchdown run with 10:42 left in the fourth quarter to push the lead to 27-16.
“We knew it was going to be a tough game. Playing Mainland, it always is, and they came out giving their all. They just got off to a better start than we did. But, we were able to get into the locker room, get regrouped, and come out with a good third-quarter push,” Pfeifle said. “In the first half, we had to defend a little more against the pass, which is not what we are used to. But I think we are an in-shape team, and I knew once it hit the third and fourth quarter our run game would start to take over.”
Pfeifle said the defensive effort in the second half was the key to Ocean City coming out on top.
“Our defense was great and that blocked punt by Jimmy Rice (to set up Bergman’s touchdown) was clutch,” he said. “Our defense always flies to the football. I haven’t seen a defense like this in years at Ocean City.”
“This is a huge win for us. Coach just told us we clinched a berth in the playoffs,” Spackman said. “We just have to keep this momentum going. Our goal is to get a home playoff game. We haven’t had one of those since God knows when. That would be awesome.”
Rice said it may not have been pretty, but any win against a rival such as Mainland, especially on homecoming weekend in front of a big crowd, is a big win.
“We hadn’t beaten them at home since 2001. We finally broke that streak, and it feels amazing,” he said. “The energy was amazing. It makes you feel like you’re in the NFL.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays