EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP - There were times during Mainland Regional High School's annual showdown against Egg Harbor Township on Thursday when it seemed as if the Mustangs had 15 players on the field instead of 11.
In a way, they did.
Whenever they needed a big play, the Mustangs gazed over at the green banner that hung from the railing of the visitor's bleachers.
The sign featured four white Mainland jerseys bearing the numbers and names of Edgar Bozzi (34), Casey Brenner (20), Nicholas Conner (47) and Dean Khoury (67), the four players who were killed in a car accident on Aug. 20.
"With this being our last game, we wanted to make sure we honored our fallen brothers," Mainland senior running back/defensive end Chris Kaczmarski said. "We knew we had to find a way to get a win for them and for us."
They found a way, rallying from an early deficit and using a goal-line stand to close their season with a 13-9 victory in the 29th edition of the Thanksgiving rivalry.
Afterward, Mainland coach Bob Coffey delivered an emotional address to the team, thanking them for persevering through one of the most difficult yet rewarding seasons of his 26-year tenure as head coach.
"I'm especially proud of this year's team," Coffey said with a crack in his voice. "The courage and character they showed throughout the season was remarkable. And that's a testament to the families. The players received the same messages at home that they got from us. The support from the community was tremendous. I'm honored to be in this position."
Because of the tragedy, this year's game carried extra meaning.
Just a few yards after turning off English Creek Avenue en route to Egg Harbor Township's field, Mainland's team buses were greeted with homemade banners on a lawn offering support.
Fans wore T-shirts emblazoned with four football players astride horses below the slogan: "These Four Horsemen Will Ride Together Forever."
The Egg Harbor Township and Mainland marching bands joined together to perform the National Anthem while one of Khoury's cousins, Nick Vazquez, played the guitar.
At halftime, Egg Harbor Township cheerleader Heidi Vazquez, Nick Vazquez's sister, read a moving poem written by their mother and Khoury's aunt, Wendy Vazquez.
On the field, the Mustangs (5-5) paid one final tribute to their teammates by rallying for a victory behind senior running back Dashown Waller's 3-yard touchdown, a pair of field goals by junior place-kicker Jim Cooper and an impressive goal-line stand in the fourth quarter.
"This entire team will be brothers forever because of what we went through," Mainland junior quarterback/defensive back Tom Bradway said. "We really wanted to come out of this with a win."
Egg Harbor Township (4-6) dominated the first quarter, however, especially on defense. The Eagles stormed into Mainland's backfield at will, dropping Waller, Bradway and junior running back Fernando Mayers for losses. The Mustangs' first three offense series produce one net yard.
At the end of the first possession, Egg Harbor Township junior defensive back Ben Balesteri partially blocked Cooper's first punt. On the Eagles' second play from scrimmage, senior running back Desmond Garris scampered for a 25-yard touchdown that put them ahead 7-0 with 9 minutes, 13 seconds left in the first quarter.
Egg Harbor Township squandered more scoring opportunities via three turnovers and a pair of dropped passes.
"I was very proud of our effort, but we didn't capitalize on our opportunities," Egg Harbor Township coach Tony DeRosa said. "This is a big game for us, a great rivalry, and we lost. That's why I made the team stay on the field after the game and listen to Mainland's band play their (school song). I want that song to ring in their ears for the next 365 days."
The Eagles wasted their best chance to earn another touchdown in the fourth quarter. A 38-yard run by junior fullback Matt Clayton helped them drive to Mainland's 1-yard line. On third down, Mustangs senior safety Matt DeSalle dropped Garris for a 1-yard loss. Garris carried again on fourth down, only to be dropped in the backfield by DeSalle and Bradway.
"In that situation, there were two things we could do," Bradway said. "We could fold or we could come together as brothers and stop them. We decided to show them what Mainland football is all about."
After delivering his stirring speech, Coffey grabbed the Kiwanis Trophy that goes to the winner of the annual game and held it aloft while the players cheered.
Then he walked back to midfield and chatted with his assistant coaches while a tiny pin on his sweatshirt glistened in the sun.
"It's an angel," Coffey said. "I've worn it for every game since I started coaching 26 years ago. My wife bought it for me and we had it blessed. I probably should have worn four of them this year."
Contact David Weinberg:
Mainland Regional 0 10 3 0 - 13
Egg Harbor Twp. 7 0 0 2 - 9
EHT - Garris 25 run. (Mason kick)
M - Cooper 28 field goal.
M - Waller 3 run. (Cooper kick)
M - Cooper 38 field goal.
EHT - Safety
First Downs - M 8; EHT 10
Rushing Yards - M 117; EHT 194
Passing Yards - M 58; EHT 26
Turnovers - M 1; EHT 2
Rushing - DeSalle 3-57, Mayers 12-45, Waller 11-12, Kaczmarski 3-7, Bradway 5-(-4) M; Clayton 19-99, Garris 14-80, Doughty 6-16, Fitzpatrick 2-5, Balesteri 1-1, King 1-(-7) EHT.
Passing - Bradway 7-10-58 M; Doughty 3-12-26, King 0-1-0.
Receiving - Wilcox 3-63, Fortunato 1-15, Kaczmarski 1-1, Mayers 1-1, Waller 1-(-1) M; Wiafe 1-19, Smith 1-7.
RECORDS: Mainland 5-5; Egg Harbor Township 4-6.