BUENA VISTA TOWNSHIP - Atlantic City High School football fans took pictures of the scoreboard Friday night.
They cheered with the band and huddled around the team after the game.
In those moments, Vikings fans knew one thing : Atlantic City football was back.
The Vikings rallied in the fourth quarter and survived 13 penalties (for 90 yards) to defeat St. Augustine Prep 26-24 in a season-opening Cape-Atlantic League game Friday night.
"We needed to win. We needed to make a statement," said Atlantic City quarterback Jamal Anderson, who completed 14-of-21 passes for 221 yards. "We ain't no scrubs this year. We thought about that all offseason."
The Vikings went just 1-9 last year and longtime coach Bobby Weiss resigned. The Hermits had not lost to a southern New Jersey team since October 2007 against St. Joseph.
Thomas Kelly, Weiss' successor, ran the players during the preseason. Then he ran them some more. Benefits of the conditioning drills showed up on the field as Atlantic City seemed to get stronger as the game progressed.
"This game means we practiced hard. We prepared hard," Kelly said. "We like to do backflips (in celebration), but I like them to believe from the way we practice that we are supposed to win these games."
The Vikings were down 17-12 with less than 10 minutes left in the game but made big plays to get themselves in position to score the go-ahead touchdown.
Senior Orris Gallagher ran through the defensive line to just about reach the goal line with 6 minutes, 35 seconds left. Radi Tolbert then finished the drive with a 1-yard touchdown that put Atlantic City up 20-17 after a successful 2-point conversion.
Tolbert came back a few minutes later to give the Vikings a comfortable lead.
The Holy Spirit transfer was alone in the secondary and converted a third-and-long into a 56-yard catch for his second touchdown to make it 26-17 with 3:06 left.
"I just saw green and I kept running," said Tolbert, who had 119 yards on 11 carries and 113 receiving yards on four catches. "I saw the safety leave me and I knew I would be wide open."
St. Augustine tried to move the ball quickly on the next series, but its first two pass attempts fell short. Quarterback Chris Jablonski (2-for-10, 84 yards) then saw John Barillo streaking down the sideline and planted a pass right in his arms. Barillo raced 74 yards to cut the score to 26-24 with 2:42 left.
The Hermits tried an onside kick but didn't get the ball. On the next series, two first-down runs by Atlantic City ended St. Augustine's comeback.
Earlier, the Vikings' bus ride from Atlantic City to Buena Vista Township had been quiet.
The Vikings told themselves throughout the offseason they would show just how good they could be. However, there was no way of really knowing until they got on the field.
Their nerves showed. The Vikings committed a penalty on the first defensive play of the game, which set the tone the rest of the night for Atlantic City.
The Vikings' 13 penalties included three on fourth downs that allowed St. Augustine Prep to keep drives going. The Hermits scored on two of them.
"We left some points on the board," St. Augustine coach Dennis Scuderi said. "We're young. We played a lot of young kids. There were a lot kids playing for the first time and that was apparent from the mistakes."
St. Augustine opened the game's scoring.
For a team like Atlantic City that is trying to find an identity, it could have been a devastating blow. Barillo, who had 155 yards on 23 carries, scored his first of three touchdowns on a 43-yard run.
Instead, the Vikings came right back with a score of their own. Anderson showed off his legs with runs of 11 and 9 yards. He let his arm fly, completing 4-of-6 passes for 68 yards. The last one on a 16-yard touchdown pass to Ishmael Naji, who finished with eight catches for 93 yards.
"I don't think they were expecting that coming from a team that was 1-9 last year," Naji said.
If other teams didn't know about Atlantic City, they will now.
"Atlantic City is going to win a lot of games this year," Scuderi said.
Contact Susan Lulgjuraj:
Atlantic City 6 6 0 14 - 26
St. Augustine Prep 7 7 0 10 - 24
SA - Barillo 43 run (Gough kick)
AC - Naji 16 pass from Anderson (kick failed)
SA - Barillo 33 run (Gough)
AC - Bailey 1 run (run failed)
SA - Gough 25 field goal
AC - Tolbert 1 run (Anderson pass to Naji)
AC - Tolbert 56 pass from Anderson (pass failed)
SA - Barillo 74 pass from Jablonski (Gough kick)
RUSHING - Barillo 23-155, Gerald 5-10, Jablonski 1-4. Total: 29-169 SA; Anderson 10-69, Martelli 1-2, Tolbert 7-119, Naji 1-4, Bailey 2-22, Gallagher 5-25. Total: 26-239 AC.
RECEIVING - Cass 1-10; Barillo 1-74. Total 2-84; Naji 8-93, Tolbert 4-113, Gallagher 1-8, Wellman 1-7. Total: 14-
PASSING - Jablonski 2-10-0-84 SA; Anderson 14-21-1-221 AC.
RECORDS - Atlantic City 1-0, St. Augustine 0-1.