Four years, four straight playoff appearances and all earned by four unique teams.
It goes without saying that the Millville High School football team is on a memorable run in its program’s history at the moment.
Ranking the Thunderbolts squads from 2010 to the present year isn’t an easy task, but each carries its own lure. However, with the 2013 team capturing a spot in Friday’s Group V South semifinal round against Eastern, it became the first group to advance past the first round of the state tournament since the famed 2011 Millville squad made it all the way to the Group IV South sectional title game before falling to Pennsauken.
There are plenty of leftovers from that team, though most of them are juniors and seniors now. Many of those players recall the excitement and heartbreak the Bolts experienced that December night at Rowan University and it has fueled them each of the last two years.
While Millville came up short in 2012 with a first-round exit against top-seeded Williamstown — which went on to win the Group V South title — the prevailing thought amongst the team was that 2013 represented the unit’s best chance to bring just the second ever state crown back to the Holly City.
“Growing up, I was never used to losing or not making it to the playoffs or championship, so we just have a strong generation right now,” Millville senior quarterback Roberto Rivera said. “The kids that are coming up are even good, and that’s how we were brought up. Our coaching staff has gotten a lot stronger over the years once (head) coach (Jason) Durham came in, which I noticed a lot, individually, on top of the talent we have.”
A combination of factors led to the Bolts enjoying a breakout campaign in 2013. Last year, the Cape-Atlantic League realigned, leaving Millville with a much more difficult regular season schedule that featured the likes of South Jersey powers Hammonton, Holy Spirit and St. Joseph. The Bolts went 3-3 against those teams in 2012 and 2013, and the games left Millville far more battle-tested for the gauntlet that is Group V South.
The team learned a lot from its 2012 postseason struggles coming off a year in which it reached the state final.
“The group we had last year, we were real, real talented, but it was just too many individuals,” Rivera said, “whereas with this team, we’re just one. Not putting anything on the other team, because I was a part of that team, but there were just too many egos.
“This year, it’s been more about always coming in focused. We don’t care how we win, we just want to win.”
For seniors like Rivera, 2013 represents their last chance.
For juniors like dynamic running back Rob Ennis Jr., the window isn’t quite closed, but he knows there’s no time to waste. Ennis clearly recalls the disappointment on the faces of the 2011 team, when he was just a freshman watching from the sidelines.
“It was exciting and a letdown all at the same time,” said Ennis, who entered Friday’s playoff game with 1,041 rushing yards on the year. “You see how much work everyone puts in and you make it to the end and come up just short. It made me want to work that much harder to get back to the final and win it.”
State titles don’t grow on trees, but the Bolts have proven something just by giving themselves a shot four straight years. It’s an accomplishment that not many teams can say they’ve matched.