Oakcrest flying high on football team's revival

Principal Tony Mongelluzzo of Oakcrest High School needed a camera last Friday night.

He couldn't be blamed if he wanted to freeze forever the picture in front of him. It was a site he'd never seen in his 30 years at Oakcrest.

Oakcrest, which before this season hadn't had a winning football team since 1998, had just pulled the upset of the first round of the state high school playoffs. The seventh-seeded Falcons beat second-seeded Williamstown 38-13.

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When the game was over, the players ran off the field and across the track to celebrate with the Oakcrest student body.

"It was a beautiful picture," Mongelluzzo said. "You had at least 150 students who found their own way to Williamstown. They were in the stands supporting the football team. That alone hasn't happened in a long time."

The Falcons are in the midst of a remarkable revival. They were the lowest seeded Group IV team in the state to win a playoff game in the first round.

Oakcrest (7-2) plays at third-seeded Atlantic City (7-2) in the semifinals at 7 p.m. today. The winner advances to the South Jersey Group IV final. The Falcons' success couldn't come at a better time as Oakcrest is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2010-11.

"We've been through ups and downs, good and bad," Oakcrest senior captain Zach Reichenbach said. "Finally, we get the opportunity to shine."

It wasn't always easy to be an Oakcrest fan or player. It took a lot of gumption for players and fans to wear their blue Oakcrest football jackets and sweat shirts after one of the many games the Falcons lost the past 12 years.

"I've had people tell me they don't think about what they're wearing to go to Wawa in the morning," Oakcrest first-year coach Chuck Smith said. "They used to be embarrassed after losing on Friday night and having somebody say something to them on Saturday morning when they're wearing something that says Oakcrest."

Now, the team's success has created a buzz in the building and in the community.

"You have teachers and students connecting, talking about football," Mongelluzzo said.

The football team isn't the only winner this fall. The boys and girls soccer and field hockey teams also had successful seasons.

"There's a new sense of pride coming around the building," Mongelluzzo said. "It's something that we had a number of years ago. It kind of got lost, but it's coming back. This fall season has really helped us."

That pride might have gotten lost because Oakcrest often seems like the forgotten high school of Atlantic County. It is located in the woods in Mays Landing and can't be seen from a main road.

Absegami and Cedar Creek have recently overshadowed Oakcrest in the Greater Egg Harbor School District. Absegami won the South Jersey Group IV football title in 2006 and is a traditional power in girls basketball and wrestling. Cedar Creek opened a brand new building in Egg Harbor City in January.

The Oakcrest building is old and lacks modern amenities.

"The big thing I always say, is what makes Oakcrest people strong is not having air conditioning," Reichenbach said.

Oakcrest's last winning season before this year came in 1998 when it finished 7-3. The Falcons last playoff appearance was in 1986.

The lack of success puzzled local coaches.

Oakcrest seemed to always feature talented players.

Cory Byrd, a 1995 Oakcrest graduate, started for a Virginia Tech team that played for the National Championship in 2000 and played in the NFL. In recent years, many of the top players who would have gone to Oakcrest have attended local parochial schools.

"It was always a program you knew had talent but never realized it," Smith said. "It was a common theme around the league when you talked with other coaches. They could never get it going."

A big problem was a lack of continuity among head coaches. Smith is Oakcrest's fifth head coach since 2000. The Falcons have had nine different people heading the program since 1991 and that was with Jeff Spector coaching the Falcons from 1993-98.

Scott Parker took over the program in 2006 and provided some stability. He left after last year's 5-5 season to become vice principal of Cedar Creek.

Last spring, Oakcrest hired Smith, an assistant at Mainland Regional for 21 years.

"Scott Parker left us going in the right direction," Mongelluzzo said. "Chuck Smith came in and made contacts with students in the building and their families. He made the connections that need to happen."

Oakcrest will face another unlikely semifinalist in Atlantic City. The Vikings finished 1-9 last season.

The two teams have much in common. Atlantic City has a first-year coach in Thomas Kelly and both teams' rely on their speed.

"I think our stands will be packed," Mongelluzzo said. "I think this speaks well of the Cape-Atlantic League. I think it will be a good time. We are neighbors. The kids know one another. I think it amps everything up a little bit."

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