VOORHEES TOWNSHIP — The Southern Regional High School football team was reeling. The Rams had squandered a two-touchdown lead and trailed Eastern by six with the clock winding down.
But sixth-seeded Southern saved its best plays for the final two minutes, staging a dramatic rally to knock off second-seeded Eastern 30-27 on Abe Gonzalez’s fourth touchdown Friday night in the South Jersey Group V semifinals.
The Rams will play top-seeded Williamstown, which beat Atlantic City 20-12, in the South Jersey Group V final next Friday at 7 p.m. at Rowan University in Glassboro.
“Words really can’t describe this,” Southern receiver Mike Gesicki said. “We’ve been dreaming about this since I started playing varsity football. We always say we’re on the road to the ring, and now it’s crazy that we’re going to the state championship game. I mean, I’m totally, I’m in shock right now.”
Southern (9-2), who is ranked No. 8 in The Press Elite 11, started strong. But the Rams allowed Eastern (7-4), No. 9 in the Elite 11, to rally behind quarterback Tom Flacco, the younger brother of Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. Tom Flacco, a junior, threw for 310 yards and four touchdowns, three in the second half.
When Flacco got the ball back with a 27-21 lead and just 3 minutes, 8 seconds remaining, the game appeared to be over. Eastern had all the momentum, having scored touchdowns on its previous three drives.
But Southern wasn’t done.
“I know these kids are going to go down to the wire,” Rams coach Chuck Donohue said. “And they’re going to make it interesting, and they’re going to play until there’s no time on the clock.”
Southern’s defense, which had been dominant in the first half, came up big when it counted. On third-and-5 from Eastern’s 12-yard line, Southern’s Zach Amirr sacked Flacco. It was the Rams’ fifth sack of the game but first since the first quarter.
Still, Eastern was in a good position. The Vikings took a safety intentionally rather than punt from their own end zone, making it 27-23 with 1:31 to go.
Southern returned the ensuing free kick to the Eastern 44 and went to work.
On the first play, Gesicki took the handoff from quarterback Dan Higgins on a reverse. The 6-foot-6 Gesicki, who played quarterback earlier this season, appeared ready to run to the outside but then pulled up and threw 25 yards across to the field to a wide-open Higgins at the 19.
It was a play that the Rams never had run in a game.
“We practice that every single Thursday,” Gesicki said. “The day before the game, we go through all our trick plays. We practice that. And to tell you the truth, I never thought we would ever run that.”
On the next play, Higgins threw 16 yards to Nick Hem at the 3-yard line.
Two plays later, with 21.4 seconds to go, Higgins rolled out and found Gonzalez alone in the corner of the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown.
“It was supposed to be a flat and I cut it, and then I just backed up a little bit, and I just saw Danny looking right at me,” Gonzalez said.
The Southern fans, who packed the visiting bleachers despite having to travel more than an hour from Stafford Township, went wild.
“We came back and executed on that last drive when we needed it,” said Gonzalez, who finished with 164 yards rushing, 47 passing and four touchdowns.
Southern jumped to the early lead on the strength of Gonzalez’s hard running as well as constant pressure from its defensive line on Flacco.
The Rams are undersized, but defensive tackles Bailey Bellissimo and Ryan Boyle were in Flacco’s face on nearly every play. Boyle and middle linebacker Nick Munafo each had 11/2 sacks.
“Everybody all year has been questioning our D-line, if we could get to the passer,” Bellissimo said. “We’ve recorded, like, two sacks the whole year from the D-line. And we were sick and tired of everybody talking smack about our D-line, so we just came out and showed that we’re really a football team.”
“In my wildest dreams,” Bellissimo added, “I didn’t think it would be like that.”
Flacco got better protection in the second half and appeared poised to lead his team to the South Jersey final. But Southern made all the big plays at the end.
“You’ve got to stay positive,” Gesicki said. “Obviously some shots are killer to your team, but you have to stay positive. We all stayed positive and now we’re celebrating.”
Contact Jason Mazda:
Southern Regional 7 7 7 9—30
Eastern 0 7 14 6—27
SR—Gonzalez 54 run (Yaiser kick)
SR—Gonzalez 2 run (Yaiser kick)
E—Delaney 14 pass from Flacco (Kehoe kick)
E—Woodard 32 pass from Flacco (Kehoe kick)
SR—Gonzalez 23 run (Yaiser kick)
E—Nikolis 22 pass from Flacco (Kehoe kick)
E—Segers 5 pass from Flacco (kick blocked by Munafo) SR-Safety (punter ran out of end zone)
SR—Gonzalez 3 pass from Higgins (Yaiser kick)
TEAM STATISTICS SR E
Rushing yards 171 -15
Passing yards 208 310
First downs 14 11
Penalties-yards 4-36 6-55
Turnovers 1 2
Rushing—Southern, Gonzalez 33-164, Bissey 2-5, Yaiser 3-4, Higgins 3-(-2). Eastern, Gardner 11-17, Flacco 10-(-37), Thompson 4-12, Hart 1-(-7).
Passing—Southern, Higgins 8-21-1-183, Gesicki 1-1-0-25. Eastern, Flacco 17-29-1-310.
Receiving—Southern, Gesicki 3-96, Gonzalez 2-47, Higgins 1-25, Hem 3-40. Eastern, Gardner 3-18, Woodard 4-64, Nikolis 3-71, Segers 5-125, Delaney 2-32.
RECORDS—Southern 9-2, Eastern 7-4.