EGG HARBOR CITY — The Cedar Creek football team has been tested all year long with perhaps its toughest schedule ever, and on Saturday the Pirates were faced with their final regular-season exam.

The Pirates didn't exactly ace that exam, but, they passed. And that's what counts.

With its playoff life on the line, Oakcrest stormed back from an early 16-0 deficit to take a 19-16 lead, but Cedar Creek showed why it is a defending state champion by holding the Falcons scoreless in the second half and rallying for a pair of touchdowns and a 30-19 victory that clinched the West Jersey Football League's Independence Division championship.

Pirates senior quarterback Jesse Milza completed 17-of-30 passes for 201 yards and two touchdowns, and surpassed 6,000 yards for his career, becoming the all-time leader in passing yards among former Cape-Atlantic League schools. But Cedar Creek committed four turnovers, including one that put an exclamation point on a wild second quarter that saw the Falcons rally for three touchdowns to take the lead.

With time winding down before halftime, Milza threw up a Hail Mary pass that Bo Melton came down with in the end zone, but a procedure penalty nullified the play, leaving the Pirates with one last chance to score with two seconds left. But Milza faced heavy pressure, and tried to flip a pass to a teammate before getting sacked. Oakcrest's Keevon Berry snatched the ball out of the air and rumbled about 50 yards for a touchdown, diving into the end zone as he was getting tripped up to give the Falcons (5-3, 2-2) a 19-16 lead going into the break.

"I think we were a little down on ourselves going into halftime. Personally, I beat myself up because I made a couple of bonehead moves," Milza said. "But we knew coming out for the second half we would be ready to go. We're a second-half football team, so no matter what, we knew we would be fine if we came out and played strong, played physical and have that E.A.T mentality."

That E.A.T. mentality stands for effort, attitude and tenacity, and Cedar Creek (8-1, 5-0) needed every bit of those attributes in the second half to contain the Falcons' high-powered offense led by quarterback Kendall Elliott and running back Yaier Hinton. Elliott threw for 175 yards and spent much of the second half dodging potential sacks from nearly all of the players on Cedar Creek's front seven.

"Kendall is a slippery guy. But we just worked on our pursuit and breaking down, especially for guys like him," said junior linebacker Frank Rivera. "And we knew (Hinton) was a pretty hard runner, so we prepared for him pretty well, too."

Cedar Creek jumped out to a 10-0 first-quarter lead on a 28-yard field goal by Pat Moran and an 11-yard touchdown pass from Milza to Nazir Chapman, then stretched the lead to 16-0 when Melton scored the first of his two rushing touchdowns.

But Oakcrest rallied, scoring three times in less than five minutes to close out the second-half on a 19-0 run. Elliott capped off a drive by scrambling to his right and diving into the end zone with 4:52 left to cut the deficit to 16-7, then the Falcons took advantage of a Cedar Creek fumble and marched 75 yards to cut it to 16-13. Elliott found Larry Mensah on a pass that brought the ball to the 5-yard line, and Hinton plowed his way in for the score. Berry's big play gave the Falcons a huge momentum lift going into halftime.

But guys such as Rivera and Mike Gulig, along with players such as Owen Bowles and Isaiah Watson, stepped up with big plays on defense throughout the second half to help Cedar Creek regain the momentum.

"Our defense is unbelievable. I know no matter what they will have my back. I know whatever mistakes I make, whatever mistakes the offense makes, they are going to turn around and have my back. And that's even if we put the ball in our own territory. They are going to battle it out and they are going to want to get off the field. Coach Watson has an unbelievable defense. They grind, they are warriors, and they have a blast doing it," Milza said. "They are both juniors, Frank and Mike, and they are really coming up and showing the type of character they have. Mike has really stepped up this year. The St. Joe game was huge, and every game he's just continued to get better. And that's another thing that will help us roll during playoffs — the younger dudes are really starting to get the little concepts and stuff like that."

Milza took a hard hit early in the third quarter, prompting coach Tim Watson to go with Melton at quarterback several times throughout the second half. With 10:09 left in the third, Melton was in at quarterback and ripped off a 27-yard touchdown run down the right sideline that gave the Pirates the lead for good at 23-19. Melton also was able to draw Oakcrest offsides on a key third-down play with five minutes remaining, and Milza capped that drive off with an outstanding playaction fake and touchdown pass over the middle to Watson that pushed the lead to 30-19 with 3:20 left.

"Bo is definitely one of a kind. Bo knows. He just make plays. He's something special," Rivera said. "And Jesse has been the guy for us the past four years for us. The coaches stuck him in there as a freshman and he's definitely coming a long way. He's the passing leader (among former CAL teams) and I think that says a lot about what he's done for this program the past four years."

Milza said he is enjoying being the all-time passing leader among former CAL schools, but a second straight state championship would be more important to him. The Pirates likely will get the No. 2 seed and host Middle Township on Saturday when the South Jersey Group 3 playoffs begin. Last year, Cedar Creek took down Collingswood, Haddonfield and West Deptford — coming from behind in all three games — to win their first state championship. All those teams will be in the playoffs again this season.

"It's great. It's still kind of hitting me that this is my last regular-season game. It's coming to a close, but we have playoffs coming up. I'm excited for what I did, but my teammates have really helped me a lot. I'm just excited to move to the playoffs and ready for another three games," Milza said. "I think we are ready to go. I think it's a good thing that we're still working out some kinks at the end of the regular season because now we can learn and we'll be ready to roll come playoffs and not have any issues that are really big come playoffs. I think it's big to get some of that fatigue and hard work that we're putting in during practice and not really seeing yet on the field, but you'll definitely see it because we'll be ready to roll."

Contact Dave O'Sullivan: sully@acglorydays.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays