Coach Chuck Smith of the Oakcrest High School football team put his arm around linebacker and running back Brandon Bell after the Falcons beat Atlantic City 31-14 in the South Jersey Group IV semifinals on Nov. 14.
"I'm glad you'll be around two more years," Smith told the sophomore Bell.
Smith is happy Bell and sophomore quarterback Quaashie Jetter are Falcons this year, too. The two 15-year-olds are integral parts of a team that is having one of the best seasons in Oakcrest history.
The Falcons (9-2) play at defending champion Cherokee (11-0) at 1 p.m. Saturday for the South Jersey Group IV title.
"I think it's great for the future of our program," Smith said of having Bell and Jetter. "To have them get this kind of experience this early on is only going to benefit us down the road. This is where we always want to be. This is how we always want to compete."
Oakcrest has been the biggest surprise of the sea
son. Before this season, the Falcons had never won a playoff game. Their last winning season was 1998 and their last playoff appearance came in 1986.
Jetter and Bell are two big reasons for the turnaround.
The 5-foot-10, 190-pound Jetter has thrown for 681 yards and five touchdowns. He's run for 239 yards and three touchdowns.
The 6-1, 196-pound Bell leads the Falcons with eight sacks. He's rushed 91 times for 543 yards and six touchdowns.
"I feel a little bit experienced," Bell said. "But in the playoffs, we're all inexperienced because nobody on the team has been there before."
It is unusual for sophomores to play such key roles on a South Jersey Group IV contender. Group IV is the largest enrollment group. Teams with sophomores at prominent positions often struggle to finish .500.
Bell and Jetter have known each other since the fifth grade.
Bell started as a freshman last year. He lives in Mays Landing and knew of Oakcrest's struggles before this season. Bell's older brother Keenan, a 2008 Oakcrest graduate, was a standout football player and track and field athlete for the Falcons.
Smith said Bell has tremendous football instincts.
"When you coach him up on something, he understands it," Smith said.
"As the coaches make adjustments (in practice), Brandon will call them out (simultaneously). He makes big plays because he truly understands what's going on. He's not just running around out there."
Jetter once joked that he would never go to Oakcrest.
"That was the weird thing," he said. "I wound up going there and it's a good thing."
Jetter split time between living with his mother in Atlantic City and his father in Mays Landing growing up. Jetter attended St. Augustine Prep as a freshman. He transferred to Oakcrest last summer for financial reasons and now lives with his father in Mays Landing.
Smith said Jetter quickly picked up Oakcrest's spread offense.
"It's his intelligence and his confidence," Smith said. "He doesn't get rattled as bad as things can get sometimes. He has the leadership quality. You can talk to him. He listens to you. When you make a correction with him, he doesn't make the same mistake twice."
Jetter has developed as the season progressed. He threw two touchdown passes in the Falcons' 14-13 win over Absegami on Thanksgiving.
"I feel like me and the receivers are finally getting together on the same page," he said.
Both Jetter and Bell know Saturday will be different from any game they've ever played. A big crowd is expected. Cherokee is one of the most unique settings in southern New Jersey. The field is located at the bottom of a hill.
"I'm definitely going to be nervous," Jetter said. "I'm nervous before a regular game. It's probably going to be real crazy."
With Jetter and Bell, Saturday probably won't be the last big game Oakcrest plays the next two years.
"I think the world is in our hands," Jetter said. "We can really do some things if we keep working hard."
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If you go
What: South Jersey Group IV football championship
Who: Seventh-seeded Oakcrest (9-2) vs. top-seeded Cherokee (11-0)
When/where: 1 p.m. Saturday at Cherokee, located at 120 Tomlinson Mill Rd. in the Marlton section of Evesham Township.
Tickets: $3 adults, $2 for students and senior citizens.
Did you know? Oakcrest has never appeared in a South Jersey football title game.
The Chiefs: Cherokee is the defending champion, having beaten EHT 14-0 in last year's final. Cherokee has appeared four of the last six S.J. Group IV finals.