BUENA VISTA TOWNSHIP - Kevin Marquez heard someone say, "White."
But that someone wasn't an Egg Harbor Township High School football coach.
White is the code word EHT uses to signal a fake punt. Marquez is the punter, so when he caught the snap, he took off running.
"I just wanted to run it," Marquez said. "I kind of heard white, but I kind of didn't. Maybe I wanted to hear it."
Regardless, he scrambled 27 yards for a first down. The play led to the touchdown that clinched EHT's first South Jersey final appearance in nine years.
The Eagles beat Toms River East 41-30 in a thrilling game that tested the nerves of players, coaches and fans on both sides Saturday afternoon at St. Augustine Prep.
Second-seeded EHT (10-0) will play top-seeded Cherokee (10-0) for the title the weekend of Dec. 4-5 at Cherokee.
Marquez's fake punt was one of
two pivotal plays EHT made in the fourth quarter to rally from a three-point deficit. Stephan Thomas returned a kickoff 80 yards for a touchdown to give the Eagles a 34-30 lead with 9 minutes, 22 seconds left. The return came after Toms River East had grabbed a 30-27 lead on a 41-yard touchdown pass from Nico Steriti to his brother, Mario.
"We're finally in the (championship)," Thomas said. "We've worked really hard."
This semifinal was one of the most-anticipated playoff games in the state this weekend. Both teams entered the contest undefeated. EHT is No. 4 in The Press' Elite 11. Third-seeded Toms River East (9-1) is No. 5.
Fans filled the bleachers at St. Augustine. Many more stood along the fence that surrounds the field. With all the offensive talent both teams have, fans anticipated a contest loaded with big plays.
"We knew going in how fast they were," Toms River East coach Charlie Diskin said. "But we felt we matched up pretty well with them. One of our strengths is our speed. Their guys made plays and our guys made plays."
The thrills started immediately when Mario Steriti returned the opening kickoff 74 yards for a touchdown to give East a 6-0 lead.
Fans barely had a chance to catch their breath the rest of the way. The game featured five scoring plays of 40 or more yards.
The action intensified in the fourth quarter.
Toms River East had the momentum and the lead after the Steriti brothers connected on the 41-yard touchdown pass with 9:35 left in the game.
The Raiders' advantage lasted 13 seconds.
Thomas grabbed the kickoff in the center of the field and ran straight ahead.
"The hole opened," Thomas said. "My eyes got big, and I ran as fast as I could."
Thomas burst through. He sprinted untouched to the end zone. EHT was back in front 34-30.
The EHT defense then continued its stingy play. Nico Steriti is one of the state's best running backs with more than 1,500 rushing yards.
EHT held him to 88 yards on 21 carries. Steriti gained just 15 yards on nine carries in the second half. Zach Agostino, Chris Santiago and Darryl Pratt each had tackles for losses for EHT in the third and fourth quarters.
"There was no changes, scheme-wise," EHT coach Tony DeRosa said. "We preach tackling every singe day. We said it's not time to hit the panic button. We need to tackle. We need to get 11 hats on him."
After forcing East to punt, EHT clinched the victory with one final drive.
The possession started at the Eagles' 21-yard line. Quarterback Scott Miller threw a 23-yard screen pass to Joe Magosin (three catches for 90 yards) for a first down. Running back Tejay Johnson (14 carries for 98 yards) ran seven yards for another first down.
But with the ball at the Toms River East 44-yard line, EHT got conservative.
Three running plays into the line left the Eagles with a fourth-and-five from the East 39-yard line.
He knew he had to do something. His 1-yard punt in the waning moments of the second quarter and had given East the chance to kick a 42-yard field goal to take a 22-21 halftime lead.
"It (the fake punt) didn't come from the sideline," DeRosa said. "We do work on it every day in practice. We were talking about it earlier on in the game. Maybe, he heard it. maybe he didn't. But you know what, he made a great play. We'll take it."
Marquez's 27-yard run gave EHT a first down at the Toms River East 12-yard line.
Three plays later, Agostino (15 carries for 107 yards) plunged across the goal line for the clinching touchdown with 1:27 left.
"I'm glad I went for it," Marquez said. "If we had punted it, God knows what would have happened. They're a good team."
EHT hasn't reached a South Jersey final since it lost to Woodrow Wilson 27-14 the 2001 Group III final.
The Eagles haven't won a South Jersey title since they captured Group III in 1993.
The Eagles had several teams earlier this dedicated that were supposed to compete for South Jersey titles.
This EHT group has met expectations because of its ability to weather adversity and come back.
"This is great for the program," Miller said. "It's great to get EHT back to where it used to be."
Contact Michael McGarry:
Toms River East 6 16 0 8-30
Egg Harbor Township 7 14 6 14-41
TRE-M. Steriti 74 kickoff return (kick blocked)
EHT-Thomas 1 run (Mason kick)
TRE- N. Steriti 31 run (Clarizio kick)
EHT-Magosin 45 pass from Miller (Mason kick)
EHT-Johnson 68 run (Mason kick)
TRE-M. Steriti 2 run (pass failed)
TRE-Clarizio 42 field goal
EHT-Agostino 5 run (run failed)
TRE-M. Steriti 41 pass from N. Steriti (M. Steriti run)
EHT-Thomas 80 kickoff return (Mason kick)
EHT-Agostino 1 run (Mason kick)
First Downs: 9 13
Rushing: 110 237
Passing: 126 124
Turnovers: 1 0
Rushing-N. Steriti 21-88, M. Steriti 6-23 TRE. Johnson 14-98, Agostino 15-107, Thomas 6-22 EHT.
Passing-Diskins 7-12-0-78, N. Steriti 2-4-0-48 TRE. Miller 6-12-0-124 EHT.
Receiving-M. Steriti 5-76, N. Steriti 2-25 TRE. Magosin 3-90, Johnson 2-12, Agostino 1-12 EHT.
Records: Toms River East 9-1; EHT 10-0