The Cedar Creek High School football team could not have picked a better player to build its fledgling program around than Damon Mitchell.
The senior quarterback and defensive back led the Pirates this fall to a 10-2 record and the South Jersey Group II final in just their second varsity season.
The 6-foot-3, 204-pound Mitchell finished the season with statistics that rank among the best ever to play quarterback in the Cape-Atlantic League. He has verbally committed to attend Georgia Tech on a scholarship.
He is The Press Player of the Year.
"He's got this 'it factor' about him that has shown through the years," Cedar Creek coach Tim Watson said. "He believed in us and we believed in him. I don't think there's ever been any doubt that he's going to compete to be the best wherever he goes."
Mitchell's statistics show just how dominant he was.
He threw for 22 touchdowns and ran for 21 scores.
Mitchell joins Mainland 2008 quarterback Brent Caprio (27 touchdown passes, 21 touchdown runs) as the only South Jersey players to throw at least 20 touchdowns and run for at least 20 touchdowns in a single season.
Mitchell threw for 2,025 yards and ran for 1,027 yards. He joins current Penn State player Bill Belton - the 2009 Winslow Township quarterback - as the only South Jersey player to accomplish that feat.
Mitchell spent his freshman season at Oakcrest. He transferred to Cedar Creek in Egg Harbor City as a sophomore when the school opened in 2010.
The Cedar Creek coaches made him a quarterback. He had never played the position before Cedar Creek.
Many high school football experts thought Mitchell would earn a college scholarship as a defensive back. But he developed quickly at quarterback and will play that position at Georgia Tech.
"We saw early he had ability and if things worked out the right way he could be special," Watson said. "It was amazing to see how he followed through with it."
There were also many fans who didn't think Cedar Creek would be so good so soon.
"We overcame adversity and stuck together and showed a lot of people that the impossible is possible," Mitchell said.
No matter how the rest of his football career evolves, Mitchell will always be identified with helping start the Cedar Creek program.
"It's truly special to go down in history as the first in pretty much everything at Cedar Creek," Mitchell said. "There's not another high school that can come close to it. The people in the school are great."
Team of the Year
Few New Jersey teams can match St. Joseph's tradition of success. The Wildcats have won 15 state titles since the state Non-Public playoffs began in 1993.
But St. Joe never had a season like 2012. The Wildcats (10-1) won the state Non-Public I title and the Cape-Atlantic League American Conference despite playing the toughest regular season schedule in school history. For the first time, the Wildcats consistently competed against CAL schools with the largest enrollments.
St. Joe has a sophomore-through-senior enrollment of 281 students, according to the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association. All but two of its regular-season opponents have enrollments of at least 1,000 students.
St. Joe finished No. 3 in The Press Elite 11.
"We proved to everybody that we can hang with the big boys," St. Joe senior quarterback and defensive back Anthony Giagunto said.
Coach of the Year
Giagunto sought out Wildcats coach Paul Sacco moments after St. Joe defeated St. Mary's of Rutherford, 36-0, to win the state Non-Public I title at the College of New Jersey in Ewing Township on Dec. 7.
Giagunto hugged Sacco before joining his teammates in celebration.
"He's done so much for us the past four years," Giagunto said of Sacco. "He's an awesome guy."
Sacco has 266 wins in his 31 seasons. This fall was probably one of his best coaching jobs. The Wildcats maintained their high standards, despite playing a tougher schedule and replacing two talented seniors from the undefeated 2011 team.
Kaiwan Lewis is playing for South Carolina, and Max Valles has committed to the University of Virginia after spending a year at Fork Union Military Academy.
"I'll be honest with you," Sacco said. "This was the longest year of my coaching career. I worry about every game, (but) playing that schedule (against) so many great coaches and so many phenomenal athletes. We did what we had to do. We found ways to win. I'm glad this season is over."
Contact Michael McGarry: