PENNSAUKEN - The Atlantic City High School football team surrounded Pennsauken quarterback Manny Cortez on Saturday afternoon.
The Vikings grabbed his jersey and wrapped their arms around his legs.
Just when Cortez seemed destined to be tackled, he escaped.
He ran for a long gain, threw a touchdown pass or made some other eye-opening play.
Cortez threw two touchdown passes and ran for a score as Pennsauken beat Atlantic City 31-9 in a South Jersey Group IV quarterfinal. Pennsauken (8-1) advances to host Williamstown (7-2) in a semifinal next Saturday. Meanwhile, Atlantic City will finish the season with its annual Thanksgiving Day game against Holy Spirit.
"We put a lot of pressure on (Cortez)," Vikings defender Ismail Naji said. "We thought we had him a couple of times. It's unbelievable."
The game was closer than the final score suggests. Pennsauken, No. 7 in The Press Elite 11, scored three touchdowns in the final 10 minutes, 20 seconds.
The eighth-seeded Vikings (6-3) seemed poised to upset Pennsauken. Atlantic City built a 9-6 lead midway through the third quarter behind the running of Radi Tolbert (21 carries for 60 yards) and timely passing of Kabir McCoy (9-of-19 for 165 yards).
The Vikings knew Cortez, who entered the game with 29 touchdown passes, was the player they had to stop.
"We knew if we could get him down on the ground we had a good chance of winning the game," Vikings coach Thomas Kelly said. "For a big part of the game, we did that."
But Cortez turned the game in Pennsauken's favor with just a couple of plays in the third quarter.
Cortez dropped back to pass on a first-and-10 from the Atlantic City 25-yard line. Three Atlantic City defenders closed in. The 6-foot-2, 185-pound Cortez evaded the would-be tacklers.
"I find my way out of tough times," Cortez said.
Cortez then lofted a touchdown pass to a wide-open Anthony Sweet. The score gave the Indians a 12-9 lead with 4:19 to play in the third quarter.
But Pennsauken's advantage seemed larger than that. The play symbolized that on this day, Cortez probably would lead Pennsauken to victory no matter how well the Vikings performed.
"The plays he makes are back-breakers," Kelly said. "If they beat us one-on-one, we tip our caps. But when you have a kid locked up and you don't get him down. That's a back-breaker."
Atlantic City never challenged Pennsauken the rest of the game.
Cortez, who finished with 193 passing yards and 42 rushing yards, made one more remarkable impromptu play. This one came in the final minute with Pennsauken ahead 25-9.
He fielded a punt at midfield. Once again, Atlantic City defenders closed in and had him in their grasp. Cortez spun and tossed a lateral to Amar Williams, who sprinted 50 yards untouched in the end zone for a touchdown.
"That's the team connection," Cortez said. "He was calling my name and I heard him."
While Pennsauken advances, Atlantic City turns its attention Holy Spirit. The Vikings haven't beaten Spirit since 2004.
"Everything is not lost," Kelly said. "We still have Thanksgiving. If we beat Holy Spirit, it makes (things) feel a lot better."
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Atlantic City 0 9 0 0-9
Pennsauken 6 0 6 19-31
PEN-Cortez 3 run (kick blocked)
AC-Safety (Pennsauken recovered fumble in own end zone)
AC-McCoy 3 run (McCoy kick)
PEN-Sweet 25 pass from Cortez (pass failed)
PEN-Williams 14 pass from Cortez (kick blocked)
PEN-Thomas 13 run (Sweet kick)
PEN-Williams 50 punt return (run failed)
Rushing-Atlantic City, Tolbert 21-60. Pennsauken, Thomas 10-65, Cortez 6-42.
Passing-Atlantic City, McCoy 9-19-1-165. Pennsauken, Cortez 12-18-0-193.
Receiving-Atlantic City, Naji 3-49, McBryde 2-72. Pennsauken, Williams 3-91, Sweet 3-51.
Records-Atlantic City 6-3; Pennauken 8-1.