Scrappy Mainland football team rallied to make playoffs, looks to cap season with win

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By DAVE O’SULLIVAN Publisher Some may look at the 3-6 record of the Mainland Regional football team and think, ah, just another also-ran in the Cape-Atlantic League. But if you dig a little deeper you’ll find a football team that has a ton of heart and has shown a great deal of resiliency while dealing with a couple of key injuries as well as one of the most brutal schedules the league had to offer. Mainland was close to entering the state playoffs as a 5-win team, having narrowly lost to Atlantic City and Buena Regional. The Mustangs took Buena, an undefeated team during the regular season, into overtime before falling 21-14. They also had to deal with Millville, which had outstanding running back Rob Ennis at the time, St. Joseph, the No. 1 team in South Jersey, and St. Augustine Prep, whose only loss heading into the playoffs came against St. Joseph. The combined record of Mainland’s opponents this season, heading into this past weekend? How about 48-25. Add in the fact that top running back Justin Walsh missed most of the season due to injury, and starting quarterback Sam Jackson also missed time with injury, and you have a team that willed itself into the playoffs and is eager to prove its quality on Thanksgiving Day against rival Egg Harbor Township. “I can’t wait for the Thanksgiving game. I’m excited,” said wide receiver Matt McLaughlin. After losing to St. Joseph on Oct. 25 the Mustangs were just 1-5, but still weren’t mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. That made the following two weeks basically playoff games for the Mustangs. They took care of business, beating both Absegami and Vineland to sneak into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed. That draw meant they had to face top-seeded Shawnee in the playoffs, and the Renegades pulled away late for a 42-20 victory. But simply making the playoffs after a 1-5 start was a huge accomplishment for this team. “We never really got blown out, we felt like we were in every game. A couple of plays here, couple plays there maybe we could have gotten a break,” McLaughlin said. “We never stopped believing in ourselves. Once we realized we made the playoffs we gave it our all and tried to be that Cinderella story.” Guys like McLaughlin, Nick Droboniku, Matt Thomas and others have first-hand experience of a Cinderella story. They were members of the baseball team that entered the playoffs with a 10-12 record last spring before ripping off six straight wins to capture the state championship. McLaughlin also was a member of the basketball team that made the sectional championship game, and he and Droboniku said the runs those teams made characterize the kind of athletes Mainland produces. [adrotate banner=”9″] “Some of the baseball players are on the football team, so just making the playoffs we knew we had a shot, we just had to get there. Crazy things happen,” McLaughlin said. “We saw what happened in baseball, but Shawnee was a tough team. They’re not No. 2 (in South Jersey) for no reason. We knew that going into the game, but you have to give it your all. I think we did a good job of that, we never gave up during the game and never stopped fighting.” “I think every season I’ve had as a football player and baseball player, we start slow, but every team I’ve played on we’ve never given up and we found a way to win when it counts. That’s what was important this year. Making it to the playoffs was our goal and making it was huge for us. It was a tough schedule throughout the entire season. Every week we had to grind,” Droboniku said. He added, “It really was a tough season with all the injuries we had and we had a few close games that we should have won, but just making it to the playoffs was a really big deal for us. We haven’t done anything like that since 2008 when we won states, so it was a big deal for us. We had one of the toughest schedules and we knew that coming in. We knew how many games we would need to get to the playoffs and what we had to do.” Perhaps the key to the whole season was Bryan Thelismond and the job he did filling in for Walsh. Through nine games he has amassed 797 yards, scored eight touchdowns, and is averaging more than four yards per carry. And Ryan Swenson did an outstanding job filling in for Jackson when Jackson went down late in the season. Swenson completed 21-of-37 passes for 322 yards and two touchdowns. “It shows how we stick together. One man goes down and we just pick him up. We just tried to stay on track,” McLaughlin said. “With Walsh, you can’t really replace him, but Bryan Thelismond, he did an awesome job. He had almost 1,000 yards and he picked up right where Walsh left off. It would have been great to have them both, but things don’t always go your way and you have to be able to adjust and I think we adjusted pretty well.” Now the Mustangs say they want to close out this season with a win over Egg Harbor Township, especially the seniors. “We’re very excited for this game. You want to go out on top. This will be my last game, so I’m really excited,” Droboniku said. “Thanksgiving is always a big game for us. A lot of the players look forward to that game. We want to go out with a win and go out on a positive note, and I think that’s what gets the guys going,” McLaughlin said. “The seniors, including me, don’t want to go out with a loss. We want our last game to be a win. It will be definitely be a good game.” Contact Dave O’Sullivan:; on Twitter @GDsullysays [adsense]


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The Mainland Regional football players salute their fans after getting past rival Egg Harbor Townshi…