When the 2018 NJSIAA state playoffs began, the Cedar Creek football team was a respectable No. 5 seed and went on the road in the opening round to face No. 4 Pleasantville. The upstart Greyhounds shredded the Pirates, 57-0, and the game wasn’t even close before the halftime hot dogs were even done cooking. Malachi “Max” Melton — the third in a series of brothers who helped define what Cedar Creek football has come to be known as the past decade — left the field that night with a sick feeling in his stomach.

Enter your number to get our free mobile app

He said something was just off that entire season with the Pirates, who normally are one of the top teams in South Jersey Group 2 and a yearly sectional championship contender. When that season ended, and the nauseous feeling finally subsided, Melton and his fellow junior teammates set about getting back to the drawing board. They didn’t want to go out as seniors with another 4-5 record and a first-round playoff flop. They wanted to go out as champions.

“It was more of a sick feeling than being mad. I think that’s the worst loss I ever had in my life, and that goes for a lot of our players. And not just that game, but the whole season in general. The vibe was off and we just wanted to close the year out — but definitely not in that type of fashion. But we came back and did our thing this year, and that was pretty fun,” said Melton, Glory Days Magazine’s Boys Athlete of the Year.

Melton, who originally committed to Purdue University before switching to Rutgers to join older brother Bo, said he and the other seniors knew they had to work harder than ever to finish strong in the 2019 season and bring home another sectional title.

“Me and the guys — we had about 13 seniors — knew what it would take to get to the championship but we didn’t really know what it took to win one because we had never won it before. We went to it our freshman year but we didn’t win it, so we just took control. We were coming off a junior season where we went 4-5, one of the worst records in school history, so we just had a chip on our shoulder with every team we played,” he said. “It was really just revenge/The Greatness Getback, which was our mantra this year. Our senior class just took it. A lot of people doubted us, but we just stuck to the system and stuck to our game plan. If you buy into that with coach Watson and the rest of the coaches, you’ll be straight.”

Melton was a one-man wrecking crew for the Pirates on both sides of the ball, playing everything from defensive end to safety to wide receiver, running back, quarterback and kick returner, and helped lead Cedar Creek to one of its best seasons ever — a 10-3 mark, a Central Jersey Group 2 championship and a berth in the NJSIAA’s new “bowl” game. Their season came to an end with a loss to a highly talented Hillside team at Rutgers University in December, but not before Melton solidified his family’s legacy in Egg Harbor City.

It all started in the season opener, when Melton — who had primarily played defensive back throughout his career — switched to mostly defensive end and helped Cedar Creek score an impressive win at home over a very good Willingboro team. A few weeks later, the Pirates came up a point short against traditional power Camden, but Melton went off as a receiver, racking up 180 yards and four touchdowns. He helped the Pirates come back from a huge second-half deficit in what turned out to be one of the most entertaining games of the year in South Jersey.

“That was crazy. I just looked at Louie (Barrios) and gave him a head nod and he knew. I ran the same post routes and go routes into double coverage, but it was like, ‘what do we have to lose? We’re down by 28.’ We just ran deep routes. We didn’t have time to waste because it was the fourth quarter and we were down by 28, so just throw it up,” Melton said. “The first one was a hook, I broke three tackles and scored, and the next one was a hitch, it was just one-on-one coverage. The third and fourth ones were just straight go routes and I was like, ‘just throw it up over the top of the safety’ and Louie trusted me. Somehow I got up over the top of the safety. Everybody thought the game was over, but the next thing you know you see cars start to come back. That was lit.”

With Melton leading the way, Cedar Creek posted some really impressive wins. Two weeks after that tough loss to Camden, the Pirates went on the road and rallied to beat Woodrow Wilson, 29-28, in a game nobody thought they could win. They went on the road and beat Oakcrest; they thumped Delsea Regional at home; they blasted Bernards, 50-10, in the state playoffs and got some revenge on Camden, beating the Panthers 31-23 to win the sectional title.

“I never even pictured my senior year being like it was. I pictured it being good because we’re Cedar Creek and we always want to do well, but we just took it to a whole new level — me, Louie Barrios, Manny Reid, Aaron Richardson, Tyler Hendrickson — we all just fully bought into the system and that’s what helped us win a lot of games,” Melton said. “Even the games people thought we were going to lose. People thought we would get blown out by Camden the first time, and against Woodrow Wilson people definitely thought we were going to get blown out, but we knew how to chop those teams down. We knew they had Division I athletes everywhere, but that was alright. When you look at it stats-wise, height-wise, weight-wise, we were overmatched by a lot of those teams, but our mentality and what was bred into us put us over the top.

“It was about leaders,” he added. “Leaders are such a big part of your team. Coaches can give you everything but the players have to do it. My eighth grade year, I saw juniors on that team be leaders and that led them to a state championship. The coaches can give you all the tools they can, but if you don’t have the leaders on the field applying that day after day, it can go downhill. I think that’s what was so special (about Cedar Creek). You don’t have to have the biggest team, but if you have the right mindset you can go get the job done.”

Melton credits head coach Tim Watson — who also coached older brothers Gary and Bo — as well as the rest of the coaching staff with turning Max into the player he is today.

“When I think about my career at Cedar Creek, I think about coach Watson and everything he put us through for the betterment. He ran the team like a college program. A lot of the stuff I’m doing up at Rutgers we did at Cedar Creek, and at a lot of high schools you don’t get that,” Melton said. “So when it came to the mental part of the game, the fundamentals, our team mantra — you really have to buy into that because there were a whole lot of games since my freshman year that were really close and a lot of the time it was our mentality that put us over the top and made us one of the best teams in South Jersey. I feel like the mental part of the game took us to a whole other level under coach Watson.”

Melton, who also was one of South Jersey’s best track athletes during his career, already is enrolled at Rutgers, having graduated from high school early back in December. He’s taking with him a trunk load of great football memories from Egg Harbor City, as well as some good advice from coach Watson.

“I’ll think about my family and my brothers, not such much me, really. I’ll think about Gary and Bo because they set the bar. I didn’t really exceed their offensive stats, but I made an impact in different ways, like on special teams and defense. No. 16 is a memorable number (at Cedar Creek),” he said. “Coach Watson said before I left (for Rutgers), ‘keep E.A.T. (Effort, Attitude, Tenacity) in your system and you’ll be fine.’ So I’ve just been eating every day and picking things up fast. I’m excited for the future.”

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