Coach Bob Coffey of the Mainland Regional High School football team has dreaded this Friday for weeks.
The 2011 Mustangs practiced for the final time Wednesday. They will play their final game today when they travel to Egg Harbor Township for a 10 a.m. kickoff as the schools renew their Thanksgiving rivalry.
A season that began with a tragedy when four players died in an August car crash will be over.
The Mustangs will no longer have the daily routine of practice and the goal of preparing for and winning that week's game.
Coffey has seen the season's end coming for the past few weeks and said he hasn't been able to shake the depression that causes.
"The hardest part of the past three or four months is going to be in the next week or so when we don't have each other," Coffey said.
"We're going to have to find another way to deal (with the tragedy). It does not get any easier. I'm not the only one. I'm sure the players, the coaches, and the parents feel the same way. Maybe, we're trying to keep it to ourselves."
Four Mainland players - Casey Brenner, 17, of Northfield; Edgar Bozzi, 17, of Somers Point; Dean Khoury, 15, of Linwood and Nicholas Conner, 16, of Northfield - died on Aug. 20 when the SUV they were in overturned near exit 38A southbound of the Garden State Parkway.
Four other players in the car were injured but all were released from the hospital within a day or two of the accident.
"I don't think any team in the country has gone through what we've gone through, or at least I really hope not," Mustangs senior defensive back and running back Matt DeSalle said.
The Mustangs remember the four victims every day. Coffey took attendance before each practice and he always called Brenner, Bozzi, Khoury and Conner's names.
The team in unison answered "here" for each boy.
The Mainland tragedy became a national story with television stations and newspapers, such as The New York Times, doing multiple stories on the Mustangs. Friends and strangers reached out to the players everywhere they went.
The families of the accident victims have been around the team all season. They've attended the Thursday night pasta dinners Mainland holds before each Friday night game. They participated in the team's annual Thanksgiving food drive for needy families.
There are plans to raise money for scholarships in the victims' names.
"The parents (of the victims) are unbelievably good people," Coffey said. "These are the nicest people you would ever want to meet."
Coffey sat in church Sunday and thought of Brenner, Bozzi, Khoury and Conner.
"They were all not only good kids but were fun to be around," he said. "It's a loss for us."
A few weeks into the season a sense of normalcy began to return for the Mustangs. Players began to laugh and kid with each in the locker room. Coaches yelled at them to hustle up and get out on the field for practice. Coffey said practices haven't been somber.
"We started having fun again," DeSalle said.
The Mustangs (4-5) have a chance to finish with a .500 record with victory today.
"On the football field, we've all been able to separate our personal grief and get ready (for games)," Coffey said. "They come ready to work every day. They haven't felt sorry for themselves."
The Mustangs have had their moments on the field.
Junior Jim Cooper, one of the state's best kickers, booted a 36-yard field goal to give the Mustangs a 17-14 double overtime win over Oakcrest on Oct. 1.
He ran over to the sideline and hugged his teammates after the ball went through the uprights.
"We were living in the moment," Cooper said. "We were taking it all in. It was awesome."
The next week, DeSalle returned an interception 50 yards for a touchdown in a 31-0 win over Buena Regional.
"Seeing the crowd after the game, seeing everybody smiling and happy, that was something special," DeSalle said.
Few teams receive as much fan support as Mainland. Mainland's field is nicknamed "The Mustang Corral." The mothers of players cheer in the stands, while wearing their sons' white road jerseys. Fans tie green streamers to telephone poles on the streets around the school.
This season, that support was more evident than ever.
"We never felt alone," Coffey said.
Thanksgiving day games are emotional for every school. For many seniors, this is the last time they will play football and be a part of an organized team.
DeSalle remembers last Thanksgiving when he watched the seniors on the 2010 Mainland team grapple with the fact that their high school careers were over.
"It doesn't really hit you until right after the game that this will be the last game I ever play with these guys," he said.
For this year's Mustangs, those feelings are exacerbated today. The Mainland players and coaches have wondered at times this season why they were the team that had to endure a tragedy like this.
"Our friendships have gotten so much better and tighter not only with the kids but with their families too," Coffey said. "There has been some good to come out of this."
High school sports bring teams and communities together. Teams are mostly remembered for games and championships won and lost.
The 2011 Mustangs will be defined by what happened off the field and the perseverance and determination they showed in handling tragedy.
"Some teams have their stories and sadly this one has to be ours," DeSalle said. "It's a shame it has to be like that, but it's going to keep us close for the rest of our lives."
Contact Michael McGarry:
Mainland Regional at Egg Harbor Township
When: 10 a.m. today
Game preview on C6