The Millville High School football team's 2011 season ended last December with an 11-1 record, a Cape-Atlantic League title and a South Jersey Group IV final appearance.
The Thunderbolts symbolically extended that season with a win in their 2012 season opener last Friday.
Millville rallied to beat Atlantic City 24-19. The Thunderbolts (1-0) will try to keep their success going when they play at Mainland Regional (1-0) in a matchup of CAL American Conference contenders at 7 p.m. today.
Millville scored the winning touchdown against Atlantic City when quarterback Rashon Sorrell threw a 72-yard touchdown pass to DeQuan Bowman with 1 minute, 27 seconds left in the fourth quarter. The Thunderbolts made similar big plays all of last season.
"I think the win carried over a little bit of the success we had last year," Millville coach Jason Durham said.
Millville graduated several standouts off last season's team, including running back and Press Player of the Year Alquann Jones, who is now at NCAA Division III Delaware Valley College. Jones rushed for a CAL-record 2,296 yards last season.
But new players have stepped forward for Millville. Sophomore running back Rob Ennis scored on a 79-yard touchdown run against Atlantic City. Rutgers University already has offered defensive lineman Antoine Wright a scholarship.
Other players have shifted positions. Sorrell moved from wide receiver to quarterback.
In Mainland, the Thunderbolts meet a team filled with experienced seniors such as linebacker and running back Colin O'Shea, defensive back and running back Tom Bradway, kicker Jim Cooper and lineman Ryan Brenner. The Mustangs won their opener, beating Pleasantville 28-0 last Friday.
"We're so close and we push each other every day," O'Shea said. "We know how good we can be, and we never let each other forget it."
Mainland wants to control the ball with its Wing-T offense, although running back Brett Edmunds did score on a 90-yard run last week.
"We've made great jumps offensively," O'Shea said. "We're not the fastest. But we'll run right at you. We're not a huge big-play team but we'll wear you down."
The Mustangs have all week emphasized staying disciplined on defense in order to limit Millville's big-play offense.
"They're real fast," O'Shea said. "We know who their big players are, and we have to keep any eye out for them."
There will be a festive atmosphere at Mainland for tonight's game, which is the Mustangs' home opener
Mainland won an Under Armour school spirit contest last January that will give the school $180,000 in athletic apparel over the next two years. The football team is wearing new green and black uniforms this season.
Representatives from Under Armour, a Baltimore-based company that produces a wide range of sports clothing and accessories, will be at tonight's game. There will pregame music, food and giveaways for fans.
Few communities support their high school football team as much as Mainland. Mustangs fans routinely fill the bleachers for home games. Millville hopes to have some early success to deflate some of Mainland's pregame enthusiasm.
"A lot of people are going to be there," O'Shea said. "I can't wait for it. I love playing at home."
Both Millville and Mainland want to contend for playoff berths and the conference title. But the CAL American Conference may the deepest and most talented league in southern New Jersey.
"Every week is a challenge for every team," Durham said. "It's going to make for a fantastic regular season. If you're not ready to go as a football team or as coaching staff it's going to be a problem. You're going to get beat."
After tonight, Mainland faces five more playoff teams until the playoff fields are determined after the first weekend in November. Millville faces four playoff teams in its next six games.
It's early in the season but those tough schedules are what makes tonight's game pivotal.
Tonight's loser is 1-1 and must regroup with daunting games ahead.
The winner is 2-0, building toward a playoff berth and will get a chance to briefly exhale before preparing for more tough games ahead.
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