WILLIAMSTOWN - The Atlantic City High School football team seemed poised for another dramatic comeback Friday night.
This time, however, the Vikings' opponent made the critical play in the final two minutes.
Marquis Little's interception with 1 minute, 39 seconds left clinched Williamstown's 20-12 win over Atlantic City in a South Jersey Group V semifinal game. Top-seeded Williamstown (11-0) will play sixth-seeded Southern Regional (9-2) for the title next Friday at Rowan University.
"That's a great football team," Atlantic City wide receiver and defensive back Dayshawn Reynolds said of Williamstown. "But it's heartbreaking."
Little's interception gave the Braves the ball at their own 21-yard line. Fourth-seeded Atlantic City (8-3) had driven to the Williamstown 40.
"We gave ourselves a chance to win," Atlantic City coach Thomas Kelly said. "That's all you can ask from these kids. We just didn't make the play."
Comebacks were the hallmark of this Atlantic City team. The Vikings rallied from a 14-0 deficit to beat Egg Harbor Township 34-28 on Sept. 14. Atlantic City trailed Absegami by 17 points with 10 minutes left in the quarterfinals on Nov. 16. The Vikings won 34-30.
Atlantic City quarterback Jarren McBryde and wide receiver Dayshawn Reynolds were in the middle of those comebacks.
On Friday, McBryde tried connect with Reynolds running down the sideline.
Little read the play and intercepted the ball.
"We knew once they go trips (a three wide receiver-set), they like to get Reynolds on the long ball," he said. "I just played over the top of him. They threw it up, and I just had to go get it."
Fans filled the home and visiting bleachers for Friday's game, one of the most anticipated of the weekend. Williamstown is ranked No. 1 in The Press Elite 11, while Atlantic City is No. 7.
Atlantic City never led.
Williamstown controlled the game behind the running of fullback John Chamberlain (23 carries for 84 yards) and Little (18 carries for 64 yards). In addition to his interception, Little was the offensive standout with two touchdown runs and a 78-yard touchdown catch.
Williamstown, a team known for its running prowess, inexplicably threw the ball often in the first quarter. Quarterback Doug Banks did throw the 78-yard touchdown to Little to give Williamstown a 7-0 lead. But Atlantic City defenders Rob Glanville and McBryde also intercepted passes. McBryde's interception led to Atlantic City's first touchdown, a 4-yard run by Domaneek Brown-Hurd that cut the Braves' lead to 7-6 with 56 seconds left in the first quarter.
After the first quarter, Williamstown didn't throw another pass.
"We had to slow down the momentum," Little said, "and keep the game at our pace. Not make it a track meet like they like."
The Braves ran so well that the Vikings' offense didn't have many chances to score. Williamstown drove 70 yards in 14 plays for a touchdown in the second quarter. The Braves drove 90 yards in 17 plays for a fourth-quarter touchdown.
"We knew what they were going to do," Kelly said. "That's what makes it frustrating. They didn't do anything we didn't think they were going to do."
Williamstown converted several third-down plays and even a few fourth-down situations on those drives. In some cases, they made the first down by inches.
"It was frustrating," Reynolds said, "but football is a game of inches. That little inch could have cost us the game."
The Braves on their last touchdown drive also took advantage of key facemask penalty against Atlantic City. The Vikings sacked Banks for 4-yard loss on a third-and-15 from the Atlantic City 22. But the facemask penalty gave Williamstown the ball at the Atlantic City 13-yard line. On the next play, Little carried an Atlantic City defender into the end zone to put the Braves up eight with 8 minutes, 27 seconds to play.
The Williamstown players and cheerleaders rushed the field in celebration when the game ended. The Braves have never been to a South Jersey final.
"If there's time on the clock anybody can be beaten," Reynolds said. "But we just ran out of time."
Meanwhile, after the postgame handshake, the Vikings huddled together in an end zone. Reynolds told the juniors, sophomore and freshmen to pursue a championship next season.
Atlantic City's eight wins are its most since it finished 8-2 in 2004.
These Vikings not only faced adversity on the field but also dealt with the ramifications of Hurricane Sandy, a storm that wrecked the homes of several players and forced many players out of their homes for days.
"It was a special year," Kelly said. "The reward is the journey. We had so many ups and downs, but our kids stuck together. They believed."
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