EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP - The Egg Harbor Township High School football team played its first home game of the season at its renovated stadium Thursday morning.
"It was different," EHT running back Stephan Thomas said. "It was kind of weird, actually."
It probably felt even weirder less than three minutes into the contest. Underdog Mainland Regional was ahead by a touchdown.
EHT, however, kept its poise and methodically grinded its way to a 25-7 victory. EHT quarterback Scott Miller threw two touchdown passes and Thomas ran for two touchdowns.
The undefeated Eagles (11-0) are No. 2 in The Press' Elite 11 and will play at No. 1 Cherokee for the South Jersey Group IV championship Saturday, Dec. 5. Mainland finishes 5-5.
"We didn't want to push the panic button (after the Mainland touchdown)," EHT coach Tony DeRosa said. "This team all year has been solid when faced with adversity."
Most of that adversity had come from the schedule. While its field was under construction, EHT had played on the road or at St. Augustine Prep.
Thursday's game served as homecoming for the Eagles and a debut for their stadium. The renovated stadium features an artificial grass field and a new press box, bleachers and lights.
Mainland vs. EHT is one of the region's biggest Thanksgiving rivalries, but the opening of the stadium created an even more festive atmosphere. Several Eagles participated in a pre-game ribbon cutting ceremony.
This was the first time fans had a chance to see the facility. The crowd packed bleachers on both sides of the field.
"It was incredible," Miller said. "In the first half and most of the second half, the stands were going wild. You could hear everybody. It was loud, and it was a great experience."
But a well-prepared Mainland team seemed poised to ruin the party in the first quarter.
The Mustangs took EHT by surprise. Mainland blooped the opening kickoff and recovered it at the EHT 31-yard line. Five players later, Tom Bradway threw an 8-yard touchdown pass to Dan Boudreau to give Mainland a 7-0 lead with 9 minutes, 42 seconds left in the first quarter.
"I think we all thought it was going to be a cakewalk," Thomas said. "We were more focused on Cherokee, but after (the Mainland touchdown) we stepped our game up."
Still, EHT trailed much of the first half. The Eagles finally took the lead for good in the final minute of the second quarter.
EHT had the ball on third-and-goal at the Mainland 2-yard line. Fullback Zach Agostino plunged ahead for 1 yard. EHT immediately lined up, and Miller threw a 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Mark Capetola. EHT led 12-7 with 27.9 seconds left in the second quarter.
"We called two plays in the huddle (before third down)," Miller said. "There were a few guys coming off the edge on fourth down. I knew nobody would be out there. I threw it up to Mark. That gave us a lot of confidence going into the half."
The EHT defense shut down Mainland in the second half. Eagles linemen Kevin Marquez and Capetola each had a sack in the second half, as did linebacker Shane Delaney. Linebacker Dominic Moody and cornerback Matt Capetola each had a tackle for a loss.
"They're a fabulous football team," Mainland coach Bob Coffey said. "Our kids came to play. They've played hard all year."
Thursday was EHT's first win over Mainland since 2003. The Mustangs lead the series 16-10-1.
Mainland has been a source of frustration for the Eagles.
The teams' roles were reversed this season. Mainland was headed to the South Jersey Group IV final in 2007-08 and EHT was trying to pull a Thanksgiving-day upset.
The Eagles nearly did last season. They led 27-7 in the third quarter but lost 30-27. Mainland also beat EHT in overtime in 2004 and 2006.
EHT showed what the game meant on Thursday's final play. Mainland had the ball fourth-and-goal at the EHT 1-yard line. A Mustangs touchdown wouldn't have changed the outcome.
The Eagles did not let down. They stuffed a Mainland running play and kept the Mustangs out of the end zone.
"We said it was gut-check time," said Agostino, who plays linebacker on defense. "This is big. It's been pretty much heartbreak every year against Mainland. It meant so much to win this game."
Contact Michael McGarry:
Mainland Regional 7 0 0 0-7
EHT 0 12 7 6-25
ML-Boudreau 8 pass from Bradway (Cooper kick)
EHT-Thomas 8 run (kick blocked)
EHT-Mark Capetola 1 pass from Miller (pass failed)
EHT-Thomas 15 run (Mason kick)
EHT-Johnson 37 pass from Miller (kick missed)
First downs 10 13
Rushing 8 100
Passing 109 170
Turnovers 1 0
Rushing-Bradway 14-8 ML. Johnson 9-37, Miller 15-8, Agostino 8-28, Thomas 5-33 EHT.
Passing-Bradway 14-30-1-109 ML. Miller 8-12-0-170 EHT.
Receiving-Irizarry 4-62 ML. Johnson 3-78, Magosin 4-52, Thomas 1-40 EHT.
Records: Mainland 5-5; EHT 11-0