EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Two years ago, a bunch of Mainland Regional sophomores walked off the field at Silver Eagle Stadium after a 41-0 drubbing at the hands of rival Egg Harbor Township in the annual Thanksgiving Day matchup. That loss capped a second straight 1-9 season for the Mustangs under second-year coach Chuck Smith, who had taken over for longtime skipper Bob Coffey prior to the 2016 season.

But the 735 days between that 2017 loss and this morning have seen plenty of changes in the Mainland High football program. Today, a stout defense that has become the Mustangs’ hallmark — and one that is led by a bunch of seniors, including guys like Drew Demorat, Ben Arena, Sean Bradley, Brandon Batz and Amir Vick, among others — helped spark Mainland to a 26-12 win over EHT in the final installment of this longtime holiday rivalry. Next year these teams won’t play on Thanksgiving Day, but rather earlier in the season, following a trend of more and more teams abandoning Thanksgiving games.

The Mustangs also wrapped up their second straight West Jersey Football League Independence Division championship, as they went 5-0 in division games for the second straight year. That helped — at least a little bit — take the sting out of a recent state playoff loss to Ocean City.

“It means everything to me. This team put so much work into this, and it’s great to get a 10-1 season, back-to-back conference championships, that feels really nice right now,” said senior quarterback Zack Graziotto, who ran for a touchdown and threw for another score. “We definitely had to come out here and finish what we started, show what we had. We’re still getting over that loss, but this definitely helps, getting to 10-1 and double-digit wins. This has been an awesome rivalry. A lot of respect to EHT, they played great. I’m definitely going to remember this game forever."

“This means the world to me. I love this team. We’re a huge family here, we’ve been working at it since freshman year, in the weight room — this is just a good group of kids, and I love these guys. The last time we were here we got crushed, 41-0, so it feels good to come out on top and finish strong,” said Batz, a starting safety. “This group of guys were in there for those two 1-9 seasons, we got thrown into the fire. But we knew we had to turn this program around, and here we are, 10-1.”

Mainland’s defense did on the first series what it has done a lot this year, forcing EHT (5-6) into a three-and-out, and the Mustangs’ offense capitalized on its first chance as freshman running back Ja’Briel Mace scampered 21 yards for a touchdown. Senior receiver Jake Cook then scored the conversion on a reverse to put Mainland up, 8-0, less than five minutes into the game. The Eagles’ defense tightened up after that, but so did Mainland’s, led by linebackers DeMorat and Dennis Moreno, who combined for at least six sacks. The Stangs took a 14-0 lead into halftime thanks to a 5-yard touchdown run by Graziotto late in the second quarter, then extended the lead to 20-0 when Ja’Quan Mace, Ja’Briel’s older brother, found paydirt with a 30-yard punt return in the third quarter.

But the Eagles refused to quit and cut into the lead later in the third when junior Avery McKim scored on a 15-yard run following a muffed punt by Mainland, bringing EHT within 20-6.

Mainland answered with 5:58 remaining with a touchdown pass from Graziotto to Cook that pushed the Mustangs’ lead to 26-6, but a big pass play from EHT quarterback Christian Rando to Ben Cericola led to a 1-yard touchdown run by McKim that made it 26-12 with 4:31 remaining. The Eagles then recovered an onsides kick, but Mainland’s defense came up big in the final three minutes to secure the victory.

“We all knew this was going to be our last time out together, so we had to start strong, finish strong, and throughout the whole game just assert ourselves as the more dominant team, and we feel like we did that for most of the game. It was EHT’s last game, too, and I know they didn’t want to go out with a loss, so we knew we had to fight hard for this one,” DeMorat said. “When we were freshmen we knew we had the people to go far once our program finally matured. Our coaches said they made the choice that because the program was in a bad spot they were going to have to start some young guys (two years ago) even though we weren’t ready. That’s what helped turn us into a 10-1 team. It’s a great way to go out. I know all the seniors are happy and excited we were able to finish like this. This is one of the best teams and units I’ve ever been a part of. We’re all one big family and it’s been a great experience.”

The final whistle was a stark reminder to the Mainland seniors of how quickly a high school football career passes, and many of the players stayed on the field long after the game was over, just soaking it all in. Following that 2-18 start to their careers, the seniors went 18-4, including 10-0 in divisional games.

“It’s bittersweet. I’m definitely going to miss this, miss the bonds, seeing everybody every day at practice,” Batz said. “Football is just different. I’m sad to see this (Thanksgiving Day) rivalry go.”

Added DeMorat, “It’s a tough moment. I might shed some tears later today. It’s going to be tough to get over and at first it will be a shock, but I’ll have to adjust to it. It’s going to be tough never playing again with all these guys I grew up with. But this will teach me lessons I’m going to use throughout my life. Our program, to go from what we were then to where we are now, it just shows how hard work and dedication can push anyone to anything they want to accomplish. We’re not bigger than anybody we play, but we have that heart and strength to go places.”

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