In the immediate aftermath of Ocean, ranked No. 9 in the Asbury Park Press Top 10, registering an unaesthetic Shore Conference Class B North 7-0 win at No. 5 Neptune, there appeared to be a very clear understanding of just how important that was.
A controlled enthusiasm is a fair description of the postgame scene after the Spartans not only took early control of what has typically been one of the area’s best divisions, but did so at the expense of a Scarlet Fliers team that has largely owned the division the last two years under head coach Mark Ciccotelli.
“When you’re involved in a season, so many people wanna talk about what’s ahead, they wanna talk about being a championship team and doing this and doing that,” Spartans head coach Don Klein said. “If you don’t take care of each game and each week, at the end of the season, you’re not in position to do any of those things. We knew coming in here that this was going to be a huge game. It was a huge win for the program in a hostile environment.”
A game of attrition and missed opportunities remained scoreless late in the fourth quarter when Jair Bernier fielded a punt at his own 13-yard line. The Ocean senior, who admitted later he probably should have fair-caught it, got by one defender and streaked down the sideline for a 67-yard return down to the Ocean 20.
The Spartans (2-0, 1-0) rode Tyler Thompson from there, giving the sophomore running the ball all five times on the drive, culminating in a 1-yard plunge as Matt Fisher’s extra point provided the final margin with 5:04 to play.
Thompson’s touchdown highlighted a night that was a grind and even a struggle for one of the Shore Conference’s brightest young stars as Neptune held him to just 41 yards on 18 carries. However, the five carries on the scoring drive were the difference.
“I just listened to my coach, kept my feet going and just doing what we do in practice always pays off in games,” Thompson said. “This game means a lot to me because Neptune was doubting us, everyone was doubting us. We had a young team last year, but that game right there tells everybody that we’re not playing anymore.”
That game-winning drive came after two previous Ocean drives stalled inside the 5, one on fourth-and-goal from the 2 in the first quarter and another on second-and-goal from the 3 right before halftime.
“Punt returns can be huge momentum-changers and that one obviously swung the momentum to our side when we had to have it,” Bernier said. “That’s a very good team we just beat and hopefully we can see them again later (in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III playoffs), but we just have to take it step-by-step and game-by-game.”
Ocean’s defense held Neptune (1-1, 0-1) to just 161 yards of total offense and put the exclamation point on the effort late. Senior linebackers Miles Moody and Mike Halawani sacked agile Scarlet Fliers senior quarterback Shakeem Richardson on third and fourth down, respectively to squash the last real threat with 3:03 to play.
The game marked the first time Neptune, perennially one the Shore’s highest scoring offenses, was shutout since a 38-0 loss at eventual South Jersey Group III champion on Oct. 30, 2010, a span of 28 games.