Extra Points: Mainland stakes claim among best local teams in history
By DAVID WEINBERG
Mainland Regional High School’s football team enjoyed a magical season that drew notice from throughout the state. The Mustangs capped one of the greatest years ever by a local program last Sunday by winning the State Group 4 Championship with a 56-0 rout of formerly unbeaten Ramapo at Rutgers University.
According to MaxPreps.com, Mainland finished as the No. 2 team in the state behind perennial national power Bergen Catholic and as the top-ranked public school program.
“We made a statement as to why you’re probably the best public school in the state,” Mainland coach Chuck Smith told his team after the game.
Led by seniors Cohen Cook, Stephen Ordille and Jamie Tyson, Mainland dominated the championship game with a superb performance. Ordille rushed for 186 yards and three touchdowns, Cook gained 136 yards on 11 carries and Tyson caught a TD pass and snared his state-leading 12th interception.
With the win, the Mustangs became the first local team to go 14-0 and joined 2022 Group 4 champion Millville as the only public school programs to win state titles as part of a revised playoff system that was instituted last year.
Playoffs were first created in 1974, but the postseason ended at the sectional level as part of an obscure, 100-year clause that was adopted by the state in 1919. In 2018, the playoffs were expanded to include “Super Sections” that were essentially state semifinals. The first public-school state champs were crowned in 2022.
The manner in which Mainland won the state title – it scored on its first eight possessions and was never challenged – suggested that in addition to their lofty state ranking, the Mustangs could also make a claim for being the best local public school team ever, though that debate would draw interesting arguments from other parts of Atlantic, Cape May, and Cumberland Counties.
To be fair, we’ll limit the contenders to the past 50 years, since the creation of state playoffs. And we won’t include some of the powerhouse non-public programs that won state titles such as the 1988 Holy Spirit team that went 10-0 behind the late Al Mallen, Chris Stoll and Kevin Hallman. Or the 2011 St. Joseph Hammonton squad that went 10-0 behind Kaiwan Lewis and Max Valles while outscoring its opponents 474-19.
We’ll start with the 1975 Millville team. The Thunderbolts were the first local team to win a title since the playoffs were created. They went 11-0 that season behind coach Tony Surace, the late Bubba Green and Calvin Murray and snapped Brick Township’s 47-game winning streak with a 22-12 upset. Green, who passed away in 2019, later played for North Carolina State and the Baltimore Colts as a defensive end. Murray, a running back, starred at Ohio State and played for the Eagles.
I also consider the 1988 Buena Regional squad as one of the best in the Cape-Atlantic League. Led by coach Chuck Donahue, linebacker Shawn Smith, quarterback Bill Barrale and others, the Chiefs went 11-0 en route to winning the South Jersey Group title. They outscored their opponents by a combined 417-77 and won their two playoff games by a combined 69-0. A slew of players went on to the college level, including Barrale (Northeastern), Smith (Notre Dame, San Diego State), running backs Obie Daids and Damon Nelson (both Toledo) and linebacker George Maxwell (Rutgers).
The 1996 Ocean City team definitely merits consideration; The Red Raiders went 11-0 that season under coach Gary Degenhardt, star running back Kevin Sinclair, quarterback Matt LeFever and wide receiver Scott Lipford while winning the South Jersey Group 4. They were considered South Jersey’s top overall team and were ranked No. 8 in East, according to USA Today.
Sinclair, who went on to play at Temple, rushed for 1,652 yards and scored 30 touchdowns that season.
Mainland has had its share of outstanding teams over the years.
In 1980, the “Strang Gang” won the South Jersey Group 3 crown behind Penn State-bound quarterback Doug Strang and running back Calvin Robinson.
Prior to winning the Central Jersey Group 4 title last year, the Mustangs last sectional crown came in 2008 behind quarterback Brent Caprio. Caprio, who later starred at William and Mary, passed for 2,065 yards and 27 TDs and also rushed for 890 yards and 21 TDs as the Mustangs went 12-0 and won the South Jersey Group 4 championship.
Aside from a 14-7 win at Hammonton on September 22, this season’s Mustangs weren’t challenged. They rolled over opponents, amassing a 595-99 scoring advantage.
Tyson and defensive end Hunter Watson led a defense that registered six shutouts and allowed seven points in four other games. Offensively, sophomore quarterback John Franchiani, Cook and Ordille produced 30 or more points in a dozen games. They were at their best in the playoffs, storming to convincing victories over Manalapan (56-20), Colts Neck (49-7), Millville (35-13), Winslow (41-7) and Ramapo (56-0).
It's tough to compare teams and eras, but this year’s Mainland squad definitely ranks in the top three, if not number one.
Local NFL update
Four former players from Cape-Atlantic League schools saw action in last week’s NFL games: Packers Wide Receiver Bo Melton (Cedar Creek) made his NFL regular-season debut on special teams during Green Bay’s 29-22 victory at Detroit on Thanksgiving Day. Melton was signed to the Packers’ active roster after spending most of the season on the practice squad.
Cowboys S Markquese Bell (Bridgeton) had four tackles and a pass defense in a 45-10 win over Washington on Thanksgiving.
Chiefs running back Isiah Pacheco (Vineland) rushed for 55 yards and two TDs on 15 carries and also caught five passes for 34 yards in a 35-10 win over the Raiders Sunday.
Chargers DT Austin Johnson (St. Augustine Prep, Galloway Township) had four tackles and a pass defense in a 20-10 loss to the Ravens Sunday.