EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — The seniors of the Mainland Regional High School football team began their careers with a one-win season.
They finished it with 10 victories and a division championship.
Mainland Regional beat Egg Harbor Township 26-12 to clinch the West Jersey Football League Independence Division title and end the season with a 10-1 record Thursday.
“We came into this program and we went 1-9 two years in a row,” Mainland senior linebacker Drew DeMorat said. “It was a poor locker room at the beginning. Slowly but surely, with hard work and dedication, we turned this program around. We feel we really made an impact.”
Thursday was the final time these schools will play on Thanksgiving. The rivalry began in 1983, and Mainland finished with a 24-12-1 edge in the series. The two schools plan to play in the regular season in the future.
Mainland controlled Thursday’s game with its defense.
The Mustangs consistently pressured the EHT offense. Mainland junior linebacker Dennis Moreno rushed off the edge for five sacks.
“It wasn’t about me,” Moreno said. “It was about the seniors. They laid the groundwork. They made it easy for me. They changed the whole atmosphere in this place. Nobody can take that away from them.”
DeMorat and fellow senior linebacker Nick Rainer each had three tackles for losses.
“Our defense has been pretty good all year,” DeMorat said. “We knew this was going to be our last time playing football with each other. We had to go out and play not just for ourselves but for each other. We didn’t want to finish our career on a bad note.”
Mainland never trailed. The Mustangs made it 7-0 on their opening drive when freshman running back Ja’Briel Mace (24 carries for 125 yards) scored on a 19-yard run with 8 minutes, 32 seconds left in the first quarter.
Mainland made it 20-0 in the third when Jaquan Mace, JaBriel’s older brother, returned a punt for 34 yards for a score.
But EHT didn’t fade away. The Eagles showed the determination that enabled them to rally from a 1-4 start to finish with a 5-6 record. Junior running back Avery McKim scored a pair of second-half touchdowns.
“We play a lot of underclassmen,” EHT coach Kevin Stetser said. “But our seniors were bigtime for us, for changing the culture and doing things the right way. We like where we are. Today was tough. We came in here to win the game, and they made a few more plays than we did.”
Both teams lingered good naturedly on the field after the game.
Mainland posed with the Kiwanis Club trophy that is annually awarded to the game’s winner.
The Mustang seniors also posed for a picture together. Mainland now has back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 2007-08.
“The seniors brought the program back,” Mainland coach Chuck Smith said. “They persevered. A lot of kids quit. These guys stuck with it, and it paid off. We’re not the biggest team. We’re not the fastest team, but you know what, we’re a pretty good team.”
Mainland Regional 8 6 6 6 — 26
Egg Harbor Township 0 0 6 6 — 12
MR — Jab. Mace 19 run (Cook run)
MR — Graziotto 4 run (pass failed)
MR — Jaq. Mace 34 punt return (pass failed)
EHT — McKim 15 run (kick blocked)
MR — Cook 51 pass from Graziotto (pass failed)
EHT — McKim 1 run (pass failed)