The path to Saturday's South Jersey Group III title game started well before Craig Cicardo and Jake Dabal walked into Lacey Township High School.
Cicardo, Dabal and several other key players have played together since their heads were barely strong enough to support the weight of a helmet in Lacey Township's Pop Warner program.
"We had a great deal of success, so it's not really surprising that we're doing as well as we are," Cicardo said. "We always knew we were going to have something special, that we were going to do good things."
Running back Jarrod Molzon, wide receiver/defensive back Zach Torrell, fullback/linebacker Matt Uveges and lineman Dave Viera are just a few more of Lacey's current standouts who played youth football together.
Cicardo is the team's quarterback and a big reason the Lions bring a perfect 11-0 record in Saturday's game. He has thrown 16 touchdowns and rushed for 16 touchdowns.
Dabal has 856 yards rushing and six touchdowns, and Molzon has 652 yards rushing and seven touchdowns.
The three seniors form one of the most dangerous backfields in the southern half of the state.
The same three also formed one of the most dangerous backfields in youth football out of the wishbone in fourth, fifth and sixth grade.
Cicardo was a fullback, Dabal and Molzon the running backs at the time.
"It's weird," Dabal said. "Now we're all in the backfield together again. I just remember winning a lot of games together."
That familiarity shows on the field each week.
"We're a real close group," Dabal said. "I don't think I've seen a team closer than us. They're all like brothers to me. ... It's cool that we're all still doing this together. We've all been best friends since we were little. Our freshman year (on Lacey's ninth-grade team), we were 9-0, and this seems like the only way to end it - finishing 12-0 with a state championship as friends."
Saturday's 1 p.m. game against Delsea Regional will be Lacey's eighth appearance in a sectional final. The Lions have won three.
"Usually when you have a very successful group of kids, there are a couple of factors that come into play," Lacey coach Lou Vircillo said. "One, they've had pretty good relationships with each other and good chemistry coming up through the ranks. And two, that they've had enough experience as football players to carry that into a championship program. That's where we find ourselves today."
Win or lose, Saturday's game will be the last that this group of Lacey seniors plays together, as many of them will move on to play at different colleges.
"In eighth grade, we were always talking about our senior year and how we were going to make it to states, and we've got there," Cicardo said. "It's definitely going to be the most emotional game we're ever going to be playing in, and we have to make it special because it's our last one together."
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