EVESHAM TOWNSHIP - The South Jersey Group IV championship game was less than 10 seconds old Saturday.
The Egg Harbor Township or Cherokee high school football teams didn't know it yet but the contest's most important play had already happened.
Cherokee opened the game with an onside kick and recovered the ball at the EHT 47-yard line. The play gave the Chiefs the field position that led to victory.
Cherokee beat EHT 14-0 in the rain and snow. Chiefs fullback Sean Farrell rushed for 116 yards, and the Cherokee defense held EHT to 96 yards of offense.
"We lost because of field position," EHT running back and defensive back Tejay Johnson said. "It just hurts. They were a better football team (Saturday)."
Fans of both schools and local high school football highly anticipated Saturday's game. EHT (11-1) was the No. 2 seed and No. 1 in The Press' Elite 11. Top-seeded Cherokee (11-1) was No. 3 in the Elite 11.
Despite the cold and lousy weather, fans packed the Cherokee bleachers. Other fans watched from the hill above Cherokee's field.
EHT started nearly all of its first-half possessions deep in its own territory because of the opening onside kick.
"We knew it would be a field-position game," Cherokee coach P.J. Mehigan said. "It's not something new to us. We've been doing it throughout the year."
EHT coach Tony DeRosa said the Eagles knew the onside kick was coming.
"We worked on the onside kick for about 45 minutes every day this week," the coach said. "We just needed to make a play. They made more plays than we did."
Cherokee started five of its six first-half possessions inside EHT territory.
The EHT defense played well, but Cherokee finally took advantage of its constant short fields in the second quarter.
Chiefs quarterback Andrew Martin finished a seven-play, 34-yard drive with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Drake Rodgers to give Cherokee a 7-0 lead with 11 minutes, 52 seconds left in the second quarter.
Cherokee linebacker Kevin Byrne set up Cherokee's second touchdown with an interception. His 22-yard return gave the Chiefs the ball at the EHT 25-yard line.
Five plays later, Martin snuck across the goal line from a yard out to put the Chiefs up 14-0 with 1:07 left in the first half.
Cherokee's lead might as well have been five or six touchdowns.
EHT sustained no offensive success.
The Cherokee defense was a big reason. The snow, rain and cold didn't help an Eagles team that relies on speed to create big plays.
"I think the elements helped us," Mehigan said. "They probably weren't able to pass it as much as they would have liked."
The Eagles had just 11 rushing yards in the first three quarters. EHT's Johnson rushed five times for negative-2 yards. Quarterback Scott Miller rushed for 47 yards, but 41 of them came late in the fourth quarter when the game was decided.
Mehigan said the Chiefs focused on stopping Miller.
"Our guys did a great job," Mehigan said. "It's tiring chasing him around. Scott Miller is very, very dangerous."
EHT had a chance to rally early in the third quarter.
The Cherokee punter inadvertently let his knee hit the ground while fielding a low snap. EHT got the ball at the Cherokee 34-yard line.
But four plays produced only 1 yard. EHT tried a reverse on a fourth down, but Cherokee defensive end Douglas Lotierzo tackled ball carrier Stephan Thomas for a 2-yard loss.
"We were looking for more plays to be made on the perimeter," DeRosa said. "Toward the end of the game we were trying to find an edge, something that would work. In the past, we'd find something; (today) they did a good job of defending us."
Cherokee controlled the rest of the game behind the running of the 230-pound Farrell.
The Eagles showed outstanding sportsmanship after the game, keeping their poise and complimenting the Chiefs.
"We needed this one," Miller said. "This was at the top of everybody's list. But today Cherokee was the better team."
The win gave Cherokee its seventh South Jersey title. EHT, which was trying to win its first sectional championship since 1993, will have to be content with one of the best seasons in school history.
That didn't seem like much of a consolation as the Eagles shivered in the cold and snow and walked off the field.
Contact Michael McGarry:
Egg Harbor Township 0 0 0 0-0
Cherokee 0 14 0 0-14
C-Rodgers 10 pass from Martin (Morrissey kick)
C-Martin 1 run (Morrissey kick)
First Downs 5 13
Rushing 49 130
Passing 47 45
Turnovers 2 0
Rushing-Miller 10-47 EHT. Farrell 28-116 C.
Passing-Miller 7-22-2-47 EHT. Martin 5-9-0-45 C.
Receiving-Stahl 3-28 C. Magosin 5-35 EHT.
Records-EHT 11-1; Cherokee 11-1