ATLANTIC CITY - As the seconds on the scoreboard counted down the last minute on Friday night, Atlantic City High School junior wide receiver Ishmail Naji couldn't keep the smile off his face.
"There's no doubt about it - Atlantic City football is back," Naji said after the Vikings defeated Absegami 20-6 in a Cape-Atlantic League American Division matchup. Atlantic City improved to 3-0 under first-year coach Thomas Kelly. Absegami, which is No. 11 in The Press Elite 11, dropped to 1-2.
There's good cause for Naji's optimism.
The 6-foot-3, 193-pounder caught five passes for 128 yards and one touchdown against the Braves, and his teammates played better as the game went on. In the fourth quarter - during which Atlantic City outscored the visitors 14-0 - Absegami sophomore quarterback Rashad Kinlaw had little or no time to find his receivers. Naji, also a defensive end, even contributed a fourth-down sack in the game.
"That young man had a great week of practice," Kelly said. "You don't just win the game on Friday night, under the lights. You win games like this on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. He practiced very well, and that carried over into the game."
Naji's pure athleticism on consecutive plays helped the Vikings tie the game at 6-6 before halftime.
Absegami had jumped out to a 6-0 lead on the first drive of the game, scoring on a 37-yard touchdown pass from Kinlaw to sophomore wideout Taylor Bing. But with 7 minutes, 27 seconds left in the second quarter, Atlantic City senior quarterback Jamal Anderson floated a ball up high that Naji pulled down for a 37-yard gain. On the next snap, Anderson hit him again with a quick out pass to the left, and Naji broke several tackles on his way to an 18-yard touchdown.
The Braves' offense looked strong on its first drive, with senior running back Ben Martin accumulating 24 yards rushing on that possession. But the Absegami star picked up an ankle injury and only played sporadically after that.
"We didn't play well on either side of the ball," Braves coach Dennis Scuderi Jr. said. "Losing Martin's effectiveness was a big factor in the game, but Atlantic City just played much better than we did."
Absegami senior running back Trevon Chance was more to the point about the Braves' performance.
"We just folded tonight," he said.
Both teams played a sloppy third quarter that was marred by some bad shotgun snaps and penalties, but a late-arriving crowd got the sense that the Vikings could pull an upset.
The fourth quarter was all Atlantic City.
The Vikings took a 12-6 lead when Anderson threw a perfect pass into the back, left side of the end zone, where junior wideout Xavier Jackson caught the ball for a 17-yard score while falling on his back.
The Vikings extended their lead to 20-6 when Anderson ran into the middle of the line on a quarterback keeper and shed two tacklers before breaking the the outside for a 35-yard touchdown. He then hit Naji with a University of Florida-style jump pass for a two-point conversion.
Atlantic City senior defensive back Malik Wellman sealed the game by intercepting a long Kinlaw pass. It was fitting that Wellman would come up big again - in the third quarter, he had made a touchdown-saving tackle at the goal line that caused a fumble that the Vikings recovered for a touchback, keeping the game tied.
"A lot of people counted us out," Wellman said. "We came out here with a point to prove tonight."
Naji talked about the understanding he has with his quarterback, Anderson, who often throws the ball on timing patterns before the receiver even turns around.
"He just throws the ball up and I go and get it - that's sort of what we do," Naji said. "It worked well for us tonight."
With an open week coming up, the Vikings, who will host Buena Regional on Oct. 8, are in a good position. But Kelly wants his players to keep it all in perspective.
"We've created a bit of a buzz here in the community," he said. "But I told the players, we can't act like this was the Super Bowl and then throw away everything we're working for. Our staff won't let that happen."
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