The Millville High School football team knew the challenge ahead entering its Group V South semifinal against top-seeded Eastern.
The Thunderbolts offense had to keep up the blistering pace at which it was playing this year while using its talented defense to hopefully slow down Vikings quarterback Tom Flacco and company.
Unfortunately for Millville, it could manage neither on Friday night. The fourth-seeded Bolts’ bid to reach the Group V South state championship game ended with a 35-18 loss to host Eastern at McAleer Stadium. The Vikings will meet Cherokee for the title Dec. 6 or 7.
Millville (7-3) started the second half with an 88-yard kick return by Ryquell Armstead to take an 18-14 lead, but Eastern responded with 21 unanswered points to claim the win. The Bolts managed just 150 yards on the ground, 82 of which came on one run by Rob Ennis Jr. in the first quarter, and did little else from there.
“We were prepared, but it came down to not executing,” Millville quarterback Roberto Rivera said.
Following Armstead’s kick return, Millville’s offense went three-and-out on three straight possessions while the Vikings (10-1) started to build momentum.
Eastern running back Kingsley Ayeni put his team up 21-18 on a 10-yard touchdown run with 5:12 left in the third quarter. With the two teams trading scores, the Vikings were the team that came up with the play that changed the complexion of the game.
Bolts punter Brendyn Van Demark saw his kicked blocked and recovered by the Eastern special teams unit on the Millville 6-yard line. Vikings tailback Eric Sawyer did the rest, marching it in two plays later to give Eastern a 28-18 advantage with 59 seconds left in the third quarter.
Earlier in the game, the Vikings turned a fumble recovery and short field into another touchdown.
“It seemed like our mistakes were huge and then we had opportunities with some of their mistakes and didn’t capitalize,” Millville coach Jason Durham said.
Eastern iced the game early in the fourth quarter when Flacco, who went 20-of-38 for 295 yards and two passing touchdowns, found Cinque Hill on an 11-yard score with 9:33 to play. Hill had a big game, hauling in eight passes for 137 yards.
“When you have some game-changing moments like they did, that sets the tone for them,” Millville defensive tackle Antoine White said. “Us being down and they have some big plays like that, that puts us in a bad position. They score and rally, and we come back with less intensity then they had.”
Things looked up for the Bolts to start the game.
Ennis sparked the Bolts early, taking a handoff up the middle before bouncing outside and racing down the left sideline 82 yards on Millville’s first offensive play for a touchdown and a 6-0 lead with 9:55 left in the first quarter.
Ennis finished with 14 carries for 100 yards, but it wasn’t enough.
“We had some guys go down and couldn’t get going,” Ennis said. “It’s unfortunate. It’s just unfortunate.”
The Bolts defense held strong in the opening 12 minutes, but a Millville fumble set Eastern up with prime field position. The Vikings took over at the Bolts’ 23-yard line and Flacco made Millville pay two plays later, rolling to his right and finding a wide open Keshawn Segers in the end zone on a 23-yard strike. Todd Spirt tacked on the extra point to put Eastern up 7-6 with 6:51 left in the second quarter.
The Millville faithful were left quiet, but not for long.
Eastern attempted a pooch kick, but Ennis took the ball on the left sideline, backtracked across the field and broke seven tackles on his way to a 71-yard kick return for a touchdown that was clinched by a big block from Itrell Young at the 5-yard line. Millville went for a two-point conversion, but Rivera’s pass to tight end Ed Shockley fell incomplete as the Bolts regained a 12-7 lead with 6:33 to go in the second quarter.
Flacco kept his hot second-quarter hand intact, however, driving the Vikings back down the field in just six plays before the senior quarterback scored on a 3-yard keeper to give Eastern a 14-12 edge with 4:24 left in the first half.
Millville put together a nice drive as the second quarter wound to a close, but a questionable illegal forward pass call backed the Bolts up 10 yards and Young’s 41-yard field goal attempt fell short to take the game into intermission.
Millville will now turn its attention to Vineland in Thursday’s Thanksgiving Day rivalry game.