MAYS LANDING - Oakcrest High School football coach Chuck Smith left no doubt as to where his team stands after a 23-13 Cape-Atlantic League interdivision win over Millville on Friday night.
The Falcons overcame a 13-3 deficit as well as a significant injury to senior running back/defensive back Joe Sprigg.
"This team has turned a corner," said Smith, a longtime offensive assistant at Mainland Regional who made the move to Oakcrest (1-1) this season. "A lot of Oakcrest teams in the past would have folded, but not this group. When we lost last week (49-0) to Holy Spirit, the scoreboard didn't show it, but we never gave up ... this team just won't. That's our motto this season."
Adding to Smith's sense of accomplishment was a goal-line stand by the Falcons' defense that kept Millville junior running back Alquann Jones out of the end zone on a 4th-and-goal.
Even though the Falcons held a 10-point fourth-quarter lead at that point, a score by the Thunderbolts (1-1) would have made things more interesting.
They certainly had to work hard to get to that point. A cagey first half that featured a lot of drives between each team's 30-yard-line saw Oakcrest take a 3-0 lead into halftime on a 28-yard field goal by Brian Camey.
The Falcons' scoring drive was kept alive when sophomore quarterback Quaashie Jetter heaved a ball toward the end zone and a group of Millville players interfered with the intended receiver.
The Falcons thought they had milked the clock enough, but Millville senior wideout Le'roy Bell returned the ensuing kickoff 65 yards to the Oakcrest 20-yard-line, where he was tackled as time ran out in the first half.
The Falcons' offense moved the ball well in the opening two quarters, but a deep Jetter pass was intercepted by Millville senior Anthony Felice to thwart one drive, while continued bad snaps in the shotgun formation slowed down the Falcons' attack.
The Thunderbolts came out and controlled the third quarter, turning the 3-0 deficit into a 13-3 lead with a couple of big plays. On the fourth series of the second half, Millville junior quarterback Shaq Lee hit Bell with a 36-yard touchdown pass. The extra point was converted by senior Justin Mulligan for a 7-3 lead.
After a three-and-out Oakcrest series, Millville's Jones exploded on a 38-yard touchdown run that seemed to take the wind out of the Falcons and their home crowd. Mulligan's extra-point attempt was no good, but the Thunderbolts seemed to be sitting pretty with a 13-3 margin.
Also in the third quarter, the Falcons' Sprigg had to leave the game with a head injury. The team physician declined to comment, but during the game Sprigg's parents, Joe and Kara, said the doctor told them that their son had suffered a concussion and would not return.
Faced with a double-blow of bad news, the Falcons could have wilted. Instead, they took the game over.
On the ensuing drive, junior running back Steve Adkisson capped off a methodical march with an 11-yard touchdown run. Camey's extra-point attempt failed, but Millville's lead was cut to 13-9 with 9 minutes and 40 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
One drive later, Adkisson caught a bubble screen to the left and flew virtually untouched down the sideline for a 71-yard touchdown. Camey blasted the extra point, and all of a sudden Oakcrest led 16-13.
Millville's offense stalled, and with 2:36 left Oakcrest junior running back Brandon Bell punched in a 5-yard touchdown run. Camey's PAT accounted for the final margin of 23-13.
Adkisson credited his coach with a "great call" on the bubble screen.
"We really caught them with that play," Adkisson said. "We needed to change the momentum, and we were able to do it with that play."
After the game, Bell credited his teammates for "stepping up" when Sprigg went down injured.
"Mentally, we had to rebound from that and we did," Bell said. "Joe's a big part of our team, but we have a lot of other guys who can perform when they get their turn."
For his part, an emotional Jones lamented an opportunity lost for Millville.
"We don't practice so hard all week to go out and lose," Jones said. "We just have to make sure we practice even harder next week, with no goofing around."
Contact James Clark: