Pleasantville Earns Share of First Football Title in 42 Years
BUENA — When the Delaware Wing-T offense is run well it can frustrate the living daylights out of an opposing defense, and Buena Regional has been running that offense for so long the Chiefs have it down to a science. Pleasantville’s answer on Friday night was to rely heavily on a group of seniors that have helped build the Greyhounds into a force in South Jersey Group 2, and a freshman quarterback who is maturing and getting better every week.
The Greyhounds trailed 14-7 at halftime in a game that had huge West Jersey Football League United Division implications, and it was up to each coach to make the adjustments needed to win the third quarter. Pleasantville got two big plays from freshman signal caller Marlon Leslie, including a 35-yard touchdown pass to Keon Henry, a huge special teams play on a punt and a signature tough 5-yard touchdown run from senior Ernest Howard to come from behind and beat the Chiefs, 21-14, in the Bunting Family Pharmacy Game of the Week.
Pleasantville (6-1, 4-0) earned a least a share of the division title, and can wrap up its first crown in 42 years with a victory over Middle Township next weekend. Last season, Pleasantville was denied a division title when the Greyhounds lost at home to Buena.
“We felt really good about this team if we could keep getting better throughout the year because we’re playing a lot of young guys, but with some of the older guys who have been in the program for a couple of years, we kind of blend them together and we’ve been able to put it all together. We overcame some adversity, but I thought the kids battled and didn’t hang their heads. We made some adjustments at halftime and they came out ready to go in the second half,” Pleasantville coach Chris Sacco said. “Buena is very well coached, they are a good team and they are going to make a run in South Jersey Group 1, and we knew that coming in. We had two weeks off and our practices were pretty good but it’s hard to simulate their offense. That was part of the adjustment we needed to make in the first half, just seeing how fast and good their fakes were and really just seeing that offense live. But we hung in there, we adjusted got the ball back to our offense a little bit more in the second half.”
Howard got the scoring going in the second quarter with a 4-yard run that was set up in part due to a Buena penalty for a late hit that knocked Leslie out of the game for the remainder of the drive, and Buena (6-2, 3-1) answered back right away as senior Byron Spellman rumbled 50 yards up the middle to tie the score, 7-7. The Chiefs then recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff, and after a big fourth-down conversion by Spellman, Shayron Smithbey capped the short drive off with a 6-yard scoring run.
Leslie came back from that hit in a big way in the third quarter, however. On Pleasantville’s second possession he hooked up with Howard on a long pass play over the middle, and that set up a 35-yard scoring strike to Henry down the seam.
“(Marlon) just threw it up, I thought I might be out of bounds but I was in. It just fell into my hands, the quarterback threw a good ball and it was just good execution,” Henry said. “Ever since they took it from us last year we’ve been waiting for this game. The whole week we were building up for this game. In the first half we came out slowly but in the second half we had to come out stronger. We knew we had it in us, we just had to bring it out. We were slacking, coach talked to us at halftime and said we needed to hit more. We came out and started executing. We were waiting for this game. We wanted a division title.”
The Greyhounds tried to take the lead on a two-point conversion, and had it on a Howard run, but a penalty moved the ball back. Sacco decided to try to kick the extra point, but Zahir “Ziggy” Washington’s boot came up short, leaving Pleasantville trailing, 14-13.
“Normally I make those, I just got under it a little bit,” Washington said. “But even though I missed it, we knew we were back in the ball game. We just buckled up and had to take it to them. It was tough, but you have to want it. You either want it or you don’t, there’s no in between.”
Despite the conversion struggle, momentum clearly had swung in Pleasantville’s favor, and a big play by the special teams unit on a botched punt on Buena’s next possession set up Howard’s 5-yard scoring run. He also ran in the two-point conversion to put the Greyhounds up, 21-14, with 2:55 remaining. Buena had one more shot to tie the game, but Pleasantville defensive back Amin Bailey stopped a fourth-down run, allowing the Greyhounds to take possession and run out the clock.
“We were able to pin them deep on that punt and get a quick score, and it was really just a total team effort tonight,” Sacco said. “We only have part of the championship right now and we understand that, but this was a big hurdle for us. We had a sour taste after last year, for sure.”
“The game was on the line right there. In my head I was like, ‘we have to hold it down, it’s been 40 years since we had a shot for a championship.’ I saw them toss the ball and I knew it was coming right at me. I saw it, ran in there, hit him and sealed it,” Bailey said. “The wing-T is a good offense to run, it can be unstoppable, but our defense is one of the best around. We missed a couple plays earlier in the game but we knew the game was on the line right there and we had to go 110 percent on that play.”
Sacco went with Leslie at the start of the season and let his rookie know that he needed to grow up fast in order for the Greyhounds to be playing championship football in November.
“That’s what we’ve harped on the past two weeks, that we were going to need to make some plays in the passing game, and he responded at practice and responded tonight,” Sacco said. “After the Haddonfield game we were like, ‘you’re not a freshman anymore,’ and he’s responded great. He’s done a great job for us. This win is really important for them, if we can finish the deal and get a banner to see something tangible there that this program is going in the right direction — I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
Pleasantville has now won five straight games since a 14-6 loss to Haddonfield in early September, and snapped Buena’s six-game winning streak while withstanding a 19-carry, 122-yard night from Smithbey.
“They came on our turf (last year) and took that game away from us, so we had to come here and return the favor. It feels great, we did it for the city, we did it for us. This program has come a long way from 0-10 when coach Sacco started to now we’re 6-1 and we can win the division next week,” Washington said. “We just talked about the plays we’ve been running for two weeks straight. We had a bye week and we’ve been running these plays for two weeks, we just had to dominate. Everybody just had to put their heads down. We were down 14-7 but we’ve come back from being down more than that, we just had to buckle up, and we did that.”
Added senior offensive lineman Luigi Garcia, “All summer, all season we’ve just been grinding, man. We just don’t stop. Coach Sacco pushes us to our limits. (Marlon), for a freshman quarterback, that boy is great. We just had to keep protecting our quarterback and keep running the ball. We put everything into this.
“We just get pushed to our limits and we know what we’re capable of. This feels wonderful.”
What’s next: Pleasantville travels to Middle Township on Nov. 1 at 6 p.m. Buena hosts Gloucester Catholic on Nov. 1 at 6 p.m.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays