barnegat vs. lacey football

Barnegat High School's David Smithman, scoring against Lacey Township in a game last month, has rushed for 658 yards this season going into the Bengals' first-ever home playoff game tonight. Barnegat will host Point Pleasant Borough.

Anthony Smedile, Oct. 8, 2011

The Southern Regional High School football team traveled to Linwood, Marlton and Washington Township among other towns for playoff games in the past.

Barnegat has been to Erma, West Deptford and Paulsboro for postseason contests.

Tonight, Southern's and Barnegat's opponents will ride the bus.

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The two Ocean County schools host the first playoff games in their respective school histories.

Southern (8-1) meets Triton Regional (7-1) at 7 p.m. in Stafford Township in a South Jersey Group IV quarterfinal.

"The kids know it's a big deal," Southern coach Chuck Donohue said.

"Anytime you're the first at anything, it's a big deal. You're going to have a crowd that is dominant and with you. Everybody that's around that can possibly get to this game will be at this game."

Meanwhile, a few miles north on Route 9 from Southern, Barnegat (5-3) meets Pt. Pleasant Borough (5-3) at 7 p.m. in a South Jersey Group II quarterfinal. Barnegat linebacker Matt Schofield said students have told him there are going to be in the parking lot tailgating at 3 p.m.

"It's going to be awesome," Schofield said. "We're ready. We really pack the stands. It's going to get loud. It's nice to stay at home and let them come to us."

The playoffs begin tonight and Saturday with first-round games. The semifinals are next weekend, while the championship games are scheduled for the first weekend in December at neutral sites.

In addition to fan support, the biggest advantage to playing at home is avoiding long bus rides. That is especially true during the playoffs when teams face opponents from other parts of the state.

Bus rides can be dreary. Players listen to music with headphones on. Some fall asleep. Teams often walk off the bus with sluggish, tight legs.

"You get there and have to wakeup," Schofield said. "When we're at home, we're in the field house and ready to go."

Some coaches like to play on the road because there are less distractions. Players often don't have a chance to go home after school when a team travels. They can't interact with friends and family.

Donohue isn't worried about the Rams losing focus.

"This group is very consistent," he said. "They don't get up. They don't get down. They come out to practice. They work very, very hard."

Southern and Barnegat not only have to deal with the logistics of the first home games in school history but also the complications of having the day off. Schools are not in session because of the teacher's convention in Atlantic City.

Both Barnegat and Southern plan to hold light practices or a meeting this morning.

"We want to have them wakeup early like it's their normal Friday routine," Barnegat coach Rob Davis said. "We don't want them to sleep all day."

Both Donohue and Davis said home field doesn't mean much once the ball is kicked off.

"Once the game starts, it doesn't really matter," Donohue said. "But in your pregame routine, it's a much more comfortable feeling playing at home."

Most of all, playing big games at home is an integral part of the high school sports experience. The home crowd almost always has more fans. At home games, many of the fans watched the players grow up.

"We want to perform for our town," Schofield said.

But just playing at home isn't enough for Southern and Barnegat. Both want to advance to next weekend's semifinals. Both teams have had past playoff success. Barnegat reached the South Jersey Group II semifinals last year. Southern lost to Mainland Regional 21-14 in the 2008 South Jersey Group IV final.

"We're just not trying to play this game," Davis said. "We're trying to win it."

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