GLOUCESTER TOWNSHIP - The mud that covered the uniforms and faces couldn't mask the disappointment felt by the Lacey Township High School football team Friday night.
The Lions' quest to win a South Jersey Group III championship had just ended with a 13-2 loss to host Timber Creek.
While the Chargers celebrated, the Lions exchanged hugs and even a few tears before gathering in a corner of the stadium.
"We gave it our best shot," Lacey coach Lou Vircillo said. "Right now, the kids are feeling that defeat. But eventually they will realize that just getting here was a tremendous accomplishment for us. To reach this point after starting the season 0-2 says a lot about this football team."
They nearly reached the championship game. Lacey's defense only made two mistakes, but Timber Creek's didn't make any. The Chargers' best playmakers - wide receiver Damiere Byrd and running back Nahgee Gibson - each scored on long runs to send Timber Creek to the title game against Hammonton on Dec. 4 or 5.
It will mark Timber Creek's first trip to a sectional final, which is what prompted the loud and rowdy gathering in the end zone afterward.
"This is something we've been shooting for since we started working out in the summer," Gibson said. "Timber Creek has never been known as a football school, but we wanted to change that. It's all we talked about all year and now we've done it."
Both offenses struggled to gain traction in a quagmire that was even muddier because of a heavy rain that fell on Thursday night. Linemen plopped to all fours while coming out of their stances. Wide receivers slipped while trying to make cuts. Running backs spun out as they changed direction.
Byrd, one of the state's top junior recruits, finally got enough traction to break a scoreless tie in the second quarter. He sprinted around left end with a handoff, broke two tackles in the secondary and pulled away for a 50-yard touchdown that put Timber Creek ahead 7-0 with four minutes, 39 seconds remaining in the first half.
"He's one of those rare kids who's a threat to go the distance every time he touches the ball," Timber Creek coach Rob Hinson said.
So is Gibson. Lacey's chances for a victory essentially ended when he burst through an opening and turned outside for a 23-yard touchdown that ended the scoring with 3:40 left in regulation.
"Our field is always horrible, so we're used to running in it," said Gibson, who rushed for 136 yards on 19 carries. "It took me a little while to get going, but whenever I came to the sideline, the coaches told me to just keep pounding and I was going to eventually pop one."
Lacey (7-3) fell inches short of pulling out the win.
The Lions were bottled up for most of the game, but converted a pair of fourth-down plays via a fake punt and a 17-yard pass from quarterback Craig Cicardo to wide receiver Cameron Blackwell in the second half that left them with a first-and-goal at the Timber Creek 1-yard line to open the fourth quarter.
A Lions touchdown and extra point would have tied the game at 7-7 and put some pressure on Timber Creek.
Instead, a Lions ball carrier fumbled just before he got to the goal line. Timber Creek recovered and Lacey never seriously threatened again.
"That was absolutely huge for us," Hinson said. "We have been to the playoffs before, but had always gotten knocked out. If Lacey had scored there, we would have started tightening up. Recovering that fumble kept those ghosts from creeping back into the picture for us."
Contact David Weinberg:
Lacey Twp. 0 0 0 2 - 2
Timber Creek 0 7 0 6 - 13
TC - Byrd 50 run. (Barth kick)
LT - Gibson tackled in end zone for safety
TC - Gibson 23 run. (Kick failed)
First Downs - LT 11, TC 12
Rushing Yards - LT 120, TC 224
Passing Yards - LT 56, TC 46
Turnovers - LT 2, TC 1
Rushing - Dabal 23-83, Molzon 5-38, Cicardo 10-13, Caputo 1(-14) LT; Gibson 19-136, Byrd 4-82, Walker 2-16, Love 5-(-10) TC.
Passing - Cicardo 8-14-56-1 LT; Love 6-9-46-1 TC.
Receiving - Blackwell 3-37, Caputo 1-11, Jensen 3-5, Molzon 1-3 LT; Byrd 5-46 TC.
Records - Lacey Township 7-3; Timber Creek 8-2.