OCEAN – As many saw it, they were part of the problem last year. One of the sub-.500 teams competing in the NJSIAA football playoffs thanks to a 2012 rule allowing them.
Now Ocean might just be part of the solution.
Because given that opportunity 12 months ago, a young Spartans’ team took the field with just three wins and walked off with a win over top-seeded Hopewell Valley, the defending Central Group III champions. And then a week later gave Matawan, the eventual champions, all they could handle before falling.
And it’s that experience that makes the Spartans the poster children for why some teams need opportunities to grow during the postseason. Factor in the return of star running back Tyler Thompson, and they’re a dangerous bunch right now.
In Friday night’s 35-0 victory over Hamilton West in an opening round game, the second-seeded Spartans (8-1) displayed all their weapons: Thompson ran for 118 yards and two touchdowns; quarterback Kenny Pickett threw for 187 yards and a touchdown, and ran for two others; and their defense limited the Hornets to just 90 yards of offense.
Two weeks after their win over Red Bank Catholic, the Spartans are on a collision course with unbeaten Red Bank. The Bucs, who visit Carrelli Field next Friday night in a Central Group III semifinals, beat the Spartans, 16-6, back on Sept. 25.
“I think last year was really important,’’ said Ocean coach Don Klein. “Because when you’re dealing with young kids they’re experience in stressful environments, their experiences in competitive environments, they learn from them. And they learned an awful lot about themselves as people last year in the playoffs and they carried that over into the offseason. And ultimately, this year we’re able to have success in a lot of these games because of what they experienced last season.’’
Thompson wasn’t on the field in the last year’s playoffs, his junior campaign having ended when he broke his leg a few weeks earlier. But now he’s back as one of the state’s best, on this night scoring on a one-yard second quarter run that made it 14-0, before closing out the scoring with a two-yard plunge in the third quarter.
‘’When I watched these guys beat Hopewell Valley and play so well against Matawan, I couldn’t wait for this season because I knew how good we could be,’’ he said. “I knew with our offense, you can’t key on one player. Everyone is dangerous on our offense with the ball, and we’re so solid defensively.’’
It was Pickett who got things started immediately for the Spartans on a cool, windy evening, swinging a pass to the right on their first play from scrimmage, which Ruquan Dean making the catch and racing 45 yards to the Hornets’ 11-yard-line.
Three plays later it was Pickett giving a play action fake to the left before racing right and walking untouched into the end zone less than two minutes into the game.
“Last year gave us a lot of confidence,’’ Pickett said, “being in the postseason, making a little run, getting a big win.’’
Now it’s the Bucs who stand between the Spartans and their first state sectional crown since 2005.
“Rarely in life do you get an opportunity to have a do-over and this is our opportunity,’’ Klein said. “I didn’t like the way a lot of things went for us in that game. We’ll do a lot of things differently in practice leading up to it and we’ll do things differently Friday night.
“Ultimately, it’s a fun situation for us to be able to compete against the top teams and I think Red Bank is one of those teams.’’
And had they not been allowed in the playoffs a year ago, who knows if it all would have been possible.
Staff writer Stephen Edelson is an Asbury Park Press columnist: firstname.lastname@example.org
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