Cape-Atlantic League football coaches, athletic directors and players pledged their support to Mainland Regional High School football team and its coach, Bob Coffey, on Sunday.
Four Mainland players — Casey Brenner, 17, of Northfield; Edgar Bozzi, 17, of Somers Point; Nicholas Connor, 16, of Northfield; and Dean Khoury, 15, of Linwood — were killed in an SUV accident on the Garden State Parkway on Saturday afternoon.
On Saturday night, there was talk on several social media sites that some Cape-Atlantic League teams might wear patches on their uniforms or decals on their helmets to honor Mainland. No formal plans have been made, but other southern New Jersey teams are vowing to do whatever they can to help Mainland.
“We’re going to try to do something,” Egg Harbor Township coach Tony DeRosa said. “We don’t know what yet. Right now I think they need to be by themselves. We’ll do whatever we can.”
Several coaches telephoned Coffey on Sunday morning. Atlantic City athletic director Frank Campo said other schools would let Mainland dictate what type of support it wants or needs.
Mainland canceled scrimmages that were scheduled for today against St. Joseph and Friday vs. Atlantic City. Mainland is scheduled to open the season Friday, Sept. 9 at home against Hammonton.
Oakcrest coach Chuck Smith, a former Mainland assistant, said that when Mainland resumes practices he and his team would stop by at the end of one of the sessions to show their support.
“Even though they are our opponents on the field, they’re our comrades in the game of football,” Smith said. “I know from the past that seeing the support of other schools makes you feel so much better.
“Kids are tough. They talk the talk and walk the walk. But deep down when they see their peers supporting them, it truly means a lot.”
The CAL has a close-knit football community. Many of the programs are intertwined. Most of the league’s coaches graduated from local schools and coached for several CAL programs. Coffey graduated from Holy Spirit. Smith graduated from Mainland. New Mainland athletic director Mike Gatley held the same position at Hammonton.
“Everyone reaches out to each other,” Campo said. “They worry about what Coffey is going through. He’s a class guy.”
Players at Atlantic County high schools grow up competing against each other in the Atlantic County Junior Football League.
“We’ve been playing (against each other) since we were little kids,” Holy Spirit senior linebacker Ethan Gambale, of Mays Landing, said.
Gambale said some Holy Spirit and Mainland football players were supposed to hang out with each other Saturday night.
“It opens your eyes,” Gambale said of the accident. “It makes you realize tomorrow is not promised.”
Mainland Regional football unites the communities of Northfield, Linwood and Somers Point. Fans pack the home stands for Friday night games. Mothers cheer while wearing their jerseys with their sons’ names and numbers. Green and white streamers are tied to telephone poles around the field.
Mainland football is one of the CAL’s marquee sports programs. The Mustangs are a perennial power with two South Jersey championships in the past nine years — Group III in 2002 and Group IV in 2008.
“It’s such a class program,” DeRosa said.
EHT and Mainland play each Thanksgiving in one of the holiday’s most anticipated rivalries.
“We’ve had our battles Thanksgiving Day,” DeRosa said. “It’s always been a healthy rivalry.”
CAL football teams have a tradition of bonding together when tragedy strikes.
St. Joe player Mark Bresani died in a car crash in 2003. Mainland players attended St. Joe’s next game to show their support.
EHT player Mike Platt died of sudden cardiac arrest during a summer workout in July 2006. DeRosa said Coffey telephoned him after that tragedy.
“Bob Coffey was there for us,” DeRosa said. “There’s no coaching manual you can turn to for dealing with this. You have to go on your basic human instincts.”
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