LINWOOD — On Thanksgiving Day, dining room tables throughout South Jersey will be adorned with turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, maybe some sweet potato or pumpkin pie — all the trimmings that go along with a traditional holiday meal. On Wednesday night at Mainland Regional High School, the dish of choice was Taco.
Senior running back Tyquan "Taco" Campbell made several huge plays in overtime, racing around the right side for 24 yards to set up his own 1-yard scoring plunge that gave the host Mustangs a come-from-behind, 13-7 victory over rival Egg Harbor Township in the annual Thanksgiving matchup. This year's group of seniors suffered through a pair of 1-9 seasons leading into 2018, including a 41-0 loss to EHT in last year's Thanksgiving game, but capped this campaign with their eighth victory and sole possession of the West Jersey Football League's Independence Division championship.
"That brought me back to some flashbacks to the first day in the weight room last December. This is everything we've worked for," said Mainland senior defensive back Dean Hall. "It all comes down to that moment, and now we're division champions when nobody believed in us. I've been saying this since Week 1 against Overbrook, you better not count us out."
Egg Harbor Township (4-6) struck first, scoring on its second possession of the game when senior running back Luis Rivera-Turrell broke free down the left sideline for a 48-yard touchdown, and fellow senior Johnny Moller added the extra point to put the Eagles up 7-0 late in the first quarter. The score remained unchanged until early in the fourth quarter, when a big run by Campbell and a 26-yard pass from Zack Graziotto to Joe Massari set up Graziotto's 4-yard touchdown run. Sean Carey's extra point knotted the game at 7, and neither team could muster a sustained drive in the final nine minutes, sending the game into overtime.
"EHT did a tremendous job today. They came ready to play and were much more energetic than we were out of the gate," said Mainland coach Chuck Smith. "We dodged a lot of huge bullets in the first half when the game could have gotten away from us. Our defense held tough, and once we scored that touchdown and we got it to overtime, I felt pretty confident because we have Sean. The whole thing was just stopping them. They were killing us with the sweeps and off-tackle plays, so it was a matter of holding them, and as soon as we got the ball, I said to (assistant coach) Billy Kern, 'just run the ball because we have a good kicker.'"
EHT had the ball first in overtime, but Campbell broke up a surefire touchdown pass in the end zone on third down, and the Eagles misfired on a fourth-down pass, turning the ball over on downs. Three plays later, the game was over.
"This means a lot, especially after the last two years. We needed some get-back. It was looking rocky at first, but we pulled through, especially on that third down in overtime. We knew we were right back in it if we could just get one play. As soon as we broke one, the momentum shifted and it didn't stop," said senior lineman Hector Guerrero, whose team finished 8-3. "This is an amazing feeling. I didn't want to lose, and now we're sole conference champions, no question. I knew there was light at the end of the tunnel. That's what you have to work for, you have to look to reach that goal."
The game featured a pair of Mainland seniors — Campbell and Hall — who had an opportunity for some redemption. Hall lost his starting quarterback job to Graziotto, a junior, late in the season, but didn't hang his head and moved over to the defensive side of the ball to shore up the Mustangs' secondary. Campbell spent a good portion of his season in coach Smith's doghouse because of some disciplinary issues, and was suspended for several key games in October.
"I'm sure that's amazing for him, especially after missing all those games," Guerrero said of Campbell's overtime touchdown. "It shows how he stayed with it through everything and kept working hard. He knew we only had 48 minutes left with this squad, and took advantage of it and dominated at the end."
"I just stayed positive throughout the season, even though I wasn't here for a couple games. I just wanted to come back and make up for lost time with my team. I felt like I let down the team and I was feeling really bad about that, so I was thinking I had to come back and do something (in this game)," Campbell said. "Even when I wasn't here, I was working out and staying in shape, so when I came back I was 100 percent. It felt great (to score that touchdown). I needed that, and we needed that, after two 1-9 seasons."
"That was crazy. That was God's plan, I know he's got it. And this isn't the last you're going to hear from him, this kid has a huge future," added Hall. "I know adversity is a big part of this game and I've been through it the past two seasons. That's built me up to have so many layers of skin. I had to (accept my role and) encourage Zack because I knew there are more games coming up for him."
Smith said he wasn't sure how this team would respond after consecutive one-win seasons, but knew he had something special when nearly three dozen players showed up for offseason workouts the Monday after last year's Thanksgiving loss to EHT.
"The thing I say to everybody all the time is, after two 1-9 seasons, you're worried about what the offseason will be like," he said. "And these guys were there. We had great offseason workouts, great summer practices and workouts. We have a couple kids who are pretty good players but we don't have those all-world guys. But we have a great team. They all like being around each other, and that's what kept us together this season. We weren't flashy on offense — we barely scored 20 points per game. But our defense kept us in there and our kicker kept us in there. Those little things. And almost every week there were one or two guys who stepped up to the plate, and it was almost always somebody different. To me, that really spells out what a team is. I've coached a lot of great teams through the years, and these guys define what a team is to me."
Contact Dave O'Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays