COLUMN: Final CAL wrap of the 2019 football season

By TOM WILLIAMS

The swimmers are in the pools and, starting this week, jump shots and takedowns will replace third down conversions and extra points. But first, one final look at the 2019 football season and the Cape-Atlantic League teams in the West Jersey Football League.

It was another fall season filled with success.

Holy Spirit and Cedar Creek (who will be in the same WJFL division next year) won NJSIAA championships and both St. Joseph and Ocean City came close, reaching championship games. It marked the 33rd straight year that a CAL school has won an NJSIAA football championship. And St. Joe, Mainland, Cedar Creek and Pleasantville all either won WJFL division championships or tied for their title.

Before completely filing away all records and move on to basketball, wrestling, swimming and indoor track, lets review some of the highlights of the season.

SCORING LEADERS: St. Joe senior Jada Byers scored 35 touchdowns to lead all CAL players and finished his career more than 100 points ahead of former record-holder Kevin Sinclair. Cedar Creek senior Lou Barrios led the passers with 34 TD passes and Holy Spirit sophomore Elijah Steward was tops in receiving touchdowns with 11. Cedar Creek junior Taylor Manning led kickers with 64 points and five field goals. Pleasantville senior Keon Henry and Holy Spirit junior Patrick Smith each led return backs with three TDs. Lots more scoring leaders are available here.

HOME FIELD ADVANTAGE: The majority of CAL football teams were better at home than on the road. But there were exceptions. Millville was 1-3 at home but 4-3 on the road. And Middle Township was 2-4 in Cape May Court House but 3-1 after a bus ride. The biggest home field edges went to St. Augustine Prep and Ocean City. The Hermits were 4-0 at home and 3-4 on the road while the Raiders were 4-0 at Carey Stadium but 5-3 elsewhere. The final standings of all WJFL divisions including CAL teams are here.

BIGGEST IMPROVEMENTS: Cedar Creek and Ocean City took the biggest steps forward. The Pirates won six more games in 2019 than in the 2018. The Raiders were five wins better. You can check the final Online 25 rankings of South Jersey teams here.

IN THE RECORD BOOK: Aside from the more than a half-dozen records by Byers, there were others who wrote their names into the CAL record books. The 34 touchdown passes by Barrios broke the record of 27 by Brent Caprio of Mainland 11 years earlier. He also tied the record with five TD passes in a game – and he did it in four different games. In one of those games, teammate Max Melton became only the third CAL football player to ever catch four TD passes in a game. The others were Mainland’s Justin Bishop in 2015 and Absegami’s Josh Coursey in 2017. And Mainland’s Ja’Briel Mace scored 19 touchdowns and 114 points this year, both the most by a CAL freshman.

KEITH MARELLA AWARD: Keith scored a touchdown all five ways during a season. In 1998, the St. Joseph player scored six rushing TDs, caught five TD passes, brought back one kickoff and two punts and scored once on defense. No CAL player had scored all five ways for 17 years until Zeke Ennis of St. Augustine did it in 2016. Then Byers did it in 2017. Nobody scored all five ways this season but four players scored TDs four different ways – Melton and JoJo Bermudez of Cedar Creek, Jaquan Mace of Mainland and Henry of Pleasantville. But Melton and Mace both also threw TD passes, breaking the tie and earning them the mythical Marella Award.

TOP NON-FOOTBALL FALL ATHLETES: Mainland senior Kevin Antczak was the Cape-Atlantic League and South Jersey Group 3 champion in cross country, also finishing second in the NJSIAA Meet of Champions and eighth in the Foot Locker National Championship Meet in San Diego. He will run at North Carolina State starting next fall. And Ocean City junior Faith Slimmer, a first team all-state player committed to Rutgers, set new school records for goals and assists in both a career and a season while leading the Raiders to a state championship.

GAMES OF THE YEAR: There were many, including a bunch involving Cedar Creek. Certainly Holy Spirit’s win in the state final over St. Joe by an unexpected margin was a big game. And both of St. Augustine’s games in the Non-Public 4 playoffs – the win over Seton Hall Prep and the near-win over St. Peter’s, a team ranked nationally in the top 25. But give the nod to two games – the back-to-back games between Ocean City and Mainland, probably the greatest non-Thanksgiving rivals among CAL schools. The Mustangs won the first one to capture a division championship and the new Bridge Trophy. The Raiders won the second meeting eight days later to advance in the Group 4 playoffs.

OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: There were a lot of great performances from talented players like Smith, Mace, Bermudez, Steward, Melton, Elijah Gray, Joe Repetti, Ernest Howard, Jake Schneider and Nate Robbins. There were lots of them. But Barrios gets the nod. In addition to the record number of touchdown passes he also scored 12 TDs himself to finish among the top 10 in scoring.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Like on offense, there is some talent on this side of the line. Tyreem Powell of Vineland, Nasir Hill at St. Augustine, Ahmad Brown and Tim Finan of Holy Spirit, St. Joe’s Jayden Shertel, Nysere Dunlap of Oakcrest, Brian Beckmann and Jake Inserra of Ocean City – there are many more. But at the top of the group is Mainland’s Drew DeMorat. He comes upon it naturally – his father, Dr. Gene, was a great linebacker at Millville and Princeton. This season, Drew made 96 tackles for the Mustangs, 32 of them for losses. He also had 7.5 sacks, forced a couple fumbles and intercepted a pass.

WEAPON OF THE YEAR: There have been 321-pound defensive linemen at CAL schools before. But very few of them were converted to running backs – especially running backs who ran for more than 300 yards and scored eight touchdowns. Isaiah Raikes, who is committed to Texas A&M, finished his offensive career with 18 touchdowns. He was difficult to stop carrying the ball, especially if he broke through or got outside, leaving the job to much smaller defensive backs. He also made 49 tackles, 11 of them for losses, including four sacks. He was the definition of a valuable weapon.

FOOTBALL COACH OF THE YEAR: A. J. Russo guided Holy Spirit to a state championship, Pete Lancetta took St. Augustine to new heights after a slow start, Paul Sacco had another great championship season and Kevin Smith, Chuck Smith and Chris Sacco continued to move their programs ahead. But Tim Watson gets the nod for guiding Cedar Creek through the minefield of the WJFL Constitution Division (three of the six teams were NJSIAA champions and a fourth lost in the sectional final) plus the complicated Group 2 playoffs.

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER: There have been very few football players at a Cape-Atlantic League school who accomplished more than Jada Byers. He made spectacular runs, ran great patterns, made impressive catches and was solid on defense. He was clearly the most valuable and best all-around player at a CAL school this season. In fact, for many, many seasons.

TOUGH LOSSES: Bill Walsh lost his long battle with Lou Gehrig’s Disease and his death, though expected, had a strong impact on the entire area – but especially on the Holy Spirit team, which played its best football at the end as a tribute to him. Micah Tennant, the 10-year old who lost his life to crossfire while watching a football playoff game, has also received many tributes. His loss was a terrible tragedy. And five-year old Dulce Alavez, who was last seen Sept. 16 at a playground near the Bridgeton football stadium, is still missing. Hopefully her story will have a happier ending. They all brought communities together in a time of deep sorrow and concern.

LOOKING TOWARD 2020: There is lots of talent returning – Steward, Mace, Repetti, Bermudez, Smith, Inserra, Manning, Schneider, Ray Weed, Jake Ketschek, Carnell Davis, Shayron Smithbey, Jordan Marcucci, Mike Rhodes, Ahmad Ross, Lake Snyder, Will Drain and Kanye Udoh are among them.

Let’s hope next season, with some new West Jersey Football League alignments, brings us the same level of fall excitement we had this year.

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