By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
GLASSBORO — Cedar Creek had the situation it wanted on Sunday in the South Jersey Group 2 championship game at Rowan University. Senior quarterback Jesse Mizla had the ball in his hands with playmakers around him with three minutes to go, and the Pirates’ quick-strike offense has shown the past couple of seasons that even having to drive 94 yards didn’t seem like that big of a deal. Trailing top-seeded West Deptford, 19-13, the Pirates had confidence they could put together one last scoring drive to win their second straight state title.
But the Eagles’ defense did what the Pirates’ offense has spent the past two seasons doing — making big plays.
Milza made several big throws — including a key fourth-and-11 conversion to Bo Melton — to get Cedar Creek out from the shadow of its own end zone, but with 1:26 to go West Deptford defensive back Ken Lim picked off a pass over the middle to seal the Eagles’ 19-13 win and get some payback for a team that lost 28-27 to Cedar Creek in last year’s championship game.
“They did a very good job. They kind of just sat and waited, and they knew a lot of the stuff we did. They were good at being patient, actually. Their patience made it more difficult for us,” said Milza, who finished his four-year career with more than 6,000 passing yards.
“They conquered what we had. They did pretty good defending us. We had some mistakes, and we tried to recover from them, but sometimes you can’t against a good team like that,” Melton added. “It’s just hard right now. We had a great season against a really hard schedule. My memories are ridiculous right now, there’s so much on my mind. We left it all out there on the field but we came up short and we just have to learn from that.”
Like it was last year, the rematch was a clash of styles, as Cedar Creek likes to spread the ball around with the passing game while West Deptford relies heavily on its Wing-T rushing attack. That misdirection running game came up big for the Eagles with six minutes left in the fourth quarter, as Anthony Seas raced around the left end and gained 25 yards on third-and-22 from the Eagles’ own 24-yard line. That allowed West Deptford to chew up another three minutes before the Eagles were forced to punt.
“I’m proud of them. They battled today and they battled all year. It was never a lack of effort on my guys’ part, and that’s what we want. Today wasn’t our day. West Deptford is a great football team. I’m extremely proud of these guys, especially the senior class. This is a great senior class,” said Cedar Creek coach Tim Watson. “They have a great team and their defense played well. The turnovers were big for them. Anytime you can get the momentum and get some turnovers, that kind of knocked us off our rhythm a little bit. They were able to eat some of the clock up offensively, which plays right into their hands. Hats off to them, but it’s nothing we weren’t expecting.”
West Deptford limited Melton, a star receiver and running back headed to Rutgers next year, to 13 touches on offense and less than 100 total yards, and the Eagles came up with three interceptions on defense. Those turnovers allowed the Eagles to chew up vast stretches of time, as they rushed 53 times for 173 yards, with Seas leading the way with 92 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries and quarterback Peter Orio adding 24 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries.
West Deptford jumped out to a 6-0 lead on a 21-yard touchdown run down the left sideline by Seas, but the Pirates responded on their next drive, as Milza hit Malachi Melton on a beautiful 19-yard fade pass in the corner of the end zone. Pat Moran’s extra point gave Cedar Creek a 7-6 lead — the Pirates’ only lead of the game — with 1:44 left in the first quarter.
Orio capped off a 14-play, second-quarter drive by running left and diving into the end zone for a 3-yard touchdown run on fourth down. That gave the Eagles a 13-7 lead, and they extended it to 19-7 in the third quarter when Orio connected with Lim on a 33-yard touchdown pass over the middle on one of just three West Deptford passing attempts the entire game.
Again Cedar Creek responded, as the Pirates marched 80 yards late in the third quarter to pull to within 19-13 on Milza’s 27-yard scoring strike to Melton. West Deptford was able to control the clock in the fourth quarter, however, limiting Cedar Creek to just two possessions.
Cedar Creek’s defense, led by guys such as Mike Gulig, Avory Cruse and Owen Bowles, played a terrific game considering the Eagles pounded the Pirates with 53 running plays.
“Our defense has been unbelievable. Coach Watson always puts together a great defense,” Milza said. “We knew it wouldn’t be a high-scoring game, we just came up short on a couple of things. We should have scored another couple of times, and that’s my fault.”
Despite the loss, Cedar Creek finished 10-2 and has posted a 20-4 mark the past two seasons. This senior class also finishes with a 35-9 record the past four years.
“It’s been a great four years. I couldn’t have asked for anything more than this. These guys are the best bunch of kids I’ve ever been around; the best coaches I’ve ever been around, the best school I’ve ever been around. It’s a tough one, but it happens. This football team is going to be good for a long time,” Milza said. “I grew up with all these kids. Most of these kids come from Galloway, so I’ve been playing football with them since I was a little kid. This is the end of a long journey. We’re all going to move on to college, and most of us are going to play sports in college, so it’s going to be cool to watch everyone next year, as well as the Cedar Creek football team next year.”
Watson said this year’s team certainly made its mark on South Jersey football.
“This senior class is probably our first group that has really been a part of everything since it’s been established. A lot of the guys early were the key guys in laying the foundation and we owe a ton to them, but this was the first class that was really able to be a part of it after we made our first championship game and played in some tough games,” Watson said. “These guys were able to play in some tough games and really cement the foundation of what we want our program to be about.”
“Me and my players, I love playing football with these guys. It’s indescribable what our team chemistry is. I just love these guys. It’s hard to see it go,” Melton added. “I wish the best to them and for my future. I just wish the best for everyone.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN