On a hot July day, coach Thomas Kelly of the Atlantic City High School football team gathered the Vikings around him and gave them their goals for the 2011 season.

Two of them were to win the Cape-Atlantic League American Division and qualify for the South Jersey Group IV playoffs. The Vikings can accomplish both with a win over Millville tonight.

"This is a huge program game," Kelly said. "Everything we talked about in the summer - and it seems like a long time ago - is right in front of us."

Meanwhile, Millville is on the verge of achieving some momentous goals itself.

The Thunderbolts can win a CAL football title for the first time since 1989 with a victory tonight.

Millville is all but assured of a South Jersey Group IV playoff spot, but with a win tonight the Thunderbolts would clinch a spot themselves and not have to rely on other teams to get in. A win could also earn Millville a first-round home playoff game next week.

"I haven't heard the word clinch yet (when it comes to the playoffs)," Millville coach Jason Durham said. "We talk to our kids a lot about the history of the team. They want to be a part of a (CAL championship)."

Atlantic City (6-1) and the Thunderbolts (7-0) kick off at 7 p.m. at Millville's Wheaton Field. Atlantic City is No. 10 in The Press Elite 11 and Millville No. 3.

Atlantic City and Millville are longtime CAL rivals. The teams met twice last year. Millville beat Atlantic City 26-6 last Nov. 5 in a regular-season game. The next week, the Vikings beat the Thunderbolts 32-24 in the first round of the South Jersey Group IV playoffs.

The teams have similar strengths. Both feature several speedy athletes. Millville running back Alquann Jones leads the area in rushing with 1,343 yards. Thunderbolts quarterback Shaq Lee has thrown six touchdown passes.

"Millville is fast, big and athletic," Kelly said. "They have as many athletes as we do."

Atlantic City senior Radi Tolbert has scored 10 touchdowns and lines up at wide receiver, running back and even quarterback. Wide receiver Ismail Naji is a 6-foot-4 senior with four touchdown catches.

"There's some good players upfront on both teams," Durham said. "It's going to come down to who makes the least mistakes."

Both teams are capable of scoring with the big play. Atlantic City upset previously undefeated Hammonton 13-9 last weekend when Dayshawn Reynolds returned a kickoff 92 yards for the winning touchdown.

Jones can score every time he touches the ball, no matter from which yard line the ball is snapped.

"One blown assignment could be the difference," Durham said.

The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association will finalize the playoff fields Monday. The eight teams with the most power points in each enrollment group qualify. Teams earn power points based on their opponents' enrollment group and victories.

A loss tonight and the Vikings could miss the playoffs despite a 6-2 record.

"We try not to concentrate on power points and playoff position," Kelly said, "Our philosophy has been to beat the man in front of you and win the game in front of you and the other games will work out. But the kids are savvy. They know what's at stake."

And so do the fans. The stands at Wheaton Field should be filled tonight. Kelly said he doesn't mind playing on the road.

"I hear NFL coaches say it and I'm starting to realize it," Kelly said. "Sometimes you play better on the road. There are less distractions. We can't have a subpar game because it's on the road."

Tonight's game seemed a long way off for Millville when Durham took over the program in 2008. The Thunderbolts were a combined 4-16 in 2006-07 and went 1-9 in Durham's first season.

The current Millville seniors are the first class Durham has coached for all four of their high school seasons.

"The first emotion that comes to me is just how proud I am of the assistants and the players for how hard they've all worked," Durham said.

And tonight Millville can accomplish something it hasn't done in 22 years by winning a CAL title. Millville is famed for how much it appreciates its high school football and Durham said the buzz about this year's team has been growing with each win.

"As the weeks progressed, you hear a little bit more, a little bit more," he said. "I'm expecting our student body and fans to come out to support the kids. Our kids love playing in front of their friends, families and town."

Especially in games with as much on the line as the one tonight.

Contact Michael McGarry:


No. 10 Atlantic City (6-1) vs. No. 3 Millville (7-0)

When/where: 7 p.m. today at Millville's Wheaton Field

Why this game is important: Winner clinches a South Jersey Group IV playoff spot and is the Cape-Atlantic League American Division champion. Millville is No. 3 in The Press Elite 11. Atlantic City is No. 10.

Key players:

Atlantic City: Radi Tolbert, WR/RB/QB, 10 touchdowns; Ismail Naji, WR, four TD catches; Jarron Surles, OL/DL

Millville: Alquann Jones, RB, 1,343 rushing yards, 16 touchdowns; Shaq Lee, QB/DB, 28-of-55 for 559 yards and six touchdowns; Nick Tyndal, OL/DL

Last five meetings:

2010: Atlantic City 32, Millville 4*

2010: Millville 26, Atlantic City 6

2009: Millville 15, Atlantic City 8

2008: Atlantic City 35, Millville 20

2007: Atlantic City 28, Millville 14