It was an interesting reaction in the Lacey locker room at halftime on Saturday at Southern Regional’s Goldberger Memorial Field even though the scoreboard said the Lions were trailing by five points.
“You would have thought we were up 21-0. The team was extremely pumped up,” said Lacey junior quarterback Tom Kelly.
Lacey, which had been badly outplayed through most of the first half, had seized the momentum with eight seconds left in the half when Kelly and senior wide receiver Bill Belford teamed up for a 41-yard touchdown pass on a “Rocket Screen.”
The Lions then came out and dominated the second half and recorded a 21-19 win that kept them in sole possession of first place in Shore Conference Class A South with three divisional games remaining.
The loss pretty much eliminated any chance defending Class A South champion Southern had of earning at least a share of the divisional title and winning divisional championships in consecutive seasons for the first time in its history.
Southern (3-2, 2-2) appeared to be poised to extend a 12-0 lead when it had second-and-4 at the Lacey 21 with a little over a minute left in the half.
However, three consecutive incomplete passes turned the ball over to Lacey on downs with 47 seconds remaining.
Runs of 14 and 24 yards by Chris Tutela and Kyle Spatz respectively moved the Lions to Southern’s 41 with 27 seconds remaining. It was Lacey’s deepest penetration of the half to that point.
“We were trying to run the clock out at first,” Kelly said. “They (Southern) have playmaker after playmaker on that team. You don’t want to give an offense like that half a chance to get the ball back.”
However, the mindset changed after those first two plays.
“You want to score,” Kelly said.
On a second-and-10, Kelly hit Belford in full stride and the speedy Belford raced in for the TD.
“It was supposed to be fake ‘Rocket Screen,’ but Belford was wide open,” Kelly said.
Lacey (6-0, 4-0), ranked No. 8 in the Asbury Park Press Top 10, then controlled the clock most of the second half.
Kelly, who was 22-for-28 for 246 yards with two TD passes, was 5-for-5 for 58 yards on a 10-play, 74-yard drive that he capped with a 1-yard sneak with 3:37 left in the third quarter.
The key play of that drive that took 5:10 off the clock was a 25-yard completion to Brandon Boos on a “Skinny Post” on a third-and-15 from the Southern 34.
Another clutch play by Kelly gave Lacey a 21-12 lead with 2:18 left in the first regular season meeting between the two Ocean County scores since the 1980’s. On a fourth-and-2 from the Southern 13, Kelly hit senior running back Kyle Spatz in the left flat and Spatz ran in for the TD.
“He (Kelly) told me right before the play, ‘I’m going to be hitting you. Look back real quick,’ ” said Spatz, who set up the TD with an interception and 39-yard return on a fourth-and-6.
Southern made things interesting when senior quarterback Danny Higgins (15-for-30 for 203 yards and two TDs) hit senior running back Abe Gonzalez with a 9-yard TD pass to make it 21-19 with 55 seconds remaining.
The Rams, who had three timeouts left, almost recovered the ensuing pop-up onsides kick. It looked like Southern was going to get the ball back when Lacey faced a second-and-11 from its 41.
However, Kelly improvised and hit Tutela for 9 yards on a “Bubble Screen.”
“We were supposed to run it right up the middle,” said Kelly, who has thrown for 1,025 yards and 12 TDs on the season . “It was a risk worth taking. No one was on him (Tutela). The coaches were mad at me, but I think they’ll forgive me.”
A Spatz 7-yard run gave Lacey a first down and enabled it to run out the clock.
Southern had built its 12-0 lead on a 5-yard run by Gonzalez that concluded a 12-play, 96-yard drive and a 36-yard Higgins to Nick Hem TD pass on a fourth-and-7.
But, the extra points the Rams missed after those first two scores would haunt them in the late stages.