EGG HARBOR CITY — The Cedar Creek High School football team earned a lifetime of football experience Saturday afternoon.
The price was a gut-wrenching defeat.
Cedar Creek wide receiver Malachi “Max” Melton scored four touchdowns in the fourth quarter, but the Pirates’ comeback fell short. They lost to Camden 42-41 in a West Jersey Football League Constitution Division game.
Cedar Creek had a chance to tie the game with 10 seconds left, but a high snap led to a botched extra point. Camden led 28-0 in the second quarter and 34-14 after three quarters.
The teams combined for 959 yards of offense.
“This is going to be a great film for our young guys,” Cedar Creek coach Tim Watson said. “There’s going to be a ton of high-effort plays. There’s going to be a ton of excellent plays.
“There’s going to be a lot of mistakes to learn from. Just the experience of being in those situations, we were able to get it to the point where we can feel good about our ability to play with very good football teams under high-pressure situations,” he added.
The game left nearly everyone involved shaking their heads in disbelief.
Camden (2-0) is ranked No. 3 in The Press Elite 11. Cedar Creek (2-1), which fell to 0-5 against Camden, had opened the season with impressive wins over Willingboro and Salem.
Saturday’s contest featured multiple outstanding performances.
Melton had five catches for 11 yards in the first three quarters. But in the final quarter, the Purdue University recruit caught five passes for 169 yards.
Cedar Creek sophomore Jojo Bermudez caught nine passes for 102 yards. Pirates quarterback Louie Barrios completed 25 of 44 passes for 370 yards and five touchdowns.
Camden quarterback Jalin Brownlee completed 17 of 30 passes for 381 yards and five touchdowns. Panthers receiver Alijah Clark caught four passes for 102 yards and three touchdowns.
Cedar Creek seemed overmatched early.
Camden had wide receivers open all over the field against a Cedar Creek defense that features multiple sophomores. The Panthers scored the first four touchdowns. The score could have been worse, but on its opening possession Camden fumbled at the Cedar Creek 1-yard line.
“It was busted coverages,” Watson said. “I’m proud of my guys for battling, but with that is going to come some mistakes. We just had some communication issues that cost us.”
Somehow, Cedar Creek survived Camden’s high-powered second quarter.
“We have to finish,” said Camden linebacker Tirek Austin-Cave, who had an interception, a fumble recovery and a sack. “This is a wakeup call for us. We got too comfortable.”
The Pirates’ comeback began innocently enough. Melton caught a short pass, broke a few tackles and sprinted away from defenders to cut the Panthers’ lead to 34-21 with 11 minutes, 27 seconds left in the game.
Things got interesting when Camden failed to field the ensuing kickoff, and Shaeed Thomas of Cedar Creek recovered the ball at the Panthers’ 11.
After a Pirates holding penalty, Melton caught a 24-yard touchdown pass to cut the lead to 34-28 with 11:07 left.
The Cedar Creek student section began to chant “I believe we will win!” after that score. That chant, which would have seemed absurd earlier, now appeared to be realistic.
“We don’t fold,” Melton said. “We don’t fold, period.”
Cedar Creek began its final possession at the Camden 41 with 2:12 left.
Barrios scrambled for gains of 11 and 6 yards as the Pirates drove to the Camden 7.
But after a sack, Cedar Creek faced a fourth-and-goal from the Camden 37.
Barrios scrambled in the backfield and lofted a pass toward the end zone. Melton slipped behind a defender and caught the pass for a touchdown to cut the Panthers’ lead to one. The Pirates celebrated by sprinting up and down their sideline in excitement.
Cedar Creek lined up for the extra point. Pirates kicker Taylor Manning was 5 for 5 on conversions.
Watson said he thought about going for two points and the win.
“You don’t want to make an emotional decision,” Watson said. “We have a very good kicker. I didn’t feel great about what we could do in short yardage. I thought it was a higher percentage to try and tie it up with an extra point.”
The Cedar Creek sideline turned from joy to stunned silence when the snap was high. Melton, the holder, ran with the ball and then threw a pass toward the end zone that was easily deflected away.
For Cedar Creek, the loss was disappointing but not crushing because it’s early in the season. These teams could meet again in the South Jersey Group II playoffs.
“This is something that we can’t get back,” Melton said. “We can only learn from it. I’m ready to get back at it tomorrow.”
Everybody else connected with the contest probably needs a day to catch their breath.
Camden 0 28 6 8 — 42
Cedar Creek 0 14 0 27 — 41
CAM — Burns 14 pass from Brownlee (Blakney pass from Brownlee)
CAM — Clark 17 pass from Brownlee (run failed)
CAM — Burns 8 pass from Brownlee (Chestnut run)
CAM — Catoe 61 run (run failed)
CK — Bermudez 46 pass from Barrios (Manning kick)
CK — Barrios 1 run (Maning kick)
CAM — Clark 12 pass from Brownlee (pass failed)
CK — Melton 69 pass from Barrios (Manning kick)
CK — Melton 24 pass from Barrios (Manning kick)
CAM — Clark 61 pass from Brownlee (Harper pass from Brownlee)
CK — Melton 35 pass from Barrios (Manning kick)
CK — Melton 37 pass from Barrios (Kick failed)
Rushing: CAM. Catoe 6-79; CK. Barrios 14-41
Passing: CAM. Brownlee 17-30-1-381; CK. Barrios 25-44-3-370
Receiving — CAM. Clark 4-102CK. Melton 10-180
Records — Camden 2-0; Cedar Creek 2-1