MILLVILLE - When the South Jersey Group IV semifinal between the Millville and Washington Township high school football teams ended Friday night, players on both teams dropped to their knees.
Washington Township in disappointment and exhaustion.
Millville in relief and exhaustion.
The Thunderbolts staved off a gutsy Washington Township comeback and won 42-41 before fans that packed the home and visiting bleachers at Millville's Wheaton Field. The Thunderbolts led by 28 points in the third quarter. Washington Township scored 34 points in the final 20 minutes.
"It was gut wrenching," Millville coach Jason Durham said.
Millville running back Alquann Jones rushed 37 times for 257 yards and four touchdowns.
Thunderbolts defensive back Shaq Lee intercepted a two-point conversion pass with 31.8 seconds left to preserve Millville's 1-point lead.
The third-seeded Thunderbolts (10-0) advance to the South Jersey final Dec. 2 at Rowan University against the winner of today's semifinal between top-seeded Pennsauken and fifth-seeded Triton Regional.
"I dreamed about (winning a South Jersey championship) ever since I was little," Lee said. "Watching Millville growing up, I always wanted to be here, and now I am."
It is doubtful Lee ever of dreamed of a game like Friday's.
Millville appeared to take control when Jones scored on a 38-yard run to give the Thunderbolts a 35-7 lead with 10 minutes, 19 seconds left in the third quarter.
"I thought we were just going to keep pounding the ball," Millville lineman Nick Tyndal said.
But Minutemen coach Mark Wechter still believed in his team. After all, Washington Township had rallied from 17-0 deficit to beat Williamstown 42-23 in last Friday's quarterfinals.
An ill-fated decision by Durham turned momentum in Washington Township's favor.
Millville went for it on fourth-and-one from its own 16-yard line with five minutes left in the third quarter. The Minutemen stuffed a Lee quarterback sneak for no gain.
"It was not a great decision on my part," Durham said. "I thanked the kids at the end for picking me up for that mistake. Sometimes the players have to pick up the coaches."
After that fourth-down stop, the sixth-seeded Minutemen (7-3) began to score in a hurry. Washington Township quarterback Tom Hildenbrand (269 passing yards and 73 rushing yards) scored on a 1-yard run with 3:05 left in the third. Hildenbrand scrambled 34 yards for a touchdown with 8:49 left in the game to cut Millville's lead to 35-28.
Even though the Thunderbolts were still winning, it felt like they were losing.
"We started getting scared," Jones said, "but we had to keep our composure."
Millville appeared to clinch the victory a couple of times.
Jones put Millville up 42-28 with 3:39 left on a 7-yard run. The 5-foot-8, 168-pound Jones carried 10 times on the 11-play, 75-yard scoring drive.
But Washington Township refused to fade away. Hildenbrand set up another touchdown with 2:27 left with a 48-yard pass to wide receiver Julian Allen.
Washington Township then recovered an onside kick after a wild scrum.
Not even an injury to Hildenbrand could stop the Minutemen at that point. He briefly left the game with cramps but backup Ryan Long threw a 10-yard, fourth-down touchdown pass to John Montesjardi with 31.8 seconds left to cut the Thunderbolts lead to a point.
Millville called timeout. Wechter gathered his team around him, told him he was proud of them and then sent them out to go for two points and the win.
"I felt we had momentum," Wechter said of his decision to go for two. "I felt we could get 3 yards. I'd do it again all over."
Long threw over the middle, but Lee stepped in front of the receiver for the interception as the Thunderbolts fans roared.
"I left my man open a little bit, and I sat on it," Lee said. "He lobbed it up, and I picked it off."
Still, Washington Township wasn't done. The Minutemen recovered another onside kick after another wild scrum at the Millville 49-yard line. But four incomplete passes ended the game.
"We're going to the Super Bowl," Lee said with a laugh.
Millville advances to its first South Jersey final since 1997. The Thunderbolts only South Jersey championship came in 1975.
The dramatic comeback obscured several outstanding Millville efforts.
With his 257 yards, Jones now has 2,036 yards for the season and joins Holy Spirit's William Washington (2,060 in 2007) as the only CAL players to reach the milestone in a single season.
In addition to his two-point conversion interception, Lee picked off another pass and delivered several jarring hits. Millville linebacker Ed Shockley intercepted a pass.
Millville's first extra point by kicker Alex Price hit the crossbar and just fell over. No one knew how important that extra point would be for the Thunderbolts.
Afterwards, players and coaches from both teams began to realize they had just played one of the best playoff games in S.J. Group IV history.
But that notion didn't ease Washington Township's disappointment or soothe Millville's still raw nerves.
"It probably was one of the best playoff games ever," Tyndal said. "But I just wish it wasn't that close. With 30 seconds left when they recovered another onside kick, I wasn't thinking, 'This is a great game.' I was thinking, 'This totally bites.' "
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