In a near-deafening roar late Saturday, delirious Nottingham High School football fans counted down the final seconds of the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III Championship Game.
“Five, four, three, two … “
When they hit “one,” their bench players stormed onto the field at The College of New Jersey.
Neptune players watched stoically and their fans stood in silence. One Neptune lineman buried his head in the turf.
For Neptune (9-3), the championship was like a big fish that had gotten away. It was there for the taking but they were never able to reel it in and Nottingham landed a 35-24 victory.
Not that Nottingham (11-1) didn’t deserve to bring home Mercer County’s first public NJSIAA football crown since 1985 (Ewing).
The Northstars were talented, opportunistic and more fundamental. And they out-big-played the big-play-capable Neptune team (9-3).
They scored on two pass plays of 66 yards, an 80-yard pass interception and a 57-yard run.
“There’s not too much to say,” Neptune senior wideout Keith Kirkwood said as he strode alone on the sidewalk behind the stadium’s visiting side, leading to the Neptune buses.
“We had a few mistakes at the beginning and we should have fixed them.” he said.
In the turnover department, Nottingham played mistake-free football. Along with the interception, Neptune lost fumbles that aborted potential scoring drives and another one near the end of the game that extinguished whatever faint chances for victory remained.
“I feel that was a big part of the game,” Kirkwood said. “Turnovers were the key.”
Nottingham’s longest scoring march was 50 yards following a Neptune fumble that made it 35-24.
The Scarlet Fliers missed three extra points and failed on a two-point conversion attempt.
In the first half, Nottingham had 7 rushing yards and was in front 21-18.
Neptune quarterback Ajee Patterson was flat-out brilliant at times throwing for two TDs and rushing for the other two.
The senior converted an amazing 9 of 12 third-down situations, one on a third-and-28. He escaped sacks with moves that RG3 would have admired. But he also threw the pick and coughed up two of the fumbles.
“We asked him to do some things with some single coverage,” Neptune coach Mark Ciccotelli said. “Sometimes, the protection broke down a little bit.
“We’re in this thing together. He’s made plays for us all year and he made plays today for us.
“Listen, you’re the guy, you’re in the spotlight. But we live together and we die together here.”
“I still love this team to death,” Kirkwood said. “Playing in an atmosphere like this, it was a great game. I wish it had turned out differently.”
The defeat put a bit of a damper on a season many a football program would die for.
Neptune won nine games, tied for a divisional title, and defeated Asbury Park on Thanksgiving, something all Neptune fans will always proudly hang their hats on.
Ciccotelli had won 11 straight playoff games, six at Freehold with Central III titles in 2008 and 2010 and a Central III title last year at Neptune.
The playoff winning streak ranks third in the Shore Conference behind the late Vic Kubu who had 21 straight from 1998-2006 and Middletown South’s Steve Antonucci who won 13 straight from 2003-2007.
Saturday it appeared that streak could have continued and Neptune could have won-back-to-back sectional crowns for the first time since the late, great John Amabile bellowed along the sidelines in 1997 and 1998.
Saturday was one that got away.