EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Ocean City head football coach Kevin Smith has been preaching to his team for years that life is full of adversity, and what makes people successful is their ability to handle it, stay focused and be able to perform up to their abilities when things aren't going right.
In the postgame huddle on Friday night following the Red Raiders' 25-6 win over host Egg Harbor Township, coach Smith asked his players, "what's our motto?" And they responded in unison, "find a way!"
The Red Raiders overcame some early offensive struggles and a 30-minute lightning delay near the end of the first quarter — as well as a tough and inspired EHT team that was coming off a victory against Atlantic City in Week Zero— and dominated the second half en route to a victory in their season opener. Senior quarterback Ian Aungst — making his first varsity start after taking over for the graduated Harry Pfeifle — threw for a pair of scores and ran for another, and defensive back Brandon Lashley returned an interception 95 yards as the Red Raiders responded from an early 6-0 deficit and ripped off 25 unanswered points.
"The coaches emphasize during practice to bounce back and face adversity, and that's what this whole team did. My offensive line played great, they gave me so much time. I know on the stats I get all the credit, but my offensive line should get the credit for this game because they were awesome," Aungst said. "I was a little nervous, but that's normal. Once I threw that (first-quarter) pick, I just cleared my mind and simplified everything. I went back to what coach Cal (Paul Callahan) told me to do, went through my progressions and we got the win. I have so much confidence in my defense and that helps me tremendously."
"What's been happening with us is we move the ball on people and get down deep (in the red zone) and we're shooting ourselves in the foot. There's no doubt about it. Even last week, we got away with a win, but we didn't execute the way we should have and that's showing up. We have to correct that. We make a mistake on offense and they make a big play. Congratulations to them, they won and scored more points, but we felt like we should have been able to execute on offense and hold them on defense, and we didn't get that done," said EHT coach Kevin Stetser, who's squad was coming off a 21-8 win over Atlantic City, and will look to rebound next week at Kingsway. "We did some good things, but you can't give up a touchdown on third-and-20. We did some good things, it's just that finish. We need to learn how to finish, how to win, and that's what we're trying to get through to these kids. Learning to win is a thing."
WEATHERING THE STORM: Ocean City had to deal with a 30-minute lightning delay just before the first quarter came to an end, but that wasn't the Red Raiders' only issue. The offense was sputtering early on, as the first four possessions went fumble, punt, punt, interception. Defensive lineman Austin Green, a senior, said the Red Raiders just tried to remain as focused as possible while in the locker room during the delay.
"We just had to keep our heads in the game, think about what our responsibilities are and constantly think about the game. It wasn't easy, but we kept our minds on it," he said. "It was kind of weird, but we were able to step on the gas immediately (after the game resumed)."
They also faced a deficit early in the second quarter, as EHT capitalized on Steven Canela's interception of Aungst. The Eagles (1-1, 0-1 WJFL Independence) marched down the field and quarterback Steven Ramos rolled left and found Sal Paschall in the corner of the end zone for a 6-0 lead with 3:50 to go before halftime.
GETTING IT GOING: The Red Raiders (1-0, 1-0) finally got their offense revved up, responding to that score on their next possession. Aungst found speedy sophomore Jake Schneider on a crossing route on third-and-20, and Schneider took it to the house for a 62-yard scoring strike. Andrew Borkowski's extra point gave Ocean City a 7-6 lead, an advantage they wouldn't relinquish.
"He's a great quarterback. He knows what he's doing," Lashley said of Aungst. "He started off shaky, which is to be expected from any quarterback in this league, first game of the year you're going to be a little shaky, especially because he's never started a varsity game, but he started hitting a couple plays and kept heating up. By the end of the game he was on fire."
"He was pretty impressive. He took his time and got his mind back into it (after the early interception). He just got back to the grind, and that's what it's all about, the grind," Green added.
Aungst added a touchdown pass on fourth down and with just 1.8 seconds remaining before halftime, finding Lashley in the left corner of the end zone to push the lead to 13-6. He extended the lead to 19-6 early in the third quarter with a nifty 26-yard scoring run as the Red Raiders were facing another third-down conversion. He nearly was sacked by two EHT defenders, but got out of it, reversed direction and fought his way down the right sideline and into the end zone.
TURNING POINT: Lashley cramped up on that touchdown catch right before halftime, and was still feeling the effects after an abbreviated halftime, but came up with a game-changing play late in the third quarter. EHT was driving for a potential touchdown that would have made it a one score game, as a trick play pass from Paschall on an end-around to Canela set the Eagles up at the Ocean City 9-yard line. But Lashley stepped in front of a pass at the 5 and took it back 95 yards to give the Red Raiders a 25-6 lead and essentially ice the game.
"I ran a slant right by the goal line and both of my legs just cramped up so bad. I was laying on the field and couldn't move. One of the EHT players was like, 'yo, you need help up?' And I was like, 'I'm just cramping, I'm good.' I got off the field, drank some water and got back out there as soon as I could, and I guess I was in there for the right play," Lashley said of the play just before halftime. "We were in silver coverage, which means I read the No. 2 receiver to the No. 1 receiver, and the No. 2 receiver came right at me and did a little out route, and I was right over the top of it. All I saw was the football coming over his head, and I was like, 'perfect!' I caught it, looked ahead of me and all I saw was literally the exact drill we do in practice. We do an interception drill where whoever intercepts the ball runs to the sideline, someone blocks the quarterback, someone blocks the receiver that was supposed to catch the ball — and the whole way in front of me was just my guys blocking. I could have walked down that whole field. It was amazing. It was a long run and I was cramping up before. I was just hoping I made it the whole 90-plus yards."
"(His ability) is absolutely insane. I'm proud to say he's one of my brothers on this team. He's amazing," Green said.
CONFIDENCE BUILDER: Ocean City felt it had a pretty good team during the preseason, but it's a different story once the games start to count. Getting a road victory in the season opener gives the Red Raiders a boost prior to facing Bridgeton next week.
"When it comes to defense, we just go to what we were taught, and heart," said Green, who led a defense that kept EHT scoreless in three of the four quarters. "I feel like we started running them down. It was a straight grind, but I give (EHT) credit, they were grinding right with us. I give them that, we just grinded the hardest."
"This gives us so much more confidence for the rest of the season," Lashley said. "We all knew we had a good team this year, we've worked our tails off this summer. We knew we could do a lot this year, but that this first game was going to say a lot. The way it turned out, I'm so excited to see where this season brings us to."
"It's awesome. I'm just so happy right now," Aungst said. "The whole team played awesome and I'm just so happy for everyone, but now we have Bridgeton next week and we have to close the book (on this win)."
BACK TO THE GRIND: Stetser said he was frustrated with the result, but believes his team has the mental fortitude to be able to turn the page and get back on track quickly.
"We're walking away more frustrated with what we did than what we couldn't stop them from doing. They are a good team and do a great job over there. They have a great staff and coach Smith does a fantastic job. We talked before the game, and he's a couple years ahead in the process. It's similar to what we're trying to do. We're trying to change a culture, teach them to win and get them to buy in to what we're doing. They're just a little further along right now," he said. "Player for player, I think we're pretty even, we just have to stop shooting ourselves in the foot. We're not talented enough to overcome those kinds of mistakes. Our playmakers need to start making plays, and that's going to be the difference. But, we're confident in our kids. They've worked really hard. Tonight was disappointing, but this is a resilient group. This isn't the team we showed for two of the four quarters tonight, this is the team that has been working its butt off since the final buzzer of Thanksgiving last year. That's what this group has been and I expect them to rebound."
Contact Dave O'Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays