GLASSBORO - Alquann Jones and Shaq Lee did exactly what brought Millville High School football success this season: They ran through defenses and broke tackles.
But Pennsauken's passing game - on the arm of Manny Cortez - was stronger than anything the Thunderbolts had faced this season.
The second-seeded Thunderbolts lost 55-34 to top-seeded Pennsauken (11-1) in the South Jersey Group IV final at Rowan University on Friday night. Pennsauken, which got five touchdown passes from Cortez, is ranked sixth in The Press Elite 11 and Millville third.
"We're disappointed with this loss," Millville coach Jason Durham said. "But the guys poured their heart out each and every week. They won 11 games and I'm proud of them"
Despite the season-ending loss, this was a season to remember for the Thunderbolts (11-1). They came into the game undefeated and Jones had a historic season, breaking the Cape-Atlantic League rushing record and more.
On Friday, he finished with 165 yards and three touchdowns on 27 carries. He finished with 2,286 rushing yards this season, tying the South Jersey single-season record.
"It feels great. It's a great experience," Jones said. "I am going to be in the record books and that's good, but it would have felt better with a state championship."
The game was decades in the making for Millville. The Thunderbolts haven't won a group title since 1975. Fans showed up hours ahead of time to tailgate in parking lots around Rowan's football stadium.
Thunderbolts fans packed the stadium as well, filling both sides of the bleachers and having to stand 8- to 9-people deep along the fences.
"They supported us all year," Lee said. "I love our fans."
Millville got the fans into the game from the start. The Thunderbolts scored on the first possession of the game after a series of runs from Jones and Lee - with a 44-yard pass to Rashon Sorrell mixed in. Jones finished the sequence with a 3-yard touchdown run to go up 6-0 after the extra point was missed with 8 minutes, 4 seconds left in the first quarter.
But less than two minutes later, Pennsauken was in the end zone, too.
Cortez hit Justin Copes for a 16-yard touchdown to go up 7-6 with 6:54 to go in the first. The Indians never gave up the lead after that.
"It was one of those games where we were always chasing," Durham said. "They are relentless. They have so much talent on the field. We didn't tackle well and they took advantage of that."
Pennsauken went up by as much as 28-12 with 4:23 left in the first half before Millville began a comeback attempt. However, the arm and legs of Cortez were too much for the Thunderbolts to handle.
Cortez finished 16-for-26 for 346 passing yards and five touchdowns, plus 151 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. He tied a state record with 43 touchdown passes in a season.
"He's a tremendous athlete," Durham said of Cortez. "He can throw and run, which makes such a threat."
With four minutes to go in the third quarter, Pennsauken threatened to break the game open. The Indians scored on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line when Cortez ran it in, just scraping the pylon for a touchdown to make it 41-27.
The Millville defenders knew how big that touchdown was for Pennsauken. The Thunderbolts kneeled over in the end zone, hands on their thighs, looking completely spent.
"We made too many mistakes," Jones said. "We made the most mistakes. They played hard and they were the better team."
On the ensuing kickoff, however, Millville fumbled and Pennsauken got it back inside the red zone.
But the Thunderbolts made one of their biggest stands of the game to force Pennsauken to give the ball over on downs.
It took Millville two possessions to score again, but it held the Indians scoreless in that span as well.
Jones ripped off three straight runs, capping it off with a 20-yard touchdown to make it 41-34 with 10:30 left in the game.
Yet just when Millville could see the game within its grasp, the Indians tore it away.
Cortez hit Anthony Sweet for an 11-yard pass and then found Amar Williams, his favorite target, for a 29-yard touchdown. After the 2-point conversion, Pennsauken went up 49-34 with 9:39 left.
Pennsauken kept the Thunderbolts out of the end zone on the next possession and then scored to push the game out of reach. Cortez scored on a 32-yard run to put the Indians up 55-34.
The loss was tough for Millville, but many of the Thunderbolts were able to appreciate what had happened this year.
"I am going to miss playing for Millville," said Lee, who 12-for-24 for 185 yards and 114 rushing yards. "I thought (Friday's game) was going to be better than this."
Contact Susan Lulgjuraj:
Millville 12 8 7 7-34
Pennsauken 14 14 13 14-55
M-Jones 3 run (kick failed)
P-Copes 16 pass from Cortez (Sweet kick)
P-Williams 44 pass from Cortez (Sweet kick)
M-Lee 15 run (run failed)
P-Williams 23 pass from Cortez (Sweet kick)
P-Cortez 68 run (Sweet kick)
M-Lee 1 run (Boyer catch)
P-Williams 47 pass from Cortez (Sweet kick)
M-Jones 2 run (Price kick)
P-Cortez 1 run (kick failed)
M-Jones 20 run (Price kick)
P-Williams 29 pass from Cortez (Cortez run)
P-Cortez 32 run (kick failed)
Rushing-Lee 14-114, Jones 27-165, Ennis 3-9, Sorrell 1-2 M. Cortez 13-151, Thomas 8-41, Sweet 1-1, Thorton 3-3 P.
Passing-Lee 12-24-185-0 M. Cortez 16-26-346-5 P.
Receiving-Sorrell 4-59, Ennis 2-10, McShan 1-20, Bowman 4-41, Boyer 1-14 M. Williams 9-184, Simmons 1-29, Copes 3-67, Thomas 1-16, Sweet 2-50 P.
Records-Pennsauken 10-1. Millville 11-1.