EVESHAM TOWNSHIP - The Oakcrest High School football players and fans never lost their enthusiasm Saturday afternoon.
Undefeated Cherokee scored on its first two possessions and beat Oakcrest 33-6 to win the South Jersey Group IV championship.
Oakcrest scored on the last play of the game when quarterback Quaashie Jetter threw a 16-yard touchdown pass to Mark Clements. The Falcons' fans, who filled the visiting bleachers, cheered as if it was the winning score.
"I told the kids after the game that you're not going to understand right now," Oakcrest first-year coach Chuck Smith said. "But we had a tremendous season. Tomorrow, next week, it will sink in. Right now it's the hurt of not winning a championship."
Oakcrest's emergence is one of this season's top stories. The seventh-seeded Falcons (9-3) hadn't won a playoff game before this season. Their last playoff appearance came in 1986. Their last winning season was 1998.
Oakcrest entered Saturday's game as a decided underdog. Top-seeded Cherokee (12-0) is one of the marquee programs in New Jersey high school football. The Chiefs beat Egg Harbor Township in last year's South Jersey Group IV final. Saturday's victory gave Cherokee its eighth South Jersey title and its third since 2005.
"The kids were loose before the game," Smith said of his team. "There was no pressure on us. We came in wanting to have fun. (Cherokee is) just a great football team."
Things went wrong for Oakcrest from the start on a cold, windy, grey day. The Falcons lost the coin flip.
Cherokee deferred its choice to the second half. Oakcrest elected to receive and Cherokee kicked off with a strong wind at its back.
"The game was won on the coin toss," Smith said. "We got beat in every aspect of the game. They beat us offensively, defensively and on special teams. They're a great football team."
The Cherokee defense shut down Oakcrest. The Falcons finished with negative-11 yards of offense in the first half. It didn't help the Falcons offense that speedy running back Fabian Santiago, last spring's state Group IV 100-meter champion, left in the first quarter with an ankle injury and did not return.
"We came out a little sluggish, which surprised me," Smith said. "Our game plan was to get outside. We tried. Credit to them they had a nice scheme and stopped our outside game."
Oakcrest punted into the wind on its first two possessions.
Cherokee began its first scoring drive at the Oakcrest 31-yard line.
Cherokee quarterback Andy Martin finished a four-play drive with a 25-yard touchdown pass to Drake Rodgers to give the Chiefs a 7-0 lead with 7 minutes, 59 seconds left in the first quarter.
Cherokee began its second scoring drive at the Oakcrest 33-yard line. This time the drive took five plays with Mike Zeuli scoring on a 9-yard run to make it 13-0 Cherokee with 3:07 left in the first quarter.
Martin, who threw three touchdown passes, said Cherokee wanted to get off to a fast start to discourage the underdog Falcons.
"We knew that (Oakcrest) was an emotional team that thrived on turnovers," he said.
Oakcrest never threatened Cherokee, but the Falcons had their moments.
Joe Sprigg ran a fake punt for 13 yards and a first down in the first quarter. Linebacker Sidiq Evans-White recovered a fumble. Clements intercepted a pass. Sprigg (17 carries for 75 yards) shifted to quarterback in the second half and gave the Falcons' offense a spark.
"We're known for not giving up," Sprigg said. "We're a second-half team. We didn't come out and play the way we're supposed to, but we're not giving up."
After the post-game handshake, Cherokee students and fans ran onto the field to join the Chiefs in celebration.
Meanwhile, Oakcrest fans walked slowly toward the Falcons to console the players.
There was disappointment but also a sense of achievement.
Oakcrest returns a number of talented players, including Jetter and fullback and linebacker Brandon Bell.
These Falcons may not have won a championship, but they did change the way fans view Oakcrest football.
The Falcons, long one of the Cape-Atlantic League's struggling teams, are now a program with a future as promising as any local school.
"I expect to be in the playoff hunt every year," Smith said. "I think this says a lot for our program. There's always talent in Mays Landing. I think this is going to speak volumes for us down the road."
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