South Jersey Sports Report: High School Sports Stories of the Year
Chris Sacco stood alone for a long time on the manicured Lincoln Financial Field grass on a beautiful late November afternoon as his Pleasantville Greyhounds warmed up prior to the completion of their state playoff sectional semifinal game against Camden. Emotions swirled inside his head as he tried to figure out how to get his team to erase a 6-0 deficit and beat the Panthers with only a little more than one quarter of play left. But the Xs and Os were lost in the fog of everything that had happened since the previous Friday night.
On that night, Pleasantville was beginning to gain momentum and wear down Camden late in the third quarter when the frenzy of a high school state playoff game was suddenly replaced with a different kind of frenzy — the kind where fans were running for their lives after a series of gunshots rang out. Several men from Atlantic City were accused of taking a personal matter public and injuring three people during the shooting, including a 10-year-old boy named Micah Tennant.
Eventually, players and coaches were both sent home as police were now faced with a crime scene at a high school football field. The incident sent shockwaves throughout the South Jersey football community and for several days nobody was really sure what would happen with the game. Would it simply be canceled and Cedar Creek awarded the Central Jersey Group 2 championship, or would it somehow resume? And if so, where? Pleasantville and Camden players and coaches had a decision to make, too. Did they even want to continue playing? Did they feel safe enough to go back out onto the field?
“For me, at the time, I was really just worried about the well being of my teammates and my family in the bleachers, and everybody at the game. I just wanted everybody to be safe. It didn’t take me long (to recognize what was happening). A few shots in and I knew it wasn’t fireworks or anything like that. I was just running off instinct at that point. Where we live it’s kind of common, but I didn’t think it would happen at a football game,” said Pleasantville senior running back Joshua Kotokpo. “Once we got into the school we were just trying to calm everybody down. It was getting kind of hectic in there and the atmosphere felt unsettled. Nobody felt safe, everybody was panicking. We let the guys have a little bit of space but we kept telling the younger guys that we’re there for them and we’ll make sure everybody is safe.
“We came together and said we had to finish this out,” he added. “Football is more than just a game for us, we’re trying to make a way for our families. It’s like business for us, so we had to take care of it.”
“Going into the game, the game plan was that we had to just weather the storm. They have athletes over there. Camden always has athletes. We never thought something like that was going to happen during the game — especially in a game like that, the playoffs, we had just won the conference championship by beating Buena, so all our minds were focused on winning that game and going to states. Then that broke out, and it really shattered us because we felt like we did everything right, we stayed out of trouble, we stayed off the streets. A lot of us look at football over here as a way out, and for that to happen at a game of that magnitude, it was bad,” added Pleasantville senior linebacker Ernest Howard. “It was the day (the game resumed), that next Wednesday, when we found out (that Micah died). That was really hard. I walked out onto the field (in Philadelphia) and just sat there for about 30 minutes. I was thinking, what if that kid wasn’t there at the game, would it have happened to another kid? What would have happened? That’s all I kept thinking about it.”
The Philadelphia Eagles stepped up to provide their stadium as a safe place for the game to resume, with only media and family members of the players allowed to attend. The game was set to resume the following Wednesday afternoon, and on the way to the stadium Greyhounds players found out that young Micah had died from his injuries. It was a tough pill to swallow, and the weight of that knowledge was too much, as the Panthers scored a couple of touchdowns to beat Pleasantville and advance to the sectional title game.
“Obviously that’s never something you want to go through, but the kids handled themselves in a very mature manner and they stuck together. There’s no blueprint or manual for how to handle a situation like that, and I thought the kids stuck together, the program stuck together, and it was very important to know that we were all there for each other in a time like that,” said coach Sacco, who stepped down after the season and now is the head coach at Absegami. “I try not to think about it too much or talk about it too much. It’s one of those things you’re never going to forget, and those memories will never leave, but you just continue to move forward. You feel terrible about the situations and for the families that were involved. Your heart breaks for Micah’s family. I don’t know how you continue to move on. I guess the best way is to continue to be there for the kids. I still reach out to a lot of the players and they know I’m there for them, and that’s the best thing you can do, continue to keep those relationships alive moving forward.”
Nobody ever wants a tragedy like a little boy dying to happen, but as grim as the situation was, it also provided an opportunity for South Jersey football fans to see the true character of the Pleasantville and Camden football programs. Both schools are in cities that are no stranger to gun violence, but the young men on these teams proved that they could not only handle an adult situation, but be an inspiration for change, hopefully, in their respective towns.
“We’re around shootings sometimes in Pleasantville. Somebody in a family takes the wrong road. We’ve seen it before, but when it happened at a football game, that was something different,” Howard said. “We figured out that (we were going to continue the game) real fast though, we knew we wanted to play. We didn’t want to quit. We tried to conquer the moment. It was hard, but I was really proud of my teammates for playing. We knew we were playing for something different. The outcome had nothing to do with the score, we didn’t think about that. We just wanted to finish the game and finish strong. That’s what it was all about.”
“At the beginning of the day we came to the school and we were talking about how we were going to win for Micah. But before we left they let us know that Micah died. Everybody was sad. Some people didn’t show it, but a lot of people were emotional. But we just tried to stay calm and keep working on taking care of business for him. I was proud that we fought so hard, but I was also disappointed that we couldn’t pull it off for him,” Kotokpo said. “We’re here for each other. We build together; we go through a lot together, the whole team. We showed how strong this team has gotten the past couple of years and how much of an impact this program has had on us.”
Added Sacco, “They are a great group of kids, from both teams. The way they handled themselves — knowing them, I wasn’t surprised that they were mature enough to handle a situation like that. And it was the same for the Camden kids, I thought they did a phenomenal job. That Wednesday when we went up to the Linc and just talking to their coaches and how they handled the situation — it’s not something you ever prepare for, but I think both programs and both groups of kids really handled the situation as best as they possibly could.
“It was a very difficult couple of days but it was good to see some smiles on their faces when they got to meet Doug Pederson and Carson Wentz and some of the other Eagles players,” he said. “Just seeing them light up in the locker room before the game, and running out onto the field with the smoke and everything, it was a really cool experience for them. We have gratitude to the Philadelphia Eagles for doing that, and more than anything it was nice to see the kids smile and get excited for a couple of minutes because it was a very emotionally draining week for them.”
Coaches always look for ways to impart “life lessons” on their players. Obviously this was not the kind of life lesson any coach wants to use as an example of overcoming hardship, but the Pleasantville and Camden teams responded as well as anyone could have expected given the circumstances.
“I think football is a great life tool. It prepares you for things you’re going to face in life. You never want to face an incident like that, but it brings people together. This sport brings people together and tough times brings people together,” Sacco said. “All the work they’ve put in over the years — you always want to win games, but you’re always more proud of what they do off the field than what they do on it. That will always hold true for me, as a coach. We want to see them be successful men more than we want to see them win games, and that’s saying a lot because we want them to win a lot of games and championships. But that’s not the most important thing in high school sports. Seeing these kids become successful and move on to do what they want to do with the rest of their lives is by far the most important.
“It was a unanimous ‘yes’ that they wanted to go back out there and finish that game. That didn’t surprise me, knowing that group of kids and what they wanted to try to achieve. It was a tough moment, for sure.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays
Each year in July, Glory Days Magazine takes stock of the previous school year and we bring you the best that we saw on the playing fields, courts and in the pools from throughout the Cape-Atlantic League. Here’s a quick look at some of the top stories from throughout the 2019-2020 school year.
1. Story of the Year: The Pleasantville vs. Camden football state playoff game that was interrupted by gun violence, and how the players from both teams responded to a situation that left a 10-year-old boy dead. It’s a story of tragedy, but also of triumph that the young men from those teams were able to overcome very difficult emotions to continue what they had started, and finish the game at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.
2. Crowning achievement: The Ocean City girls soccer team took South Jersey by storm last fall, winning 18 of their first 19 games. Their only loss was 2-1 to Rancocas Valley in the fourth game of the season, and the Raiders tied RV later in the season, in the Coaches Cup title game, before falling in a shootout. Those, however, were the only blemishes as the Raiders finished 24-1-1, won the Cape-Atlantic League National Conference title, the overall CAL championship, a South Jersey Group 3 crown and the overall state championship.
3. Super Stangs: Whatever is going on at Mainland Regional High School, Mustangs fans just hope it keeps happening. The school’s football team completed a second straight 9-1 season, and that’s even more impressive considering in 2016 and 2017 Mainland combined to go just 2-18. Mainland also had two state players of the year, Kylee Watson in girls basketball and Katie McClintock in girls swimming. They probably would have had another, but star swimmer Destin Lasco, a University of California commit, chose not to compete during the high school season. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Mainland could produce two future Olympians, as Watson has already competed for USA Basketball’s U16 team and is headed to the University of Oregon, and Lasco could be a contender for the 2021 or 2024 Summer Games. Oh, and not to be forgotten, senior cross country runner Kevin Antczak, an N.C. State commit, took second overall at the 2019 Meet of Champions.
4. Covid-19 pandemic: First, the global virus put an end to some exciting state basketball playoff runs by the Ocean City girls and Atlantic City and St. Augustine Prep boys, then it wiped out the entire spring sports season. Seniors throughout the state who played spring sports were denied their final chance to shine, although some sports tried to do what they could to get their athletes back onto the field one more time. Baseball’s “Last Dance World Series” was a huge success that involved more than 200 teams from throughout New Jersey and played more than 400 games over the span of a few weeks.
5. Gone too soon: Legendary Holy Spirit football coach Bill Walsh lost his battle with ALS last November, but his death seemed to inspire his beloved Spartans, who went on to win the first state championship under current coach A.J. Russo, who had a lifelong friendship with Walsh and his family. The Spartans left no doubt who the best team in Non-Public Group 2 was, as they blitzed rival St. Joseph-Hammonton 38-0 in the championship game at Rutgers.
6. Celebrity tour: It kind of seemed like the Wildwood Catholic boys basketball team had gained celebrity status this winter, as the Crusaders played in all kinds of big games and showcase events. The Crusaders finished the year 24-7 and were on an eight-game winning streak when the coronavirus pandemic shut down their state playoff run.
7. Here to stay, it seems: Wrestling fans have embraced the idea of girls wrestling, as the sport is beginning to gain a foothold in New Jersey. This year saw another great NJSIAA state tournament at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City featuring the girls, and no doubt the sport will continue to grow in popularity in the years to come.
8. Saved by the bell: A month or two ago it seemed as though Wildwood Catholic and St. Joseph-Hammonton might shut their doors for good due to lack of funding from the Camden Dioces of the Catholic Church, but the schools have been able to stay open thanks in large part to huge fundraising efforts.
9. Pitch perfect: Soccer fans were treated to a thrilling season last fall, as both Oakcrest and Egg Harbor Township boys teams made thrilling runs to sectional championship games. Oakcrest also captured the CAL Tournament title as Gabe Paz, Glory Days’ Boys Soccer Player of the Year, scored both goals in a 2-1 overtime thriller over St. Augustine Prep.
10. Still going strong: Longtime Millville field hockey coach Claudia McCarthy, who has been the skipper since the 1970s, says she’s set to retire after the 2020 season. It appears she has a lot left in the tank, however, as her Thunderbolts won the CAL American title in 2019, beating out perennial powerhouse Ocean City, to record one of the best seasons of McCarthy’s career. Coaching this fall would give McCarthy a nice, even 50 years in the books.