STAFFORD TOWNSHIP - The Southern Regional High School football team learned quickly Saturday night just how fast Brandon Winston of Jackson Memorial is.
Fortunately for the Rams, they adjusted just as quickly to Winston's speed.
Winston scored on long touchdown runs on his first two carries, but Southern rallied and won the Shore Conference A South game 21-14. Southern quarterback Dan Higgins sparked the comeback with three touchdown passes, two of them to Kevin Barreau. The victory put Southern (4-1), No. 10 in The Press Elite 11, in first place in A South. Southern hasn't won a Shore Conference football title since 1972.
Jackson (4-1) entered the game as the favorite, with the reputation of being one of the Shore Conference's top teams.
"Being Southern, we're always the underdog," said Rams senior Alec Morris, who recovered a fumble, intercepted a pass and caught three passes for 44 yards. "We're the underdogs this week, last week, the week before. We prepare each week. We don't listen to what other people say. When you play hard, you get results like (Saturday). "
Winston (16 carries for 216 yards) stunned Southern early. He ran 75 yards up the middle for a touchdown on Jackson's first play from scrimmage to give the Jaguars a 7-0 lead with eight minutes, 32 seconds left in the first quarter.
Winston's second carry was equally as thrilling. He ran 59 yards around right end for another touchdown to give Jackson a 14-0 lead with 6:32 left in the first quarter.
Southern didn't touch Winston on either run.
"There's no explanation for that," Morris said. "It was blown assignments. It was a big wakeup call. We didn't know what to expect from Winston. We don't experience guys like that every day. Once we got into it, it worked out well for us."
Southern didn't take long to get back in the game. On the first play after the kickoff, Higgins threw a 70-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Kevin Barreau.
"That changed the momentum of the game for us," said Higgins, who completed 7-of-15 passes for 136 yards. "That play changed the whole game."
Southern tied the score with a 12-play, 80-yard drive that took 5:57. The touchdown came on a 5-yard pass from Higgins to Barreau.
"They didn't respect us with the pass," Higgins said of Jackson. "They kept playing their guys up. We came out and showed we could throw the ball."
Southern took the lead for good midway through the third quarter, after Morris stopped a potential Jackson scoring drive with an interception at the Southern 6-yard line. His return, plus a late-hit penalty on Jackson, gave the Rams the ball at the Jaguars' 45-yard line.
Higgins completed two key passes on the ensuing scoring drive. The first came on a fourth-and-2 play from the Jackson 37-yard line. The quarterback found a sprinting Morris open downfield for a 32-yard gain. Two plays later, Higgins lobbed the ball in the direction of 6-foot-5 sophomore Mike Gesicki, who leaped into the air to catch the touchdown pass with 5:36 left in the third quarter.
"I knew presnap I was going to (Gesicki)," Higgins said. "It was one-on-one coverage. He had the (defender) by a couple of inches. I was like, 'He's going to jump 7 feet high to get this.' "
Jackson had an opportunity to tie the game late in the fourth quarter. The Jaguars drove inside the Southern 10-yard line with less than two minutes to play.
Jaguars quarterback Jimmy Celidonio scrambled toward the end zone on a first-down play. Just as he was about to cross the goal line, Southern linebacker Anthony Speziale knocked the ball loose. The ball bounced into the end zone, where Morris fell on it for a touchback.
"I saw the ball pop loose," Morris said. "I was like, 'Ohhhh.' "
Jackson got the ball back once more at the Southern 44-yard line with less than a minute to play. But the Jaguars never threatened. Southern defenders Kevin Fitzpatrick and Ryan Boyle combined for one sack and Nick Munafo ended the game with another.
After shaking hands with Jackson, Southern players ran over to the home bleachers to celebrate with their fans. The win was Southern's biggest since it reached the South Jersey Group IV final in 2008.
And Saturday's win sets up an even bigger game Friday, when Southern travels to perennial power and division rival Toms River North (4-1).
A win, and Southern will take another step toward ending its 39 years without a Shore Conference championship.
Contact Michael McGarry:
Jackson Memorial 14 0 0 0-14
Southern Regional 7 7 7 0-21
JM-Winston 75 run (Sanzone kick)
JM-Winston 59 run (Sanzone kick)
SR-Barreau 70 pass from Higgins (Yaiser kick)
SR-Barreau 5 pass from Higgins (Yaiser kick)
SR-Gesicki 10 pass from Higgins (Yaiser kick)
Rushing-Jackson Memorial, Winston 16-216. Southern Regional, Bellissimo 26-71.
Passing-Jackson Memorial, Celidonio 7-15-2-88. Southern Regional, Higgins 7-15-1-136.
Receiving-Jackson Memorial, Leary 3-46. Southern Regional, Barreau 2-75.
Records-Jackson 4-1; Southern 4-1.