The players of the Atlantic City High School football team drop to a knee and stare up at coach Thomas Kelly with looks of disbelief after each win this season.
"Sometimes it seems like they can't even believe it," Kelly said.
The Vikings in Kelly's first season are one of the biggest surprises in southern New Jersey football.
Atlantic City, which won one game last season, is undefeated and leads the Cape-Atlantic League American Division. The Vikings (4-0) host Egg Harbor Township (4-1) at 7 p.m. today.
The winner gets a boost toward the division title and a South Jersey Group IV playoff spot.
Atlantic City is No. 9 in The Press Elite 11. EHT has won four straight.
"I'm happy for the seniors," Kelly said. "When the team was 1-9, I don't think they thought they would be playing in a game that means this much this soon."
Uncertainty surrounded the Vikings program before the season.
Kelly, a 1992 Atlantic City graduate, replaced Bobby Weiss, who resigned after last season.
Weiss, who is now an EHT assistant, was one of the most accomplished coaches in Atlantic City history regardless of sport. Weiss led the Vikings to the 1999 South Jersey Group IV championship. Kelly had no head coaching experience.
The Vikings returned several veterans from last season's team, so they were expected to improve.
But nobody envisioned this type of early success.
Atlantic City players responded to Kelly's energetic approach, which emphasized offseason conditioning. The Vikings have outscored their opponents 61-10 in the fourth quarter this season.
Kelly didn't mince words when he spoke to his players at his first meeting after getting the job. He impressed them with a PowerPoint presentation that detailed how other teams train and what it takes to play college football. Kelly played at Rutgers University from 1993-97.
"He told us if you weren't going to be committed, don't come out for the team," senior tight end and linebacker Ben Allen said. "Everybody knew he was serious."
While Atlantic City football was nearly forgotten last season, interest in the team has grown with each victory this year. Teachers and students congratulate the players in the hallways. The number of fans at each game increases with each victory.
"I've come to realize that each week the game gets bigger and bigger," Kelly said. "If we keep winning, each game - no matter who the team is - becomes bigger and bigger."
Atlantic City has won with speed and a stingy defense.
Four Atlantic City touchdowns have covered at least 35 yards. Three of them were 50 yards or longer.
Running backs Radi Tolbert and Orris Gallagher have broken long runs for touchdowns. Quarterback Jamal Anderson has thrown for five touchdowns. At 6-foot-4, wide receiver Ishmail Naji is difficult to defend.
Allen sparks a defense that has allowed just 12 points total in the last three games.
"For years, Atlantic City has had great speed and kids who could change a game in a matter of seconds," EHT coach Tony DeRosa said. "They have that this year. They're playing with a little chip on their shoulders, but so are we. Everyone counted us out."
Last year, the Eagles finished 11-1 and lost in the South Jersey Group IV final to Cherokee 14-0. But they graduated several standouts from that team, so preseason predictions were tepid at best. EHT slipped further into the background when it lost this year's opener to Absegami 17-13.
But since then, the Eagles have won four straight and re-established themselves as a CAL contender.
EHT features experienced players who are used to playing in and, more importantly, winning important games. EHT's veterans sparked the Eagles to a come-from-behind 24-13 win over previously undefeated Hammon-ton last Saturday. Wide receiver Kevin Marquez caught a touchdown pass and running back Stephan Thomas rushed for a touchdown.
"Those guys are self-motivated, and they're also very unselfish," DeRosa said. "They care about the team and winning."
This is easily Atlantic City's biggest test of the season. The Vikings have yet to beat a team with a winning record. Two of the teams they beat are winless.
Kelly said the game will be decided up front, and Atlantic City must stop EHT's running game.
"If we don't, it's going to be a long night," he said.
Tonight marks the halfway point of the regular season for Atlantic City. No matter the result, the Vikings already have shown they have survived the adversity of a 1-9 season. The upperclassmen could have chosen not to come out for the team this year after such a disappointing season.
Talented freshmen and sophomores could have transferred to private schools.
"These guys deserve to be winners," Kelly said. "This thing could have gone any number of ways. Our players showed up and did what they were supposed to do. These kids didn't give up, and that's going to help them in life down the line."
Contact Michael McGarry:
Where/When: 7 p.m. today at Atlantic City
Radio: 94.3 FM
Why this game is important: The winner takes a big step toward the Cape-Atlantic League American Division title and a berth in the South Jersey Group IV playoffs.
EHT: Stephan Thomas, RB/DB, 78 carries for 335 yards; Jon Kopistecki, QB, 47-of-73 for 686 yards and six touchdowns; Kevin Marquez, WR/LB, 20 catches for 390 yards and two touchdowns; Dominic Moody, RB/LB; Doug Bolden, WR, nine catches for 111 yards and two touchdowns.
Atlantic City: Radi Tolbert, RB, 24 carries for 234 yards; Jamal Anderson, QB, 35-of-68 for 541 yards and five touchdowns; Ishmail Naji, WR, 13 catches for 221 yards and two touchdowns; Ben Allen, LB/TE.
Last five meetings:
2009: EHT 41, Atlantic City 7
2008: Atlantic City 27, EHT 7
2007: Atlantic City 17, EHT 14
2006: Atlantic City 19, EHT 14
2005: Atlantic City 27, EHT 0