The Ocean City High School football players and coaches went to bed Saturday night thinking they would face Highland Regional or Jackson Memorial in a playoff game this week.
Meanwhile, Mainland Regional fell asleep thinking they would meet Moorestown in the playoffs.
Instead, the Red Raiders and Mustangs woke up Sunday morning and found out they would play each other for the second time in eight days. Seventh-seeded Ocean City (6-2) and second-seeded Mainland (8-0) will meet in a South Jersey Group IV quarterfinal at 1 p.m. Saturday in Linwood. The Mustangs beat Ocean City 21-6 in a regular season game last Friday at home.
“It was a surprise,” Ocean City coach Kevin Smith said, “but I think it was one our kids welcomed.”
Teams were seeded for the postseason this year based on their United Power Ranking, which is determined by a team’s wins and its opponents’ records.
The new system has plenty of variables, so unlike in the past, it’s difficult for teams to predict who their playoff opponents will be.
“Our guys are excited about the opportunity to play against Ocean City again and have so much at stake,” Mainland coach Chuck Smith said.
When the matchup was finalized last Sunday, questions naturally arose.
Who has the advantage this Saturday? Last Friday’s winner or last Friday’s loser?
In the win, Mainland consistently pressured Ocean City quarterback Joe Repetti, sacking him seven times. A couple of key turnovers, including a second-quarter interception in the Mainland end zone, also hurt the Red Raiders.
“Going into last Friday, we said there were two keys to victory,” Kevin Smith said. “One was not giving up big plays. The other was protecting the quarterback. We didn’t do either one. That gives us a roadmap of how to go forward.”
In addition to its defense last Friday, Mainland also got a standout effort from wide receiver Jake Cook, who caught two touchdown passes. But the Mustangs played far from a perfect game.
“We’re approaching (Saturday) as a brand new football game,” Chuck Smith said. “We’ll start from scratch. There’s a lot of things we could have done better. We anticipate them to make some changes. It will be a good chess match to see how the adjustments pan out for each team.”
The teams are so familiar with each other that Saturday’s game will probably be decided by fundamentals rather than some brilliant offensive or defensive scheme.
“Both teams are going to have their moments,” Chuck Smith said. “Football always comes back to blocking and tackling. Those things are huge and magnified even more in games like this.”
Mainland and O.C. are located across the bay from each other. It’s a big deal when they meet in any sport. It’s an even bigger deal in football.
This year, the rivalry was dubbed “The Battle for the Bridge,” referring to the Route 52 causeway that separates Ocean City from the Mainland sending district of Somers Point.
Mainland leads the overall series 28-19. The rivalry was at its height in the 1990s and early 2000s, when the games often decided who was South Jersey’s top team. Saturday will be the first time they have met in the postseason since 2000.
Both programs had their share of struggles earlier this decade. But this is Ocean City’s third straight playoff appearance. Mainland, ranked No. 7 in The Press Elite 11, is making its second straight postseason appearance.
Mainland hasn’t won a postseason contest since it beat Southern Regional 21-14 in the 2008 S.J. Group IV final. Ocean City hasn’t won a playoff game since it beat Lacey Township 21-14 in a 2001 S.J. Group III quarterfinal.
Both teams think now is the time to end those streaks.
“Whoever loses,” Kevin Smith said, “will be very disappointed, because I think both teams are beyond just (wanting to) qualify.”