EGG HARBOR CITY — Bo Melton shrugged off his helmet and shoulder pads Saturday afternoon and strode off the field. Under his jersey he was wearing a long-sleeved T-shirt that had the name "Milza" emblazoned on the back with quarterback Jesse Milza's No. 11. When you're a playmaker like Melton, you pay homage to the guy who puts the ball into your hands any way you can.

Melton, Cedar Creek's dynamic, do-it-all senior athlete, was simply too good for seventh-seeded Middle Township in the opening round of the South Jersey Group 3 playoffs. Melton had 114 receiving yards, caught two touchdown passes from Milza, added another on the ground, and chipped in with an interception on defense as the No. 2 Pirates began defense of their sectional championship with a resounding 26-14 victory over the Panthers. Cedar Creek advances to host No. 3 Willingboro next Saturday at 1 p.m.

"It's playoff time. We have a lot of seniors, so we had to come out strong. We can't slack off, because it's playoff time and it's win or go home," Melton said. "We came out with the mentality that we have to win every game. That's our mindset."

Melton had some nagging leg injuries throughout much of the season, but now that he's fully healed he is a game-changer, and he proved that in all phases of the game on Saturday. The Panthers (5-4) held Cedar Creek (9-1) scoreless in the first quarter, mostly by chewing up clock with running backs Shawn Scott, Jalen Freeman, Zee Bland and Chris Rivera. But the second quarter was a different story.

Cedar Creek exploded for 21 points to take control of the game for good. Midway through the quarter, Melton caught a short pass from Milza and took it 33 yards to paydirt, and on the Pirates' next possession, Melton took a handoff 22 yards for another score, and just like that it was 14-0. Kamal Reed, who finished with 62 yards on 13 carries, plowed his way in from five yards out with 55 seconds left in the first half to push the lead to 21-0.

"They had a great job to keep our offense off the field. They drove the ball down the field and ran the clock, and I was surprised. But that's what most teams are going to do to us because we have a wide-open, spread offense," Melton said. "But, we did pretty well maintaining and coming out strong on offense. We were prepared for them. (Scott) is a tough running back and he ran hard, and Bland was running free on sweeps, so we just had to stop them and once we did it was a wrap."

"Scott is a great back and is tough to bring down. If you look at the film, he's had a great year for them," said Cedar Creek coach Tim Watson. "So, defensively, the idea was to minimize their long drives where they could chew up clock. I thought we did a solid job, defensively, in the first half, and offensively we started getting into a little bit of a groove with some of our no-huddle stuff, which seemed to get us going."

Scott finished with 63 yards on 16 carries, and Bland added 104 yards on just eight carries, but the Panthers couldn't find the end zone until backup quarterback Cameron Hamer — filling in for injured senior Matt Harris — hooked up with John Zarfati for a 16-yard touchdown in the third quarter. Cedar Creek answered on its next possession as Milza found Nazir Chapman (5 catches, 122 yards) on a slant pattern for a 22-yard score that pushed the lead to 28-6, and Melton made it 36-6 when he hauled in a 24-yard touchdown pass from Milza. Mike Gulig plowed his way in on the conversion following that play.

Hamer, who finished with 104 passing yards on just three completions, added another touchdown pass with six minutes to go, hooking up with Cody Kern.

But the day belonged to Melton.

"He's starting to get his swagger back. The last couple of games we've noticed a difference in his change of direction and his energy level with the ball after he catches it — it took him more than half of the season to start to feel like himself again, and you're starting to see that," Watson said. "He's starting to make some plays and do a lot of the things we saw him do last year. We have some other guys who are stepping up, too, and Jesse has a good command of that no-huddle offense."

"Middle Township is a good team, so we had to come out and get in a rhythm against them, because once we get into a rhythm on teams, we tend to do well. Once we get into a rhythm with this spread offense we can begin to capitalize on our opportunities," Melton said.

The road gets tougher now, as the Pirates go up against Willingboro, which grinded out an 18-9 win over Haddonfield — a team Cedar Creek beat in last year's semifinal round — on Friday night.

"The best thing about having a lot of guys who were in the mix last year — and we have about five or six guys who were starters on last year's team — just being able to set the tone in practice, the attention to detail, and the focus that needs to be there in your work week, that's the biggest thing. Your work week needs to be on another level in the playoffs, and you hope that it translates to a good performance," Watson said. "It's pretty easy with this group once we get to the playoffs to get them ready. They've been there, so they know what a good work week looks like. We're happy to be moving on to the second round. We know Willingboro beat a good Haddonfield team, so we know they will be a game opponent."

"It's going to be really tough from here on out. There are some tough teams, like West Deptford and Willingboro and Collingswood. We played Collingswood last year and it was a nail-biter. We know we just have to work hard and prepare," Melton said. "We're the defending champions, and we've never been in that position, so we have to prepare and keep preparing until we get it right. We have a weight on our shoulders and a target on our back because we are the defending champions. We know Willingboro and West Deptford are coming for us, we just have to prepare and come out and play our hardest."

Contact Dave O'Sullivan:; on Twitter @GDsullysays

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