The Cedar Creek High School football team spent the past two weeks worrying about more than just blocking and tackling.
The Pirates confronted what it means to be a team.
Cedar Creek (2-2) hosts rival Oakcrest (3-1) at 2 p.m. Saturday in a pivotal Cape-Atlantic League National Conference game. Cedar Creek, which was off last weekend, needs a win to stay in contention for a South Jersey Group II playoff spot.
"We did a lot of soul searching, a lot of looking in the mirror" Cedar Creek coach Tim Watson said when discussing what the Pirates did during their bye week. "It was less about the schemes and the Xs and Os and more about our guys getting introspective and reflecting on what kind of character they want to exhibit moving forward, win or lose."
Cedar Creek began the season with high expectations but lost at home to Buena Regional (16-6) and Bridgeton (27-13). Those two schools are quality teams with a combined record of 8-2, but Watson expressed concern with how the Pirates reacted to adversity in those defeats.
"My biggest problem with the losses," Watson said, "was not the losses themselves but how we were losing. In the past, we were always clawing to get respect and fighting our way up. This year, we had expectations, so when we were down instead of clawing our way back it caused a different reaction. We had to look at how we treat each other on the field, even when it's hard."
Meanwhile, Oakcrest needs a win to boost its chances of making the South Jersey Group III playoffs. The top eight teams with the most power points in each enrollment group after the games of Nov. 7-8 qualify for the playoffs. Teams earn power points based on their opponents' victories and enrollment.
As if the playoff ramifications for both teams weren't enough, Saturday's contest is a rivalry game. Both schools are members of the Greater Egg Harbor School District. Many of the students who now attend Cedar Creek have older brothers or sisters who went to Oakcrest. This is the third meeting between the schools. Cedar Creek has won both previous contests.
"The kids look forward to playing in this game," Oakcrest coach Chuck Smith said. "The kids work out together in the offseason. They've known each other since they've been little."
Oakcrest and Cedar Creek feature some of the most talented players in the CAL.
Cedar Creek junior wide receiver and defensive back Ahmir Mitchell is one of the state's top college prospects with scholarship offers from Florida State, Michigan, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Rutgers and other colleges.
Oakcrest relies on sophomore quarterback Kendall Elliott, who has thrown eight touchdown passes and just one interception. He threw 15 interceptions as a freshman. Elliott has also run for five touchdowns this season.
"He's a tough kid to defend," Smith said. "He's gotten much better in the passing game, making the right decisions and knowing when to throw the ball and not force the issue."
Smith knows Cedar Creek will play Saturday like it's a postseason game.
"Their season lies in the balance playoff wise and we've been telling our kids that all week," Smith said. "We have to come out ready to play. We've been a little slow in the first quarter all season, and we can't afford to do that (Saturday). This is a huge game for us to get one foot closer to a playoff berth."
As for Cedar Creek, Watson wants to see the Pirates play without the burden of expectations.
"I want to see us play loose," he said. "In the games where we didn't play well, we were playing not to lose. Good or bad, whatever is going on in the game I don't want to see any finger pointing. We want to see these guys come together. I want to see them playing loose and playing as a family regardless of what happens on the scoreboard."
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