The Oakcrest High School football players know all about Cherokee's tradition of success.

The Falcons know Cherokee is the defending South Jersey Group IV champion. They know Cherokee has been to four of the past six S.J. Group IV finals.

Most importantly, the Falcons know they are the underdog today when the teams meet for this year's S.J. Group IV championship.

"It's OK," Oakcrest offensive and defensive lineman Dante Smith said. "We know Cherokee has had success. But it's about more than that. That's why they play the game."

Seventh-seeded Oakcrest (9-2) and top-seeded Cherokee (11-0) kick off at 1 p.m. at Cherokee.

This is Oakcrest's first appearance in a state final since the playoffs began in 1974. Oakcrest hadn't won a playoff game before this season. Despite that lack of success, first-year coach Chuck Smith set high goals for the Falcons.

"Our goal was to make the playoffs," he said. "Anything else was unacceptable."

The Falcons' emergence has been one of the season's best stories. Oakcrest is expected to send five busloads of fans to today's game.

"There hasn't been this type of energy around our school in a very long time," Falcons offensive and defensive lineman Dante Smith said. "Everybody's excited that we're winning, and we have a chance to do something that's never been done before."

The Falcons have won eight straight. Joe Sprigg (593 rushing yards) sparks an Oakcrest offense that has plenty of speed. Running back Fabian Santiago won the state Group IV 100-meter dash championship last spring.

Oakcrest's strength, however, is its defense. Sophomore linebacker Brandon Bell (51.5 tackles and nine sacks) is one of the Cape-Atlantic League's top players.

Cherokee has won seven S.J. titles. The Chiefs are seeking the first 12-0 season in the program's illustrious history.

Cherokee is noted for its physical play. The Chiefs are balanced on offense with fullback Michael Zeuli having scored 16 touchdowns and quarterback Andrew Martin having thrown for 1,346 yards and 17 touchdowns.

"They're very methodical in what they do and they do it very well," Chuck Smith said of Cherokee. "There's hardly anybody ever out of position."

Oakcrest isn't completely unfamiliar with the Cherokee. The teams scrimmaged in the preseason.

"It was a good scrimmage for us, not that it means anything now," Chuck Smith said. "But at least we saw them."

Chuck Smith, a former Mainland assistant, knows upsets can happen in the playoffs. He was the Mustangs' offensive coordinator when a top-seeded Mainland team lost to eighth-seeded Eastern in the first round of the 2003 S.J. Group IV playoffs.

"When you're the underdog, nothing is expected of you," Chuck Smith said. "The pressure is not on us. They were expected to be here. We're going to go into it having fun, but we know we're going to have pull a few things out of our comfort zone even to have a shot."

Cherokee's field is one of the best settings for high school football in southern New Jersey. The field is located in a bowl at the bottom of a hill. A big crowd is expected.

Oakcrest is determined to make the most of the scene and its underdog status.

"I don't think the atmosphere will be an issue," Dante Smith said. "We're going to enjoy it. It's one of the best stadiums we'll see in our high school career."

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