Chris Sacco knows first-hand what a high school football playoff upset feels like.
Eighth-seeded Pleasantville beat top-seeded Hammonton 6-3 in the first-round of the 2002 South Jersey Group II playoffs.
Sacco played for Hammonton.
On Friday night, Pleasantville will try to repeat history, this time with Sacco as its coach.
The eighth-seeded Greyhounds (7-1) will play at top-seeded West Deptford (7-1) in a S.J. Group II quarterfinal. West Deptford is a perennial power. The Eagles are the defending sectional champions and have won seven S.J. titles.
“Our kids are well aware of the pedigree of the (West Deptford) program,” Sacco said. “But we’re not shying away from it. We’re grateful for the opportunity, and we’re going to go there and give it everything we got.”
The high school football playoffs begin this weekend with quarterfinal games. The semifinals are next weekend, with the championship games scheduled for the first week in December.
Eight teams qualified for the postseason in each enrollment group. Three Cape-Atlantic League schools — Pleasantville, St. Augustine and Vineland — are No. 8 seeds. St. Augustine (5-4) will play at top-seeded Bergen Catholic (7-2) in a state Non-Public IV quarterfinal at 1 p.m. Saturday, while Vineland (7-1) will play at No. 1 seed Lenape (7-1) in a S.J. Group V game at 7 p.m. Friday.
No eighth seed in the state may face as tough a task as St. Augustine does. Bergen Catholic is considered the state’s top team and beat the Hermits 57-33 in last year’s first round.
“It’s an opportunity,” St. Augustine coach Pete Lancetta said. “If you’re an underclassman, it’s a chance to go up there and make some plays and get recognized. If you’re a senior and you’re going to play in college, coaches are going to look for you to step up in games like this. All we ask is that you give an effort on every play, do your best and keep trying.”
For Pleasantville and Vineland, the chances for an upset are a little less daunting. Both teams are in the midst of standout seasons. It is rare for a No. 8 seed to have a 7-1 record.
“We really don’t worry about the seeds,” Vineland quarterback Isaih Pacheco said. “As a team, we just want to go in there and show them how Vineland kids can stick together through tough times. We just want to go out there and play with our hearts.”
Vineland and Pleasantville also have some history on their side. In the past, No. 8 seeds have beaten top-seeds in S.J. brackets. Eighth seeds are 3-22 in the S.J. playoffs the past five years, with the victories coming by Glassboro in Group I in 2015 and Toms River North in Group V and Collingswood in Group II in 2014. Toms River North upset top-seeded Lenape 19-10.
“We’re looking forward to this game and playing as one,” Pacheco said. “It’s going to take a lot of to win, but we’re just going to be really focused.”
Eight seeds have to play on the road but sometimes that can be advantage for a team. Visiting teams don’t have the distractions they sometimes do at home where players are more accessible to friends and family.
“It’s quiet (on the bus ride),” Sacco said. “They can sit back, listen to their music or take a nap. Some guys sit with the coaches and go through some last-minute things.”
The biggest thing for Pleasantville, St. Augustine and Vineland is to stabilize the game early. It’s hard for a team to pull an upset if it trails by two touchdowns in the first quarter.
“If we can get some points early,” Sacco said. “If we can force them to punt early and change the field position, our kids knowing they can play with this team will go a long way for four quarters. It’s important for us to get off to a clean start — no penalties, no turnovers.”
Pleasantville, Vineland and St. Augustine will have a better idea of where their programs stand — win or lose — after this weekend.
“It’s a measuring stick for us,” Sacco said. “We’re telling the kids to embrace the opportunity. We’re going to play a great program. We’re going to give everything we go and leave it on the field.”