The Atlantic City High School football team gathered around first-year coach Thomas Kelly after a 21-14 loss to Hammonton last Saturday.
The Vikings, as they always do, answered Kelly's questions with "yes, sir" or "no, sir."
But this time the players' responses were tepid at best. The loss was Atlantic City's first of the season.
After six games in which just about everything had gone right, the Vikings faced the adversity of a defeat.
How the Vikings handle that disappointment will be determined tonight.
Atlantic City (6-1) hosts Millville (4-3) at 7 p.m. in a Cape-Atlantic League game filled with South Jersey Group IV playoff ramifications.
"Nobody but us cares (about the loss)," Kelly said. "Millville is not going to feel sorry for us because we lost to Hammonton. There's no time to sulk. It's time to get ready for Millville."
Atlantic City already has secured a playoff berth, but the Vikings would clinch a first-round home game with a win tonight. Meanwhile, Millville needs a victory to have any chance of making the playoffs. The playoff fields will be determined after this weekend's games. The first round starts next weekend.
Few fans thought the Vikings had a shot at the playoffs when the season started. Atlantic City finished 1-9 last year. The Vikings even surprised themselves with their success this season.
"I couldn't even imagine this," senior quarterback Jamal Anderson said.
Excitement around the team built with each win.
"When we started out 6-0, the community was buzzing," Kelly said. "The community is on the edge of its seat wondering what's going to happen next."
Despite all the good feelings about the Vikings' undefeated start, Kelly couldn't help but wonder how the team would respond to a defeat.
"We didn't bet against our guys," Kelly said. "But we wanted to see how they would come back after a loss. Are the rats going to jump off the ship?"
Kelly and assistants wondered if players would sulk? Would they arrive late at practice? Would they criticize each other or lose faith in the coaches?
So far, there's been none of that, Kelly said.
The Vikings watched videotape of the defeat Monday afternoon.
"We treated (the loss) as a missed opportunity," Kelly said. "Instead of it being the end of the world, the players look at it as chance to get better. All the attitudes have been positive."
In Millville, Atlantic City faces a team that is also coming off a disappointing loss.
St. Augustine Prep beat the Thunderbolts 38-23 last Friday. The loss ended Millville's three-game winning streak. Millville committed six turnovers in the defeat.
"Our focus this week is to get back to the things we were doing well earlier in the year," Millville coach Jason Durham said. "We went back to tackling and protecting the football (drills)."
Kelly, Durham and CAL observers say Millville and Atlantic City have much in common. Both teams rely on speed.
"I think there's going to be a lot of guys on the field matched against other guys with similar speed," Durham said. "It's a little bit like looking in the mirror."
Both teams have too much at stake tonight to dwell on last week's losses.
Millville hasn't made the playoffs since 1998. The Thunderbolts need to beat the Vikings and have several other contenders lose to make the postseason.
Atlantic City last appeared in the playoffs in 2007. The Viking haven't hosted a playoff game since they lost to Pennsauken 20-7 in the first round of the 2006 South Jersey Group IV playoffs.
A home playoff game would be another outstanding achievement in what has been a remarkable Atlantic City turnaround. The Vikings already have won the CAL American Division title.
"It would mean the world to Atlantic City," Anderson said of hosting a playoff game. "For us being our senior year, we would love not to travel and have a team come to our house."
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