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Vic’s Subs Cover Story: Playoff comebacks helped Cedar Creek football win first state championship

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By DAVE O’SULLIVAN Publisher With less than 10 seconds remaining in the first half of the South Jersey Group 2 championship game, third-seeded Cedar Creek was trailing top-seeded and undefeated West Deptford 14-0 and ran what seemed to be a simple draw play that would maybe go for a few yards, kill the clock and send both teams into the locker rooms at Rowan University. With a couple of moves, however, Pirates junior Bo Melton had broken free down the left sideline. He was tripped up just shy of the goal line, and while Cedar Creek failed to score on the play and still went into halftime trailing by two touchdowns, the Eagles’ lead suddenly began to look precarious. What followed was a thrilling second half of football, highlighted by a season-defining — and possibly program-defining — drive by Cedar Creek that helped the Pirates capture their first state championship in the school’s brief history. “I think that play showed (West Deptford) that we were for real. Even though we didn’t score, we were like, ‘OK, let’s go.’ We felt that the game was by no means out of reach, especially considering our playmakers had barely touched the ball,” said Cedar Creek coach Tim Watson. “I kept telling them that once we got the ball into our playmakers’ hands we would be fine. We knew if we could settle down defensively, get a couple of stops and get our offense the ball, we felt good about our ability to come back. When we get the ball in our playmakers’ hands, there’s a pretty good chance something good is going to happen. “West Deptford is a great football team. And to beat a very good Collingswood team and beating Haddonfield at their place, our guys rose to the occasion. For that to be our first (championship) and for us to battle back to win it, that’s everything I want our program to be about.” Cedar Creek went 7-1 before the state playoff cutoff date and won the Cape-Atlantic League’s National Conference, with its only loss coming at Bridgeton in overtime during a torrential rain storm. “Obviously, with the storm, it was about the craziest thing that could have happened. But we came together and decided we were going to push right past that and move on to Oakcrest,” junior quarterback Jesse Milza said. “We played a great game there, and I think our offensive line really played well this year. They just kept getting better and better.” But in the second half of the first playoff game, against Collingswood, Cedar Creek found itself trailing 20-7. It looked as though the Pirates would be a disappointing first-round exit, just a year removed from another disappointment. In 2014, Cedar Creek was 6-2 at the cutoff date and had perhaps its most talented team ever, but failed to make the playoffs in a loaded South Jersey Group 2 bracket. But Melton came to the rescue against Collingswood, throwing for a touchdown and running for another as the Pirates came back to beat the Panthers 21-20. Quarterback Jesse Milza helped engineer a long scoring drive in the final minutes that helped Cedar Creek beat West Deptford 28-27 in early December for the school's first state championship. (Glory Days Magazine photos/Dave O'Sullivan) Quarterback Jesse Milza helped engineer a long scoring drive in the final minutes that helped Cedar Creek beat West Deptford 28-27 in early December for the school’s first state championship. (Glory Days Magazine photos/Dave O’Sullivan) “We were home in that game, and that one was definitely a tough one for us. But there was no way we were going to stop. We won that game and it carried on to the last two playoff games,” Milza said. “All the skill players this year did a great job and nobody was selfish. With Ahmir getting so much attention, Bo got to show what he could do, and the rest of them did, too, like Khamir (Harvey) and little Louie (Pitale). All those guys had a phenomenal year.” The following week, Cedar Creek traveled to Haddonfield and escaped with a 14-9 win, setting up a showdown with the No. 1 Eagles in the sectional title game. Cedar Creek rallied in the second half of the championship game to tie the score, 21-21, when Melton found Pitale on a halfback option pass, then hit Milza on another trick play on the two-point conversion. West Deptford answered, however, scoring with less than four minutes to go to take a 27-21 lead. Cedar Creek had to go 80 yards in the final 3:39 and score a touchdown to win. The Pirates did just that, as Milza engineered an efficient drive, hitting Melton and Ahmir Mitchell on a couple of pass plays that set up third-and-8 from the West Deptford 38-yard line. Milza looked for both Mitchell and Melton on that third-down play, but had to check it down to Malachi Timberlake on the left side as both of his star receivers were blanketed by the Eagles’ defense. But Timberlake made the first defender miss, then out-ran two others to the end zone and Pat Moran’s extra point gave Cedar Creek a 28-27 lead. “I wasn’t nervous at all. I feel like now, as a junior and in my third year, I’m very comfortable doing what I need to for the team. It’s great to be able to be in that situation, you have to love it,” Milza said. “Bo and Ahmir were the first reads and (West Deptford) chased after them. They were very concerned about them, obviously, but that left Malachi wide open a few yards down the field and he just made a phenomenal play. I wasn’t expecting anything more than just a first down there, but he just made a great play.” The defense then held the Eagles on their last-ditch drive with less than a minute to go, sealing the first state championship in school history. Cedar Creek had made one other championship appearance, in 2012, when the Pirates were led by Mitchell’s older brother, Damon, who now plays at the University of Arkansas. Ahmir switched from his normal No. 2 jersey to his brother’s No. 5, hoping it would give him the magic he needed to help his team win the title his brother fought so hard for a few years ago. “I think it’s the culmination of the work that these kids, this coaching staff and everybody involved in the community and the administration has put in to building this program. It’s certainly not a one season thing,” Watson said. “The 2012 team that got there, that has something to do with it. The kids from last year’s team, their failures and our wisdom from those failures, that has something to do with it. We had a ton of those guys come back during the week (prior to the championship game) and come to the game and they were ecstatic for the team. They felt a part of it, and they should. I think everybody had a hand in what we accomplished.” In the preseason, the team was sporting gray practice T-shirts that had the word “Ubuntu” printed on the back. There was plenty of hype in the offseason, and even into the preseason, surrounding Mitchell and his college choice. One of the most highly recruited players in the nation, the receiver chose the University of Michigan over Ohio State about a week before the season began. Ubuntu is a South African philosophy that means “a universal bond of sharing that connects all of humanity.” This was coach Watson’s message to his team: that the Pirates were about more than just Ahmir Mitchell, and that they would win together and lose together — as one; as a team. Watson said he knew this team could be special if all the players bought into this philosophy. Senior receiver Ahmir Mitchell holds up the championship trophy after Cedar Creek's thrilling comeback win over West Deptford. Senior receiver Ahmir Mitchell holds up the championship trophy after Cedar Creek’s thrilling comeback win over West Deptford. “It’s special. You always have that goal of trying to win a championship, but it’s very elusive. It’s an elusive prize, and on paper this team wasn’t the most talented team we’ve ever had. But we talked about it from the beginning, it was Ubuntu, guys just playing for each other and buying into playing as a team. As the season went on, they embodied that more and more. There were so many back stories in that game (against West Deptford) that just showed the type of perseverance we had and every one of these guys who was a part of it can look back on it, the way we battled in the postseason,” Watson said. “I told these guys in the beginning of the season that I felt something special about this team, and maybe it was the idea of last year having such high expectations with guys who had started on the previous team that made it to the championship game. Our entire offensive line from last year started as sophomores (in 2012) and we had a ton of talented players. But having some of the tough breaks we had last year, coming in this year I said let’s just cut it loose and see what these guys can do. “After the season, reflecting on the championship, you could see there were so many moments when you could see these guys buying in.” Cedar Creek’s championship season certainly had a ton of highlights. The Pirates, who went 10-2, averaged more than 28 points per game on offense, racked up 1,276 rushing yards and 2,238 passing yards, and Melton established himself as one of the top players in the state and perhaps the best player in New Jersey in the junior class. He rushed for 748 yards and 11 touchdowns, caught 41 passes for 913 yards and 11 touchdowns, and also threw a pair of touchdowns as a quarterback. He finished with nearly 1,700 all-purpose yards, and Mitchell chipped in with nearly 500 receiving yards despite being double-covered throughout the season. As a team, Cedar Creek scored 49 touchdowns in 13 games. The Pirates also saw breakout years from guys such as Isaiah Watson, Timberlake, Pitale and Khamir Harvey on offense, and players such as Owen Bowles, Abdel Vasquez, Nick Frantz and Frank Rivera on defense. So much came together in the right way, and that’s what led to the history making state championship. “We had a lot of work to do during the preseason. We knew our skill players were going to be special, but we worked hard with our offensive line. It wasn’t easy in the preseason, we got beat up a little, but we learned our lessons early. I think with that win over Buena Regional (in Week 2) we got on a little bit of a roll,” Milza said. “It’s a crazy feeling. It still doesn’t really feel real. Making it to states was an awesome thing, but after you win it, you just sit there and can’t believe you did it with all the guys you’ve been playing with forever.” “It was great to watch how the story unfolded for us. It’s so fitting that this team won the first one that our school got. What’s so cool about winning this is all the guys who will never play football again. What a cool memory for those guys,” Watson said. “As a coach, (winning a title) motivates you. It almost makes it more exciting to chase another one, and makes you grind a little bit harder to get another one.” Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sully@acglorydays.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays [adsense]

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