MILLVILLE - The Millville High School football team left the field as Cape-Atlantic League champions for the first time in 22 years Friday night.
Atlantic City left shaking its head with the frustration of having lost a game by inches.
Alquann Jones rushed for 267 yards and two touchdowns as Millville won the CAL American Division with a 27-19 win over the Vikings. The Thunderbolts (8-0) had not won a CAL football title since 1989.
"This is very big, especially around here," Jones said. "Millville is a big a football town. We had to come out here and play our hearts out."
Meanwhile, Atlantic City (6-2) saw its chances of winning back-to-back CAL American titles slip away because of turnovers. The Vikings fumbled twice on the Millville goal line - the second time trailing by eight points with less than a minute to play. Atlantic City committed four turnovers overall.
"Every day, every play, we talk about protecting the football," Atlantic City coach Thomas Kelly said. "To be so close against a good team, it hurts that much more."
The contest also had playoff implications. Millville, No. 3 in The Press Elite 11, clinched a home game in the first round of next weekend's South Jersey Group IV playoffs. Atlantic City, No. 10 in the Elite 11, will await the results of several games today to see if it makes the playoffs.
"I'm not into moral victories," Kelly said. "We're going to see what falls into place (today)."
The game featured plenty of big plays that thrilled the crowd at Millville's Wheaton Field. Atlantic City quarterback Kabir McCoy threw for 314 yards and two touchdowns and ran for another score. Fans packed the home stands and many more stood around the fence that circled the field.
"We both battled hard," Jones said. "I could tell from the way they played that they wanted to beat us, and we wanted to beat them."
With the score tied at 13 in the second half, Millville, as it has all season, relied on Jones, who leads the area in rushing with 1,536 yards.
The Thunderbolts drove 66 yards in nine plays for a touchdown to take a 19-13 lead. Jones carried five times on the drive, including a 27-yard run and a 4-yard scoring run.
Millville went for the two-point conversion and Thunderbolts quarterback Shaq Lee jumped into the air and threw to Rashon Sorrell for the conversion to give the Thunderbolts a 21-13 lead.
But Atlantic City rallied. McCoy threw a 62-yard touchdown pass to Dayshawn Reynolds with 3 minutes, 10 seconds left.
The Vikings went for two points to tie the game. They were penalized 5 yards for illegal motion and then pitched the ball on a reverse to Radi Tolbert, who sprinted toward the corner of the end zone. Tolbert appeared to have a path to the goal line, but Millville's Alskee Downing closed quickly and made the tackle at the 4-yard line to keep the Thunderbolts in front 21-19.
Millville appeared to clinch the victory on its next possession. On his 31st and final carry, the 5-foot-8, 164-pound Jones sprinted up the middle, cut between three Atlantic City defenders and then ran untouched to the end zone to give Millville a 27-19 lead with 2:22 left.
"I always have something left in my tank," Jones said. "I had to put the icing on the cake."
But the Thunderbolts couldn't celebrate because the Vikings rallied again. McCoy (17-of-30) completed three straight passes to drive the Vikings to the Millville 9-yard line.
McCoy scrambled toward the goal on a second down from the 5-yard line. He tried to reach the ball across the goal line. Millville linebacker Zubir Boyer (two tackles for losses and a fumble recovery) hit McCoy and knocked the ball loose.
"As a linebacker, we learn to close in on the ball," Boyer said. "He tried to stick his arm out, and they say I knocked the ball out. When I saw it was out, it was just relief, joy."
Sorrell recovered the ball in the end zone.
"When I saw it on the ground, I just had to go get it," Sorrell said. "I knew we had the game from there."
The runs of Jones, the passes of McCoy and the defensive plays combined to make the contest one of the season's best. What made the game even more thrilling was the setting. Fans at Wheaton Field reacted to every play. They chanted "Defense! Defense!" during Atlantic City's final possession.
"This is special for the town," Millville coach Jason Durham said. "They pack this house and will continue to do so. We're proud to bring (a championship) back to this town."
Contact Michael McGarry:
Atlantic City 0 6 7 6-19
Millville 7 6 0 14 -27
MV -Boyer 12 pass from Lee (Price kick)
MV-Sorrell 20 run (kick missed)
AC-McCoy 1 run (kick missed)
AC-Tolbert 9 pass from McCoy (McCoy kick)
MV-Jones 6 run (Sorrell pass from Lee)
AC-D. Reynolds 62 pass from McCoy (run failed)
MV-Jones 55 run (pass failed)
Rushing-McCoy 18-58 AC. Jones 31-267, Sorrell 3-46 MV.
Passing-McCoy 17-30-1-311 AC. Lee 3-5-0-47 MV.
Receiving-D. Reynolds 4-115. Naji 4-71, McBryde 5- 90 AC. McShan 2-35 MV.
Records-Atlantic City 6-2; Millville 8-0