LINWOOD — Entering Saturday’s South Jersey Group 4 opening round game against rival Mainland, players on Ocean City’s roster had never experienced a playoff victory. In fact, most had never seen a Red Raiders postseason win during their lifetime, as the last one came 18 years ago, in 2001.

That all changed Saturday afternoon with a couple big plays from the offense and a huge defensive stand inside the 5-yard line in the waning seconds.

Mainland, the No. 2 seed, trailed seventh-seeded Ocean City 21-7 with less than five minutes to go, but scored, got the ball back, and then a huge hook-and-lateral play to senior wide receiver Jake Cook set the Mustangs up inside the Red Raiders’ 5-yard line with 57 seconds to go. But on second down, Ocean City senior lineman Chris Armstrong recovered a fumble, sealing a 21-14 victory just a week after Mainland had beaten the Red Raiders 21-6 during the regular season to improve to 8-0. The win puts Ocean City (7-2) into the sectional semifinals, where they’ll travel to face No. 6 Long Branch, a 33-3 winner over No. 3 Highland on Friday night. The other semifinal features No. 1 Shawnee — the defending champion — against No. 5 Millville.

“I just worked down the line of scrimmage, saw the ball come out and I just jumped on it and protected it like it was my baby. I wasn’t letting that one go,” Armstrong said. “It was awesome. I saw my boy Brian Beckmann, we’ve been playing baseball and football together since freshman year, and we just held the ball up together and started jumping over to the sideline. It was awesome.”

“We were just saying, ‘do your job,’ and if everyone kept playing we’d come up with the victory. This is what it’s all about and winning this type of game, it doesn’t get any better than this,” added Beckmann, a senior safety who had a pair of interceptions to lead an outstanding defensive effort by the Red Raiders. “I can’t even explain, I’m just so happy for everyone over here. We haven’t won a playoff game in I don’t know how long — I know it’s been a while. It just feels great. This feeling is awesome. I never want it to go away. These are the games, the playoffs, you always want to play in. These are the games you look forward to, and playing this type of game makes you think about all that we’ve done all year, all the way back to January until now. We got together and thought about all the hard work we’ve put in.”

Mainland (8-1) went into halftime holding a 7-6 lead as the teams traded touchdown passes. The Stangs struck first when Zack Graziotto found Mike Ordille in the left corner of the end zone and Brady Panas’ extra point made it 7-0 with 1:05 left in the first quarter, but Ocean City answered back on a 49-yard strike from quarterback Joe Repetti to receiver Jake Schneider on the next possession. Mainland had a chance to extend its lead just before halftime, but Jake Inserra blocked a 31-yard field goal attempt by Panas.

Early in the third quarter, Ocean City sophomore defensive end Mike Gray blocked a punt deep in Mainland territory and that set up a second scoring pass from Repetti to Schneider. Repetti then hit Brad Jamison for the two-point conversion and a 14-7 lead. The Red Raiders extended their lead to 21-7 on a 33-yard touchdown run up the middle by Repetti to start the fourth quarter, but in a game filled with big plays, Mainland was far from done.

The Mustangs took over at their own 21 with 7:26 remaining and drove all the way inside the Ocean City 10-yard line, as Graziotto hit Ordille for a big gain then took off himself for another chunk play. Graziotto capped off the drive with a short scoring strike to Dan Misa to shave the Red Raiders’ lead to 21-14. Mainland got the ball back again with 2:45 remaining but was stopped on downs, but the defense came up big and got the ball back to the offense with just 1:14 to go. Cook’s heroics on the hook-and-lateral play covered about 50 yards and brought the ball to the 9-yard line, setting up the final-minute dramatics.

“We haven’t won a playoff game since 2001, so this is awesome. This one will be remembered in the history books as a great Ocean City vs. Mainland game, down to the last minute,” Armstrong said. “We forgot about last week, worked all week with intense practices and just got off the ball (this week) and pushed each other to our limits. At this point, you don’t know when it will be your last play and you have to play every play like it’s your last.”

Added Ocean City lineman Mike Williscroft, who spent his first two years of high school at Mainland, “we just trained as hard as we could this week. After last week, we knew we couldn’t accept that loss. This week we definitely played a lot better. The coaches picked up the intensity 10 times more than it had been. I’m so happy. Coach Smith has been emphasizing that we haven’t won a playoff game since we’ve been alive, so he was telling us to get that monkey off our back. This is a great way to do it.”

What’s next: Mainland travels to Egg Harbor Township on Thanksgiving; Ocean City travels to Long Branch on Nov. 15 for the South Jersey Group 4 semifinals.

Contact Dave O’Sullivan:; on Twitter @GDsullsays

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