ATLANTIC CITY - Shaq Lee texted a Millville High School football teammate before the Thunderbolts' game at Atlantic City on Friday night.
"I'm not leaving the field without cramping up," the quarterback and safety wrote.
Lee collapsed to the grass with a calf cramp on the last play of the game. He was exhausted but smiled through the pain. The performance that caused the cramp was well worth it.
Millville clinched its first playoff spot in 12 years with a 26-6 upset of Atlantic City in a Cape-Atlantic League American Division game.
"We know what we had on the line as far as playoffs, and we just wanted to get there," Lee said. "I just wanted to go out there and give everything I got. It was going to be a hard time getting me off the field."
Millville running back Alquann Jones rushed 21 times for 148 yards. Lee completed 4-of-7 passes for 89 yards and a touchdown. He also intercepted a pass.
"I felt like this was the biggest game ever, even bigger than our Vineland game (on Thanksgiving)," Jones said. "We had to come out and play like it was our Super Bowl."
The impressive win came one week after most fans had counted Millville out of the playoff race. The Thunderbolts lost at home to St. Augustine 38-23 last week.
The Thunderbolts (5-3) and Atlantic City (6-2) will both play South Jersey Group IV first-round games next week against opponents to be determined.
But Atlantic City, No. 9 in The Press Elite 11, has lost two straight.
"We met a team (Friday) that was really hungry, and it showed," Atlantic City coach Thomas Kelly said. "They deserved to win."
Millville spent the week before the game practicing the basics. The Thunderbolts worked on tackling drills and protecting the ball.
But early in Friday's game the Thunderbolts appeared to be the same team that had struggled against St. Augustine.
Atlantic City took a 6-0 lead when Jamal Anderson connected with Orris Gallagher on a 71-yard touchdown pass less than three minutes into the game.
Even after the touchdown, Kelly sensed something was missing with the Vikings.
"I think our kids had a lack of excitement or enthusiasm even when we scored," Kelly said.
The Thunderbolts dominated from the second quarter on.
Lee's 31-yard touchdown pass to Le'roy Bell with 11:40 left in the second quarter gave Millville a 7-6 lead.
Lee also set up Millville's next touchdown when he intercepted an Atlantic City pass at the Thunderbolts' 20-yard line. He returned it 45 yards to the Atlantic City 35.
Three plays later, Tyson Still (11 carries for 104 yards) scored on a 4-yard run with 1:59 left to make it 14-6 Millville.
Atlantic City had a chance to grab the momentum before halftime. The Vikings drove to the Millville 1-yard line with less than 10 seconds left. Anderson tried to run across the goal line as time ran out, but the Millville defense, led by charging linebacker Darren Moore, tackled him for a 2-yard loss.
Millville was faster and more physical than Atlantic City.
Two second-half plays epitomized the Thunderbolts' determined effort.
The first came when Jones, who consistently beat Atlantic City defenders outside for big gains, scored on a 4-yard run in the fourth quarter. He appeared to be stopped but kept his feet moving and crossed the goal line.
"I was not going to let anybody deny me from the touchdown," Jones said. "The linemen were pulling me forward, saying, 'Quanny, come on.' "
The second came on the game's final play. Atlantic City had a chance to score a touchdown that wouldn't have affected the game's outcome. A Vikings wide receiver caught a pass near the Millville 1-yard line. Lee and a few other Millville defenders refused to yield and tackled the Atlantic City player short of the goal line.
Atlantic City must regroup after two straight defeats.
"Our kids are sophisticated," Kelly said. "They know the season's not over. This game is over. Whoever we meet next week could care less about this game. The reality is it's the second season next week."
Meanwhile, the Thunderbolts left the field with plenty of momentum. Millville is known as a town that loves high school football. But the Thunderbolts' popularity has dipped the past four years as the team has struggled.
The Thunderbolts' first playoff berth since 1998 should boost their popularity.
Millville didn't have many fans at Atlantic City, but that should change at next week's playoff game.
Lee rested for a few minutes after the game and then hobbled the length of the field to join his teammates for the postgame huddle.
"We're changing the town," Lee said. "We're changing everybody's thoughts about the town."
Contact Michael McGarry:
Millville 0 14 6 6 - 26
Atlantic City 6 0 0 0 - 6
AC-Gallagher 71 pass from Anderson (kick missed)
MV-Bell 31 pass from Lee (Mulligan kick)
MV-Still 4 run (Mulligan kick)
MV-Moore 2 run (kick missed)
MV-Jones 4 run (kick missed)
TEAM STATISTICS M AC
First Downs 14 13
Rushing 254 89
Passing 89 216
Turnovers 2 1
Rushing-Millville, Jones 21-148, Still 11-104. Atlantic City, Tolbert 12-59.
Passing-Millville, Lee 4-7-0-89. Atlantic City, Anderson 15-37-1-216.
Receiving-Millville, Bell 2-61. Atlantic City, Gallagher 2-114, Naji 5-43.
Records-Millville 5-3, Atlantic City 6-2.