PLEASANTVILLE - The season opener in Pleasantville between visiting Haddonfield, the defending South Jersey Group 2 champion, and the host Greyhounds was much anticipated by both squads, and Haddonfield used two big plays — one on special teams and another on defense — to bolt to a 20-0 first-half lead. The Bulldogs also came up big on defense several times in the second half to hold on for a 20-7 victory that will give them some momentum heading into next week's clash at Sterling.
This Week Zero matchup featured some outstanding athletes, such as Pleasantville linebacker Mohamed Toure, who announced this week that he's committing to Rutgers University, defensive back/receiver Elijah Glover, who picked Villanova, quarterback Sahmir Jones — Glory Days Magazine's Male Athlete of the Year for 2017-2018 — and guys like quarterback Jay Foley, running back Chris Brown and middle linebacker Gabe Klaus of Haddonfield. These teams combined for 16 wins a year ago.
TURNING POINT: Pleasantville (0-1) came up with a big goal-line stand in the first quarter, but taking over on downs inside the 5-yard line put the Greyhounds' offense in a precarious position. After a 3-and-out, Pleasantville was forced to punt into a stiff wind. The punt was partially blocked, and the wind drove it back into the end zone, where an alert Drew Gavranich pounced on the ball for a Bulldogs touchdown. The Greyhounds found themselves down, 7-0, before Haddonfield (1-0) had even had its second possession.
Haddonfield scored on its next possession when Brown broke several tackles on his way to a 16-yard scoring run up the middle, and on Pleasantville's very next play following the kickoff, Haddonfield stretched its lead to 20-0 when Gavranich stepped in front of a short pass and took the interception back 24 yards for a touchdown.
"I don't think we got rattled. We just didn't play comfortably in the first half. We were moving the ball up and down the field, we just didn't finish, and same thing in the second half," said Pleasantville coach Chris Sacco. "We moved the ball up and down the field and didn't score on a couple drives deep in their end, and it came back to bite us. I thought we wore them down in the second half, but they are a very good football team. But those two plays in the first half threw us off a little bit, but we have a learn from it."
HYPED UP: There was plenty of excitement leading up to this game, as both squads were eager to get off to a good start, and also fired up to play a high quality opponent to get the season started. Klaus said the Bulldogs knew Pleasantville would be extremely amped up, considering they were starting the season at home and against a defending champion, but Haddonfield was just as pumped.
"We game planned a lot. Since this game was Week Zero, all summer we've been game planning for these guys. They are a really good football team, a team that is up-and-coming, and we knew this was a really big game for them, so we just had to execute and get the job done," he said. "We were hyped up, too. It wasn't like one team was more hyped than the other, it was a big game for both teams. We knew they were really good, too, so we just came out here and did our thing. This is a really good morale booster to know how good we are initially, but we still have to get better each week. We'll see how we progress."
"I don't know if the hype had anything to do with it. I think our guys were focused, we prepared for everything they did, we just, for whatever reason, didn't come out and execute to our fullest capability in the first half," Sacco said. "They took away a couple things, but we were making some silly mistakes ourselves. We didn't help ourselves in the first half, but corrected it, found a groove and found out where we are in the second half and I think we can build on that going forward."
MOBILE QB: Foley, a 5-foot-9, 175-pound senior, gave Pleasantville's defense a few fits throughout the night with his ability to elude the rush, change direction, and make plays with his feet. A few times he was able to keep drives alive by scrambling away from trouble and making enough yardage to get the first down.
"A couple times we lost contain, and our backside linebacker was over-pursuing on some of the quarterback powers, but I thought we corrected most of it at halftime. We knew the type of quarterback he is coming in, but now we've seen him and if we have to play them again (in the playoffs) we'll have a little bit of experience," Sacco said.
SOME TOUGH RUNNING: Toure is known for his ability as a hard-hitting linebacker, but he's just as tough with the football in his hands as a running back, and the Greyhounds likely will rely on him a lot on offense this season. He scored Pleasantville's lone touchdown when he plowed in from a yard out from the wildcat quarterback position, and he also made some big plays in the second half in the screen passing game.
"He's a tough runner, head down — a big guy, like 215 pounds — a much bigger back than we are used to, and their screens were really tough to defend against," Klaus said. "But, as a team, I think we tackled really well tonight and were able to push them back and stop the run. I'm very confident in our defense. We have a lot of returning starters, and holding them to seven points was good."
NO NEED TO PANIC: Sure, there was a lot of excitement surrounding this game, and a win would have been a huge confidence booster for Pleasantville, but coach Sacco told his squad in the locker room before the game that this is just one game in a long season, and that no matter what happens, learn from it and get better.
"We told them before the game that it's one game, win or lose, and the plan is to just get ready for Maple Shade and take it one game at a time. We needed this game to see where we are at. I think we have to clean some things up, but I don't think we're that far off," he said. "It was just a couple mistakes. I don't think we are that far off. The sky is not falling, we're not bailing on the season. We'll stick to the plan, and hopefully we can get to the playoffs and take it from there. It's the same goal after today. That hasn't changed."
WHAT'S NEXT: Haddonfield travels to Sterling next Friday night before returning home — finally! — on Sept. 14 to take on Cinnaminson. The Bulldogs spent the entire 2017 season on the road (playing "home" games at neighboring Cherry Hill West) while their stadium was being renovated. The Haddons haven't had a true home game since the 2016 season. Pleasantville will look to rebound on Sept. 7 when it travels to Maple Shade. The Greyhounds return home on Sept. 14 to face Lower Cape May Regional at 7 p.m., and also have road games at Gloucester City and Cedar Creek in September. Ernest Howard, a transfer running back from Mainland, will be eligible to suit up against Cedar Creek on Sept. 29, which should lighten Toure's load on the offensive side of the ball.
Contact Dave O'Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays