COLUMN: Wrapping up the 2020 CAL football season

By TOM WILLIAMS

Not since the end of World War II has there been such an unusual high school football season around here. Games were cancelled and postponed, sometimes at the last minute. New games, to replace those that disappeared, were put together in a hurry.

A few teams played the NJSIAA maximum of nine games but some played just four, with many schedule counts in between.

Still, a football season was completed in the middle of an international pandemic that is as serious in our country right now as it has been in the nine months we’ve had to deal with it. It is a virus that forced the cancellation of the entire spring sports season and has required adjustments in the upcoming winter season with more likely to come.

There were no divisions in the West Jersey Football League, just a schedule of games. There were no championships in the WJSL or the NJSIAA, though Holy Spirit won a post-season bracket and Ocean City reached the final round of another.

Before completely filing away all records and eventually moving on to basketball, wrestling, swimming and winter track, lets review some of the highlights of the football season.

SCORING LEADERS: Patrick Smith of Holy Spirit and Ahmad Ross of St. Joseph were the highest-scoring Cape-Atlantic League players with 96 points each. Absegami’s Ray Weed threw the most TD passes (14) and Jordan Marcucci caught eight of them. Marcucci also had four return TDs and JoJo Bermudez of Cedar Creek had three. Jake Schneider of Ocean City had three defensive touchdowns and Mainland’s Dennis Moreno scored two. Ocean City scored the most points per game (35.1) and Holy Spirit allowed the fewest points (5.9). Lots more scoring leaders are available HERE.

STAT LEADERS: Patrick Smith ran for 1,719 yards on 220 carries, both best among CAL players. Ahmad Ross (1,112) was the other player to reach 1,000 rushing yards. Among other leaders, JoJo Bermudez averaged 10.9 yards per carry; Millville’s Nate Robbins threw and completed the most passes (90 for 161); Atlantic City’s Eric Strecker threw for the most yards (1,166); Jake Schneider caught the most passes (38); Atlantic City’s Jaheem Fredrick had the most receiving yards (649); and Cedar Creek’s Zach Ricci has the highest average with 42.5 yards per catch. The stats of 66 of the leaders in rushing, passing and receiving are available HERE.

Nate Robbins

HOME FIELD ADVANTAGE: We usually expect teams to have records like Millville (3-1 at home, 1-3 on the road) or even Middle Township (4-0 in Cape May Court House, 0-4 after a bus ride). But then there was Buena. The Chiefs were 1-4 at home and 3-0 on the road. The final records of all CAL teams are HERE.

BIGGEST IMPROVEMENTS: Bridgeton, which didn’t get to play its last two games, took the biggest steps forward. The Bulldogs won three more games in 2020 than in the 2019. You can check the final Online 25 rankings of South Jersey teams HERE.

IN THE RECORD BOOK: Patrick Smith set a new single-game record for CAL backs when he ran for 362 yards at Cedar Creek, topping the record of 342 by Lamont Harris of St. Augustine in 2014. Smith then gained 333 yards the following week against Vineland to become the first in CAL history to record back-to-back 300-yard games. Jake Schneider set a new record for CAL receivers with 122 career catches. The old record was 117, set by current Rutgers star Bo Melton at Cedar Creek in 2017.

Jake Schneider (BRIAN GREEN Photo)

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 duplicated that for 17 years until Zeke Ennis of St. Augustine did it in 2016. Then Jada Byers of St. Joseph did it in 2017. This season nobody reached Keith Marella levels but five players scored TDs three different ways – Jordan Marcucci, JoJo Bermudez, Jermaine Bell of Bridgeton, Dom Caraballo of Middle Township and Nasir Hill of St. Augustine.

STREAMING SEASON: With the limitations of fans in attendance, live video streams and radio broadcasts became even more important this year, It was the only way some fans could keep up with the games. Matt Ulmer, the “King of Stream”, again played a key role along with Bill Shallcross, who has been recording high school football for three decades, playing a big role. Mike Gill and 97.3-ESPN delivered live back porch play-by-play and Brian Cunniff was on 98.7-The Coast, whose coverage also featured the inimitable Buddy Tarbotton. Quinn Broadcasting covered the Cumberland County teams, Dan Hollingsworth and Half Pint Productions streamed St. Joseph Academy and Hermits Broadcasting covered St. Augustine. Most of those streams are still available online. In a season of turmoil, the online streamers and radio broadcasters played an even bigger role.

GAMES OF THE YEAR: Though they might not have been the originally scheduled games, there were many great games in 2020. For example, the wins by Holy Spirit and St. Augustine over Lenape, which had widely been considered the #1 team in South Jersey. The Spartans’ win over St. Joseph on the opening weekend set the stage for the season. St. Joseph and Hammonton played again after seven-year absence. And Atlantic City played Pleasantville for the first time since 1961. Williamstown and St. Augustine played twice – one finished in overtime and the second was a 6-0 decision on two field goals. Middle Township won a thriller, using a field goal to tie the game and another to win it in overtime. But lets give the edge to Millville’s wins over St. Augustine and Williamstown, two impressive wins in the Thunderbolts’ roller coaster season that had a big impact on South Jersey high school football.

OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: There were a lot of great performances from talented players like Ahmad Ross, Jordan Marcucci, Jake Schneider, Millville’s LaQuint Allen and Ocean City’s Joe Repetti. But Patrick Smith is a clear choice. The Holy Spirit senior averaged more than 250 rushing yards a game. He didn’t play in the Spartans Thanksgiving Day game with Atlantic City by choice. But if you take his numbers and project them over a typical 11-game season, he was on track to gain 2,700 yards and score 25 touchdowns.

Patrick Smith

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Like on offense, there is some talent on this side of the line. Michael Francisco and Andrew Constantino of Holy Spirit, Nasir Hill and Brady Small of St. Augustine, Mike Rhodes and Jake Inserra of Ocean City, Jahqir Haley of St. Joseph and others. But at the top of the group is Ahmad Ross. His numbers were impressive – 64 tackles including 27 solos and 14 for losses, two sacks and two interceptions. But beyond the numbers, Ross just always seemed to be around the ball when the other team had it.

Ahmad Ross

You can check out all the Cape-Atlantic League 2020 fall sports all stars – including football, soccer, field hockey, cross country and girls tennis – HERE.

FOOTBALL COACH OF THE YEAR: There are four CAL coaches whose teams finished among the top eight ranked teams in South Jersey – Pete Lancetta, A. J. Russo, Paul Sacco & Kevin Smith – and all four are former CAL football players. They all took on the challenges of a difficult season and created a season to remember for their student athletes. But A.J. Russo gets the nod. After putting a state championship in 2019 back-to-back with a No. 1 ranking in South Jersey this year he has earned a spot next to Ed Byrnes and Bill Walsh in the history of Holy Spirit football and football in the Cape-Atlantic League.

A.J. Russo

LOOKING TOWARD 2021: There is lots of talent returning – JoJo Bermudez, Justin McNulty, Brady Small, Michael Francisco, Nasir Hill, Jahqir Haley, Tom Schutta, LaQuint Allen, Elijah Steward, Ray Weed, Ja’Briel Mace, Brett Nabb, Brendan McGonigle, Kanye Udoh, Nick Wagner, Jacob Wilson, Cohl Mercado, Marcus Hebron, Jermaine Jones, Eric Strecker, Trevor Cohen, Nate Robbins, Jaheem Frederick, David Giulian and Marcus Hebron – just to name a few. Hopefully they will have a more normal season next fall in which to display their skills.

ONE FINAL THOUGHT: The year 2020 has brought us the complete cancellation of the spring sports season and a fall sports season unlike any other. At this writing, winter sports will not begin until at least mid-January. It could probably end up being moved further away again. The NJSIAA, the governor and almost every school administrator want high school sports to continue for winter and spring teams. And you can play a role in making that happen. If you didn’t care about high school sports you probably wouldn’t be reading this. So, wear a mask whenever you are outside your home. Stay 6-10 feet apart. Eliminate large holiday gatherings. Sure, these things are uncomfortable. Of course you don’t like them. But if you don’t wear a mask and follow the other instructions from the scientists, you might be part of the reason that high school sports is cancelled in the next few months.
Stay safe – and keep others safe, too.

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