OCEAN CITY - The Mainland Regional High School football team and its coaches and fans finally had something to celebrate for the first time in nearly a month.
The Mustangs took advantage of big plays both offensive and defensive, and beat archrival Ocean City High School 35-6 at Carey Stadium on Monday afternoon in a game that had been suspended due to lightning after 3 minutes, 11 seconds on Friday night.
Mainland is trying to emotionally recover from a tragedy in which four of its players were killed in an SUV crash on the Garden State Parkway on Aug. 20. Killed were Edgar Bozzi, 17, of Somers Point; Casey Brenner, 17, of Northfield; Nicholas Connor, 16, of Northfield; and Dean Khoury, 15, of Linwood.
In the Mustangs' first two games after the accident, they lost 23-7 to Hammonton and 38-7 to St. Augustine Prep.
"I've aged this past month, I really have. But with good people around, we're all leaning on each other," Mustangs coach Bob Coffey said Monday. "We're fortunate in that respect."
Coffey's expression brightened a little as he talked about the game.
"I thought our offensive line really controlled the game, and our defense kept them off the board," Coffey said. "We needed (the defense) to step up at times, and they did everything we asked them to do. Our offense played well, too. It was a total team effort."
Four other players were injured in the Aug. 30 crash, and only one, senior lineman Jake Smith, had recovered enough to play Monday.
Ocean City first-year coach Kevin Smith is a Mainland graduate who played football for Coffey.
"We (the whole Ocean City team) went to one of their funerals when they happened," Smith said. "Obviously our hearts were with their program. When it comes to playing a football game, it's almost like that's the safe place to be. You put the other things aside and get down to what you're comfortable doing."
The Cape-Atlantic League National Division victory put Mainland at 1-2 overall and 1-1 in the division. The Red Raiders dropped to 0-3 (0-1).
Mainland junior quarterback Tom Bradway threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to running back Dashown Waller on Friday night, helping the Mustangs go up 7-0.
There was no additional scoring when play resumed Monday until Bradway tossed a 9-yard TD pass to running back Chris Kaczmarski with 1:21 before halftime. Kicker Jim Cooper's PAT made it 14-0.
"There's nothing more that we needed than a win," Bradway said. "All year we've wanted something to celebrate. We've been through so much together, obviously. It's brought us closer together, but nothing so far has felt better than winning a football game when you put so much into it."
Early in the third quarter, Mainland put two more scores on the board in a span of 42 seconds.
Running back Zack Storr eluded several tacklers on the way to a 20-yard touchdown run. The play was set up by an 82-yard kickoff return into the end zone by Waller, but a clipping penalty brought the ball back to the O.C. 20. When Ocean City got the ball, Mustangs defensive back Matt DeSalle picked off a pass by quarterback Chris Gabor and returned it 38 yards for a touchdown. Cooper's kick made it 28-0.
"The plays start to really unfold and then you have big plays like that," Bradway said. "When plays come together like that in a span of 42 seconds, it really lifts you, and there's no way for a team to come back from that."
Ocean City got on the board on its next possession. Chris Turner's 62-yard kickoff return put the ball on the Mainland 30-yard line. Running back Ben Bethea picked up 14 yards on two tries, and Gabor passed to receiver Matt Schuler for a 16-yard touchdown. A run for two points was stopped and it was 28-6.
Mainland drove once more for a score late in the third quarter, and Waller went off right tackle for the final yard.
One of the game's biggest defensive plays prevented a first-quarter touchdown by Ocean City. With Mainland up 7-0, Bethea romped around left end for 70 yards but defensive back Storr, the last Mustangs defender, made the tackle at the Mainland 10. O.C. tried two running plays to the 6-yard line, but two passes were incomplete, and Mainland took over on downs.
"He (Storr) had a good angle on Ben," Smith said of the touchdown-preventing tackle. "Ben's pretty fast, and we thought he was gone. Then they kept us out, and that was a big momentum shift. We had a couple big opportunities early and didn't take advantage of them, and then the game got away from us. We play well for periods of a game, but we haven't put 48 minutes together yet."
Notes: Mainland's next game, at home vs. Oakcrest, has been changed from this Friday to Saturday. Kickoff will be at 7 p.m. ... Ocean City's home game against Middle Township will be played Friday at 7 p.m., as originally scheduled.
Contact Guy Gargan:
Mainland Regional 7 7 21 0-35
Ocean City 0 0 6 0-6
M-Waller 11 pass from Bradway (Cooper kick)
M-Kaczmarski 9 pass from Bradway (Cooper kick)
M-Storr 20 run (Cooper kick)
M-DeSalle 38-yard interception return (Cooper kick)
OC-Schuler 16 pass from Gabor (run failed)
M-Waller 1 run (Cooper kick)
TEAM STATS M OC
First downs 12 6
Rushing 151 124
Passing 107 44
Turnovers 0 2
Rushing-Mainland, Kaczmarski 15-54, Bradway 5-1, Storr 7-42, Waller 7-48, DeSalle 1-3, Mayers 0, Coursey 1--4, Seeds 1-7. Ocean City, Gabor 5--10, Bethea 9-97, Zauck 8-28, Turner 1--3, Kennelly 2-9, Murphy 1-3.
Passing-Mainland, Bradway 4-6-0-107. Ocean City, Gabor 4-9-2-44.
Receiving-Mainland, Waller 1-11, Wilcox 1-62, Reed 1-25, Kaczmarski 1-9. Ocean City, Bethea 1-10, Turner 1-6, Schuler 1-16, Locotus 1-12.
Records-Mainland 1-2; O.C. 0-3.