Mason Stokes talks soccer with classmates and teachers in the Oakcrest High School hallways.
He talks soccer with friends and neighbors at the Wawa in Mays Landing.
Stokes and his Oakcrest boys soccer teammates are in the midst of the best type of high school sports season — surprisingly successful to outsiders.
And with each win, the Falcons give their Mays Landing school an image boost.
Oakcrest (18-3-1) will play Delran (15-4-2) for the South Jersey Group II title at 2 p.m. Friday in Delran, Burlington County.
“We’re being noticed,” said Stokes, a senior forward. “People say, ‘I’ve seen you in the newspaper.’ Everyone knows what’s going on. We wanted to bring something good to Oakcrest.”
Oakcrest is not known as a soccer power. The Falcons are a senior dominated team this year. The players grew up together playing in the Hamilton Township travel programs. They also spent hours playing pickup games on streets outside their homes or on the tennis courts of The Village at Hardings Run condominium complex or the Evergreen at Timber Glenn apartments.
As sophomores, the current Falcons seniors finished 12-7. But they slipped to 10-10 mostly because of injuries last season.
Few in the South Jersey soccer community expected Oakcrest to challenge for a South Jersey title before the season began.
Still, The Falcons believed in themselves. At the Stockton University preseason tournament, they wore T-shirts with the year 1987 written on them. That was the last time Oakcrest won a Cape-Atlantic League conference title.
“They knew their goals,” Oakcrest coach Joe Seaman said of his players. “They had everything focused and ready to go.”
The Falcons started 9-0. They beat perennial power St. Augustine Prep 2-1 on Oct. 14 at Egg Harbor Township to win the CAL title.
“We had a multitude of community members come out to watch that game,” Seaman said. “Old players, old students, people who have lived in Mays Landing their whole life came out to watch that game. It’s brought the community together.”
Friday will be Oakcrest’s first sectional final since it lost the 2003 South Jersey Group III title game to Ocean City.
“This year we really started clicking,” Stokes said. “We’ve finally reached the potential we always knew we had.”
Oakcrest is filled with great students and teachers. Brielle Smith won the javelin at the outdoor track and field Meet of Champions and earned a scholarship to Stanford University last spring.
But the school sometimes suffers from a perception problem. It’s one of the oldest high schools in Atlantic County and is sometimes not the trendy place to attend. Oakcrest often sees many of Mays Landing’s top athletes attend non-public schools or Atlantic County Institute of Technology.
“We know the stigma (about Oakcrest),” said Seaman, who teaches science at the school.
All high school sports are local. When a public school team goes on a successful run, it can galvanize an entire community.
There are few things better in high school sports than having success with the people you grew up with, while friends, family and neighbors cheer from the stands.
The Falcons hear what others say about their school. They’re thrilled to let their play answer the critics.
“We’re putting us back on the map,” Falcons senior forward Gabe Paz said. “We hope people see Oakcrest as a really good program. We can do a lot together, and we hope that influences many kids to come to Oakcrest in the following years.”
Michael McGarry’s Must Win column appears Fridays in The Press.