The Bridgeton High School football team wilted at the site of the region's parochial powers the past three years.
But every season brings the chance to start anew and Bridgeton took advantage of that opportunity last Friday.
The Bulldogs stunned St. Joseph 14-6 in the season opener. The win was Bridgeton's first over the Wildcats since 1989 and its first victory over any parochial school year in three years.
The Bulldogs will try to build on that momentum as they meet another highly touted parochial power today. Bridgeton (1-0) plays at St. Augustine Prep (1-0). Kickoff is at 7 p.m.
The Hermits are the defending Cape-Atlantic League National Conference champions and No. 4 in The Press' Elite 11.
"A lot of people doubted us," Bridgeton standout linebacker Rashaun Smith said. "Now everybody's on the bandwagon."
Because of the St. Joseph win, there is a buzz that hasn't been present in years about Bridgeton football.
"The fans want another big win," senior receiver Kyheem Simpson said.
But to get that victory Bridgeton must continue to rewrite recent history.
St. Joseph, St. Augustine Prep and Holy Spirit dominated the CAL National Conference the past two seasons.
The three schools were a combined 36-6 in the conference with the only losses to each other in 2007-08.
No public school has won the conference title outright since Hammonton in 2002, and the Blue Devils are now in the American Conference.
Bridgeton epitomized the frustration of the conference's five public schools. The Bulldogs qualified for the South Jersey Group II playoffs from 2006-08. But they were 1-8 against the conference's parochial schools during that span. They were 18-5 against public schools.
The defeats to the parochial schools were one thing. How Bridgeton lost was another.
The Bulldogs often fumbled in the first quarter and committed costly penalties to set up easy scores for their parochial rivals.
Games that should have been close became lopsided. The average margin of defeat was 29.1 points. At times, Bridgeton appeared to have a mental block against parochial schools.
"We always seemed to shoot ourselves in the foot," Bulldogs coach Dave Ellen said. "It was 35-0 in the first quarter. That gets back in the back of your mind. Pretty soon, you're fighting against yourself."
But the Bulldogs took a big step toward changing their karma with the St. Joe win. Smith keyed the defense sprinting sideline to sideline to make tackles.
Running backs Mike Cisrow and Kevin Bunton combined for nearly 200 yards. Bridgeton grabbed an early lead, and the Bulldogs' belief in themselves grew as the game progressed.
"It's a great confidence builder," Ellen said of the win. "When you have more confidence, you play with more speed. It helps with all aspects of the game."
But teams must also be wary after momentous victories. Students and teachers congratulated the players when the returned to school Monday.
"It was crazy," Simpson said.
Bridgeton coaches have warned the Bulldogs not to get carried away by the St. Joe win.
"It's a clich�," Ellen said, "but you want to take it one game at a time. You preach that to the kids. But it's difficult to do, especially after a big win."
St. Augustine is one of southern New Jersey's most talented teams. Quarterback Dustin Thomas threw for 20 touchdowns last season. Gabe Voumard is an outstanding wide receiver wide and Darnell Laws a powerful running back.
The Hermits opened with a 34-17 win over Roman Catholic (Pa.) last Friday.
The anticipation for tonight's game combined with last Friday's big win has Bridgeton fans pumped.
But the Bulldogs aren't the only ones with enthusiasm. Football has never as been popular as it is right now at St. Augustine. The Hermits made history of their own with a school-record 10 wins last season.
Although the 2009 season is young, tonight's game will have lasting ramifications. The contest will help define the race for the CAL National Conference title.
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