ATLANTIC CITY - Zach Reichenbach reached into the air and snatched the biggest win in Oakcrest High School football history Friday night.
Reichenbach's one-handed, fourth-quarter interception helped clinch the Falcons' 31-14 upset of Atlantic City in the South Jersey Group IV semifinal.
"I want to cry with happiness," said Oakcrest running back Joe Sprigg, who scored three touchdowns.
Seventh-seeded Oakcrest (8-2) will play at top-seeded Cherokee (10-0) for the championship probably on Saturday, Dec. 4.
Oakcrest may be the most unlikely finalist in South Jersey Group IV history. The Falcons had never won a playoff game before this season. Oakcrest's last winning season before this year was 1998.
"I feel so great for these kids," Oakcrest first-year coach Chuck Smith said. "To get to this point, to get this feeling. … The hard part is getting there. Once you're there, who knows what happens."
Kicker Brian Carney followed Reichenbach's interception with a 29-yard field goal to put Oakcrest ahead by 10 points with 3 minutes, 50 seconds left in the game. Reichenbach made the interception despite briefly leaving the game in the first half with a knee injury.
"That wasn't going to stop me from playing with my brothers (teammates)," the senior lineman said of the injury.
Oakcrest outscored the Vikings 17-0 in the second half . Fabian Santiago gave the Falcons the lead for good with a 20-yard touchdown run with three seconds left in the third quarter.
When the season started, neither Oakcrest nor third-seeded Atlantic City (7-3) was expected to advance deep in the playoffs, let alone qualify for the postseason. The Vikings, No. 10 in The Press Elite 11, finished 1-9 last year.
Friday's game turned in Oakcrest's favor in the second half. The Falcons defense kept Atlantic City pinned deep in its own territory on three straight possessions.
The Falcons got the ball at the Vikings' 47-yard line after a 20-yard punt with 2:45 left in the third quarter.
Five plays later, Fabian Santiago scored on 20-yard sweep to give Oakcrest a 21-14 lead with three seconds left in the third quarter. Santiago won the state Group IV 100-meter track and field championship last spring.
"The outside guys made some beautiful blocks," Santiago said. "I saw a lane and just took it."
The Oakcrest defense consistently pressured Vikings quarterback Jamal Anderson, who still managed to throw for 186 yards and two touchdowns.
"We were in the hole the whole time," Vikings coach Thomas Kelly said. "They got the one touchdown and we didn't respond. All year we've been responding in situations like that."
The Falcons blitzed constantly. The pressure caused Atlantic City to commit six false start penalties. Oakcrest defensive lineman Josh Santiago and linebacker Deonte Thomas each had two tackles for losses.
Reichenbach, Ismail Showell, and David Green also tackled Atlantic City ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage. Falcons linebacker Brandon Bell was in on several tackles. Atlantic City finished with just 21 rushing yards.
"We just want to get to the QB and hit him hard," Bell said.
Still, Atlantic City trailed only by a touchdown for much of the fourth quarter. Reichenbach's interception changed that.
He picked off a Vikings screen pass at the Atlantic City 30-yard line and then stumbled his way to the Vikings' 5-yard line.
"I looked up and saw the ball coming, so I just reached up and grabbed it," Reichenbach said. "I didn't fumble (on the return). That's the important thing."
A little more than two minutes after Carney's field goal, Sprigg (14 carries for 88 yards) ended any hopes of an Atlantic City comeback with a 36-yard touchdown run with 1:45 left.
"This is a game we're going to learn from," Kelly said. "We hate losing it. My heart's breaking for the seniors."
Few teams celebrated a trip to a sectional final as much as Oakcrest. The team posed for a picture after the game. Players mingled with fans on their way to the locker room. Students hung out of a parked fan bus, waived rally towels and urged cars to blast their horns as they left the Atlantic City parking lot.
There were questions all season about how good Oakcrest could be.
After all, the Falcons' last playoff appearances came in 1985 and 1986.
They didn't play the strongest regular-season schedule.
But on Friday, Oakcrest played a hard-hitting, physical game. They used their speed to make big plays on offense and defense.
The Falcons looked like what they are - a legitimate South Jersey Group IV contender.
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