Head coach Bob Coffey of Mainalnd Regional High School football team getting his players ready for Friday night's opening game during practice Thursday Sept 8, 2011.

Edward Lea

Since four Mainland Regional High School football players died in a car accident on Aug. 20, coach Bob Coffey and the rest of the Mustangs have lived moment-to-moment.

The Mustangs have focused on whatever comes next - a funeral, a practice, or the first day of classes.

Tonight, what comes next for Mainland is the season opener against Hammonton. The teams kick off at 7:15 p.m. at Mainland in what is sure to be one of the most emotional games ever played by a local team. A pregame ceremony begins at 6:55 p.m.

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"Without a doubt, me along with the whole team is ready to play," said Mainland senior Jim Cooper, one of the state's best kickers. "We're itching for it. None of us want to forget what happened. But we want to get out there not only for ourselves but for the kids we lost because we know they're going to be looking down on us."

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.

"It's been very complicated because it's involved so many people," Coffey said. "I've had to take whatever is right in front of me and handle it on an hourly basis. If you think down the road, it's kind of overwhelming."

Coffey said he and his team are looking forward to the routine of football - practice during the week and games on the weekend.

"I've talked to so many kids," he said. "The best part of the day is when they're involved in football and working toward a goal. The downtimes are still what's very difficult for them and for me. Time hasn't done anything for me yet, or the kids. But when we're on the football field, it goes away."

The Mainland tragedy affected everyone involved in local high school football.

Nearly all Cape-Atlantic League football teams will honor Mainland this weekend by wearing stickers with the Mainland horseshoe on their helmets. Many coaches, including, Hammonton's Pete Lancetta, telephoned Coffey the past few weeks. Players from other teams attended funerals and stopped by Mainland practices to offer their support.

"I'll never forget it," Coffey said of the efforts the CAL and local teams made to Mainland. "I really appreciate it."

Fans are expected to fill the bleachers and circle the field at Mainland tonight. Mainland football unites the communities of Northfield, Linwood and Somers Point.

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.

"I can't tell you how much our community has done for us in the past couple of weeks," Coffey said. "It's always been a very close community. It has especially come together through this. The Corral is a place where people can talk and be together. It will be a good positive atmosphere."

Mainland and Hammonton are two of the CAL's most successful programs. Hammonton has made 28 playoff appearances and won the South Jersey Group III title in 2009. Mainland's been to the playoffs 14 times and won the South Jersey Group IV championship in 2008.

Mainland missed just a few practices after the accident. Scrimmages that were postponed were rescheduled.

"Emotionally, we're ready," Coffey said. "We're prepared for what they do. Our scouting is done. We'll give it our best shot. We've worked really, really hard to get up to speed."

Lancetta said his players knew some of the Mainland athletes killed in the crash.

"Our hearts and prayers go out to the families," Lancetta said.

But Hammonton also faces uncertainty tonight.

"There's no script on how to act," Lancetta said. "All you can do is act with the class. But we still have to play the game. There's going to be a lot of people not against us but for them. Maybe even some of our own families - understandably."

Mainland athletic director Mike Gatley said a simple pregame ceremony is planned.

There will be bagpipes and a color guard.

Mainland principal Mark Marrone and superintendent Thomas Baruffi will speak.

A mural that will hang on the front of the press box will be unveiled.

Coffey isn't sure how he and his team will feel tonight. It is another unknown in what has been a series of challenges since the accident happened. There is no coaching handbook for dealing with a tragedy of this magnitude.

One thing is for certain.

After the ceremonies, a hard-hitting football game between two of the area's top programs will be played and that's what Mainland wants.

"I know," Cooper said, "we're going to respond well."

Who: Hammonton vs. Mainland Regional

When/where: 7:15 p.m. today at Mainland

This is the season opener for both teams. A ceremony to remember four Mainland players who died in a car crash on Aug. 20 will be held at 6:55 p.m.

A memorial tailgate party in memory of the four Mainland Regional High School students who died in a car crash Aug. 20 has been scheduled for before the kickoff of today's football game.

The school will open the gates to Mustang Way at 5:30 p.m. Admission is $3 for adults and $2 for students and senior citizens. Food, provided by vendors, will be free.

Gina Masco, one of the organizers, wrote on the social networking site Facebook that shirts would be for sale for $20, with money going toward the families of the children.


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