EGG HARBOR CITY — Imagine driving all the way across the country, and then running out of gas five miles from Los Angeles.

The frustration among Cedar Creek football players and coaches was palpable in the post-game huddle on Saturday afternoon, as the Pirates’ frenetic second-half rally came up one point short in a 42-41 loss to Camden, ranked No. 20 in the state by nj.com, in a key early season West Jersey Football League Constitution Division matchup.

Senior Malachi Melton was so frustrated that he said he’d be willing to go through a full practice on Sunday afternoon if it meant correcting some of the mistakes that led to a heartbreaking loss — to come that far, after trailing by as much as 28-0 in the first half, to make all those incredible plays in the second half to get back into the game, only to come up short, was difficult for any of the Pirates to take, even if they are only three games into the season.

“Number one, I’m proud of our guys in the second half battling back,” added Cedar Creek coach Tim Watson. “That’s a very good football team, so to battle back and have a chance to tie it at the end of the game says a lot about their character. Especially being as young as we are. I’m proud of these guys.”“We have to take practice more seriously. This is something that we can’t get back, we can only learn from it. We just have to learn from it. The first and second quarter really killed us, our secondary has to do better — just a whole bunch of things. I’m ready to get back at it tomorrow, even though it’s Saturday, I’ll come on a Sunday. I’m ready to get back. We’re going to work as hard as we can,” said Melton, a Purdue University commit who scored four second-half touchdowns to help spark Cedar Creek’s comeback attempt. “It’s a little bit of every (emotion). Obviously, disappointed because we lost by a point. I’m motivated because I know we have a game next week, we have a game after that, and I know there’s a possibility we can see (Camden) in the playoffs. It’s getting to me, but I know what we have ahead of us, so we have to get back to work.”

Trailing 42-35 with 2:10 remaining — and having come back from a 34-14 deficit — Cedar Creek (2-1, 1-1) took over at the Camden 41-yard line and a pass from Louie Barrios to JoJo Bermudez brought the ball to the 21. Barrios — who was playing with a banged up wrist on his throwing hand suffered last weekend in a win over Salem — then ran a keeper down to the 9-yard line, but a holding penalty and a sack forced the Pirates into a 4th-and-goal from the 37 with just 10.7 seconds remaining. Barrios dropped back and heaved a ball into the end zone, and Melton came down with it to bring the Pirates to within a point, 42-41, but a high snap on the point-after attempt forced Melton, the holder, to scramble and toss a pass into the end zone, and it was broken up.

Moments earlier, Camden jumped offsides, putting the ball at the 1-yard line, but Watson said he preferred to try to get the game into overtime because of Cedar Creek’s advantage with kicker Taylor Manning instead of going for two, and the win. Camden hadn’t even attempted an extra point the entire game and would have been at a disadvantage in an overtime situation.

“We were (tempted) but you don’t want to make an emotional decision. We have a very good kicker, so that should be easy money, and if we go to overtime we probably win it,” Watson explained. “With short-yardage stuff, I didn’t feel great about what we could do. It’s a risk, but based on the feel of the last couple of possessions, I thought it was a higher percentage to try to tie it up with the extra point because we’re usually pretty good at those.”

After a scoreless first quarter, Camden quarterback Jalin Brownlee began to pick apart Cedar Creek’s young but athletic secondary, to the tune of three touchdown passes, and Amir Catoe added a 61-yard run as the Panthers bolted out to a 28-0 lead.

“We had busted coverages. I’m proud of my young guys for battling, but with that is going to come some mistakes,” Watson said. “We did a better job of shoring things up in the second half. We just had some miscommunication issues and it cost us. And their quarterback did a lot better than we anticipated on those short routes. He threw some great balls on slants and he was putting our linebackers in a bind.”

But Cedar Creek answered less than 10 seconds after Camden’s fourth touchdown, as Barrios hooked up with Bermudez on a 41-yard scoring pass, and after a bungled punt on Camden’s next possession, Barrios found Manny Reid on a pass play down to the 1-yard line. Barrios punched it in, cutting the deficit to 28-14 heading into halftime.

But each time the Pirates got close, Camden (2-0, 1-0) stepped on the gas pedal again. Midway through the third quarter, Alijah Clark hauled in his second touchdown pass of the game and the Panthers extended their lead to 34-14.

Early in the fourth, Melton took a pass from Barrios, broke a few tackles and raced down the right sideline to bring Cedar Creek to within 34-21. Then sophomore linebacker C.J. Resto recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff, and after Melton dropped a potential touchdown pass in the end zone, he came right back the next play on the other side of the field and hauled in a Barrios pass as the Pirates got to within 34-28. The back-and-forth slugfest continued, as on the Panthers’ next possession, Clark took a quick slant from Brownlee, made three defenders miss and raced down the right sideline to put Camden in front, 42-28.

Players from both teams filled up the stat sheet as the offenses continued to match each other in the second half. Brownlee finished with 380 passing yards and five touchdowns, Catoe had six carries for 79 yards, and Clark and Damir Burns each went over 100 yards receiving and combined for five scores. For Cedar Creek, Barrios completed 25-of-44 passes for 370 yards and five TDs, Melton finished with 10 catches for 180 yards and four scores, Bermudez chipped in nine catches for 102 yards, and Reid added 68 receiving yards on four catches.

“We don’t fold. Period,” Melton said. “Louie, believe it or not, that last touchdown he threw me, he was hurt. I don’t know what was hurting him but he was with the trainer and we told him, ‘yo, we need you right now.’ He threw it up to me and I just made a play, do whatever I have to do to make my team win. When I know I have to do something, it has to be done. Every touchdown, Louie just threw it up to me and I come down with those.”

“This is going to be great film for our young guys. There are going to be a ton of high-effort plays I’m going to be able to point out, there are going to be a ton of excellent plays by our guys we’re going to be able to show. But I also think there’s going to be a lot of mistakes we’ll be able to learn from. If anything, just the experience from being in those types of situations — I thought the defense buckled down in the second half, we got three-and-outs when we needed them, which was huge,” Watson said. “So, we had a lifetime of experiences during the game, we kind of saw our defense growing up during that second half. The biggest thing was they were able to get it to the point where they were able to feel good about their ability to play with very good football teams in high-pressure situations. There’s a world of experience we can take from this game.”

What’s next: Camden hosts Paul VI on Sept. 20 at 6 p.m. Cedar Creek hosts Absegami on Sept. 21 at noon.

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