LACEY TOWNSHIP - The Lacey Township High School football team confronted the end of its season Saturday afternoon.
Quarterback Tom Kelly returned from a broken collarbone to help the Lions survive the predicament.
With Lacey and Toms River South tied, Kelly threw a 50-yard, fourth-quarter pass to Christian Tutela. On the next play, Lacey running back Kyle Spatz scored the wining touchdown on a 14-yard run with 2 minutes, 20 seconds left in the game. The Lions beat South 45-31 in a South Jersey Group IV quarterfinal.
"I knew how much this mean to the seniors," Tutela, a junior, said. "We had to get it done. I didn't want this to be their last game."
The second-seeded Lions (10-0) will host sixth-seeded Kingsway Regional (6-3) in a semifinal Dec. 1.
Saturday was Kelly's first game since he broke his collarbone against Jackson Memorial on Oct. 20.
"I haven't been so nervous in a game since I was 9," Kelly said.
Kelly wasn't the only one nervous Saturday. Many Lacey fans and players probably had the jitters in the fourth quarter.
Lacey, No. 3 in The Press Elite 11, dominated the entire third quarter and start of the fourth to build a 31-17 lead. Sophomore quarterback Con-nor Davies (9-of-9 for 172 yards and two touchdowns) and wide receivers Tutela (five catches for 179 yards) and Bill Belford (five catches for 82 yards) sparked the offense.
Tutela and Belford wowed the crowd with their ability to elude tacklers and turn short passes into long gains.
They also drew roars with some spectacular downfield catches. Tutela made a leaping, one-handed grab for a 38-yard gain in the third quarter. Belford made a diving catch for a 31-yard gain in the first quarter. Both grabs figured prominently in Lacey touchdown drives.
But just when Lacey seemed on the verge of a comfortable win, the seventh-seeded Indians (4-5) rallied with two touchdowns in three minutes.
A 50-yard gain on a fake punt with a little more than eight minutes left in the game turned the momentum in South's favor. South running back Otis Kearney scored on a 31-yard run to tie the game with 5:06 left.
Lacey went to the sideline and regrouped after Kearney's touchdown.
"We had a few talks with each other," Tutela said, "and we came back right at them."
Lacey's winning drive came on its possession after South's tying touchdown. Kelly (3-of-4 for 96 yards) had seen sporadic action for the first three quarters but he began this drive as the quarterback.
The 50-yard completion came on third-and-12. Tutela ran a post pattern down the middle of the field and was wide open. Kelly had suggested the play to Lacey coaches. He saw during his earlier action that it might work.
"He was ridiculously open," Kelly said.
Tutela said: "I just thought I had to catch this ball."
After Spatz scored to give Lacey the lead, it didn't take the Lions long to clinch the victory. On South's next possession, Lions nose guard Tim Grochowski forced a fumble and defensive back Kevin Leahy recovered the ball at the South 23-yard line.
Three plays later, Spatz (29 carries for 119 yards) scored on a 7-yard run with less than a minute left to give Lacey a two-touchdown lead.
Lacey's jitters were gone as was the fear of an early ending to their season.
Contact Michael McGarry:
Toms River South 7 10 0 14-31
Lacey Township 10 7 7 21-45
TRS-Kearney 21 run (Messler kick)
LT-Tutela 49 pass from Davies (Dolly kick)
LT-Dolly 24 field goal
TRS-Kearney 3 run (Messler kick)
LT-Spatz 5 run (Dolly kick)
TRS-Messler 33 field goal
LT-Davies 6 run (Dolly kick)
LT-Tutela 19 pass from Davies (Dolly kick)
TRS-Messler 4 run (Messler kick)
TRS-Kearney 31 run (Messler kick)
LT-Spatz 14 run (Dolly kick)
LT-Spatz 7 run (Dolly kick)
Rushing-TRS-Kearney 13-153; LT-Spatz 29-119.
Passing-TRS-Berry 4-14-1-44; LT-Davies 9-of-9-0-172, Kelly 3-4-0-96.
Receiving-TRS-Hailey 1-16; LT-Tutela 5-179, Belford 5-82.
Records-Toms River South 4-5; Lacey 10-0.