With good reason, Shore Regional High School’s football team comes into Saturday’s Central Jersey Group 1 title game as prohibitive favorites.
The Blue Devils (11-0) won the title last year when they pounded South Hunterdon 42-12. They haven’t lost since Oct. 3, 2014 and racked up a 19-game win streak over that span.
None of the accolades, records or talk bothers Palmyra (10-1). The Panthers have hope, largely due to an encounter with the powerhouse in 2013.
That game, a 10-7 Shore win, provided Palmyra coach Jack Geisel with the blueprint of how his offense would operate.
The Panthers entered that contest as the bracket’s eighth seed with two-quarterback system that featured sophomores Terry Bailey and Max Smyth.
When Smyth got his shot, he nearly drove Palmyra to victory. His arm and the hurry-up offense pulled the Panthers within striking distance.
“He was good against them our first year in the playoffs,” the third-year coach said of Smyth in his inaugural postseason campaign. “He was a part of that. He threw the touchdown to make it 10-7. That’s going to be huge for him.”
As soon as the offseason started, Geisel knew he had his signal caller. Smyth hasn’t disappointed and Bailey fit seamlessly in the slot as well as in the defensive backfield.
Smyth’s success is evident this season – he’s thrown for 2,784 yards and 30 touchdowns. The 6-foot-4 right hander completed nearly 63 percent of his pass attempts and also ran for three scores.
He led an unbelievable comeback in the semifinals against Keyport to erase a 20-point deficit. The Panthers took that game, 35-34.
While the result certainly provided a feel of destiny for Palmyra, that playoff loss from two years back still nags at Smyth.
“It was a horrible feeling,” the senior said. “That long ride back from Shore, the things that could have been.”
Another senior distinctly recalls the memory.
Wide receiver and University of South Carolina recruit Kelvin Harmon, whose 6-foot-2 frame can grab just about anything thrown his way, is excited for another shot.
“I remember how close we were,” Harmon, who boasts 63 catches for 1,076 yards and 14 scores, said. “I see the same things from them on film. … I think (a title) would mean a lot for our team, but not just our team. It would mean a lot for the town.”
In Monday’s practice, the Panthers seemed loose. Geisel knows his 26 players won’t get tight when the game arrives. A win would mean the school’s first sectional title since 1978.
“They bought in to what I was trying to here and what we’re doing,” the 53-year-old Gibbsboro resident said. “I think it would just be huge for us to bring home the hardware.”
Smyth knows the team’s chances hinge on his right arm. Against a physical run game, it’s up to Palmyra to tailor the game to its wide-open style.
“I’m thinking about it all the time,” Smyth said of Saturday’s game. “My main focus has been schoolwork and this game.”
Mark Trible; (856) 486-2424; email@example.com
C.J. GROUP 1
Matchup: No. 3 Palmyra (10-1) vs. No. 1 Shore (11-0)
When: Saturday, 4 p.m.
Where: Kean University
Coaches: Palmyra: Jack Geisel; Shore: Mark Costantino
Sectional titles: Palmyra, 1 (1978); Shore, 6 (1981, 1982, 1988, 1997, 2010, 2014)
Road to final: Palmyra: Point Pleasant Beach 34-16, Keyport 35-34; Shore: Burlington City 36-10, Florence 42-0
Palmyra Players to Watch: Max Smyth (QB, Sr.), Kelvin Harmon (WR/DE, Sr.), Elijah Karnjay (RB/CB, So.), Taj Harris (WR/OLB, So.), Terry Bailey (FS, Sr.)
Shore Players to Watch: Jack Britton (RB/DB, Sr.), Doug Goldsmith (FB/MLB, Sr.), Jeremy Redaelli (DE, Sr.), Matt Pennell (QB/FS, Jr.), George Notte (WR/DB/K, Sr.)
The pick: This game will be a contrast of styles. The Blue Devils want to play between the tackles and the Panthers get their offense mostly through the air. Shore’s looking for a repeat as champ, but a tight playoff encounter from two years ago will give Palmyra confidence. Palmyra 28-24.