The Lacey Township and Southern Regional High School football teams will meet for the first time in more than 20 years Saturday afternoon.
"It's about time," Southern coach Chuck Donohue said.
Kickoff is 1 p.m. at Southern in Stafford Township. There is plenty of meaning attached to the much-anticipated game.
Lacey (5-0) is No. 3 in The Press Elite 11, while Southern (3-1) is No. 9. Both are contenders for the Shore Conference A South title, and both would give their playoff chances a boost with a victory.
Southern and Lacey are located about 12 miles apart in Ocean County. Their coaches are among the state's best. Lacey coach Lou Vircillo has won 253 career games, while Donohue has 220 career victories. Vircillo and Donohue join Paul Sacco (261 wins) of St. Joseph and Pete Lancetta (200 wins) of Hammonton as the only local football coaches with 200 or more wins.
A game between two successful programs located so close to each other would seem logical. But Southern and Lacey have rarely played because they've been in different Shore Conference divisions. This year, both were placed in A South because of geography and enrollment.
"This is probably the biggest game of the season to date for us," Lacey quarterback Tom Kelly said.
The players grow up competing against each other.
"I've played Gesicki (Southern wide receiver and defensive back Mike Gesicki) in basketball since I was in the fourth grade," Kelly said.
And even though they haven't met in the regular season in years, the programs are familiar with each other.
Up until this year, they usually scrimmage in the preseason.
"We respect the type of football program they are," Donohue said. "We always felt when you play them it tells you something about yourself."
Lacey is a perennial power. The Lions went 47-11 and won two South Jersey titles from 2006-2010.
A young Lions team finished 4-6 last year. Kelly started as a sophomore and threw just three touchdown passes, while being intercepted 11 times. But both he and the rest of the Lions gained valuable experience and it shows this year.
Kelly has completed 73 percent of his passes and thrown for 11 touchdowns this season. Running back Kyle Spatz has rushed for 705 yards. Wide receiver Bill Belford averages 21.1 yards per catch.
Lacey is averaging 46.6 points this season, under new offensive coordinator Cory Davies, the former head coach at Howell in Monmouth County.
"We're able to run and throw," Kelly said. "Last year, we didn't have much of a passing game. Last year was a nightmare for me personally. I didn't want to face that again. We put a lot of work in in the offseason."
In contrast to Lacey, Southern relies primarily on defense. The Rams have allowed a total of seven points in their three wins. Linebacker Nick Munafo (28 tackles) and lineman Ryan Boyle (16 tackles) lead the defense.
"We are a defensive team first," Donohue said. "Our kids like to play defense. It's a priority in our program. It's important that our energy level is up (Saturday) and we really run to the ball. You have to get bodies around (ball carriers) and not have guys trying to make one-on-one tackles in space all day."
Southern also features talent on offense.
Quarterback Dan Higgins (five touchdown passes) is fully recovered from a preseason shoulder separation that slowed him early in the season. Rutgers University has offered the 6-foot-5 Gesicki (21.4 yards per catch) a scholarship.
The bleachers at Southern should be filled Saturday as it's also the Rams' homecoming.
One of the best parts of high school football is playing the school in a nearby town. Southern and Lacey have been missing a meaningful neighborhood rivalry.
Lacey and Central Regional used to play on Thanksgiving but now don't meet at all because they are in different Shore Conference divisions. In addition to Lacey, Southern has rarely played Barnegat or Pinelands Regional through the years.
Saturday could be the start of a series that adds even more excitement to the Lacey and Southern programs.
"It will definitely be exciting to play a team literally 10 minutes away," Kelly said. "It will be crazy."
Contact Michael McGarry:
Lacey Township (5-0) vs. Southern Regional (3-1)
Where/when: 1 p.m. Saturday at Southern, Stafford Township.
Why this game is important: These schools located about 10 miles away on the Garden State Parkway haven't played in at least 20 years. Both are contenders for the Shore Conference A South title. Lacey is No. 3 in The Press Elite 11, while Southern is No. 9.
Lacey: Tom Kelly, QB, 37-of-51 for 769 yards and 11 touchdowns; Kyle Spatz, RB, 64 carries for 705 yards and 10 touchdowns; Bill Belford, WR, 11 catches for 232 yards and five touchdowns; Casey Sirotniak, LB, 37 tackles; Tim Grochowski, NG, four sacks.
Southern: Dan Higgins, QB, 25-of-55 for 447 yards and five touchdowns; Abe Gonzalez, RB, 87 carries for 427 yards and four touchdowns; Mike Gesicki, WR/DB, 12 catches for 257 yards and three touchdowns and has three interceptions on defense; Nick Munafo, LB, 28 tackles and two sacks; Ryan Boyle, DL/OL, 16 tackles.