UNION – An upset of undefeated Shore Regional High School in the Central Jersey Group 1 final stood a tall task in itself.
A large first-quarter deficit made it impossible for Palmyra.
The Blue Devils got up early, used a simple game plan – student body left, student body right – and claimed its second consecutive crown with a 56-28 win.
“They just start pounding, pounding and pounding,” Panthers’ coach Jack Geisel said. “How many passes did they throw? Three? Four?”
Shore didn’t need to put the ball in the air. The game’s first drive showed how formidable the blue and white could be on the ground.
The Blue Devils (12-0) rushed 11 times and burned nearly six minutes off the clock before a turnover thwarted the drive. On their next drive, Shore cashed in.
Jack Britton raced 24 yards for a touchdown to open the scoring. Palmyra’s next drive officially made the start nightmarish.
Panthers’ (10-2) star senior quarterback Max Smyth lost the ball before a pass attempt in his own end zone. After he retrieved the fumble, he got hit and the Blue Devils pounced on it.
In 15 seconds, the game went from a scoreless tie to a 14-0 Shore lead.
“Not getting anything out of that first turnover was huge,” Geisel said. “Then a fumble in the end zone, I mean that’s a 14-point swing.”
A three-and-out led to another Blue Devils’ possession. They drove 68 yards in four minutes to make it 21-0.
Still, Palmyra did not quit. Nor would they.
Smyth hit Taj Harris for a 48-yard score to trim the deficit to 21-7. Another Shore touchdown was answered late in the half when sophomore Elijah Karnjay hauled in a Smyth heave for a 58-yard score.
“I ran a wheel and they had a lineman on me,” Karnjay said. “It was originally a swing (pass), but once I saw Max roll out I turned it up to a wheel.
I knew Max had the arm strength to throw it that long but I didn’t know if he’d throw it that accurate on the run.”
Despite lopsided first-half numbers – 297 yards on 40 snaps for the Blue Devils to 166 on 15 for the Panthers – it felt like the never-say-die club from Burlington County had the champs on their heels.
With the ball in Smyth’s hand, Palmyra and its roaring fans who filled at least three-quarters of the road stands were anxious to capitalize.
But an interception early in the half’s opening drive halted the momentum. Smyth aimed for Kam Kennedy in the seam. A Shore linebacker plucked it out of the air.
“I thought I had enough to loft it over him and I forced it,” Smyth said. “It’s tough, we needed to come out with a strong drive early in the half. I’m disappointed in myself.”
Save for South Carolina commit Kelvin Harmon’s blistering 40-yard fumble return for six and Harris’ 18-yard touchdown catch, the Blue Devils kept pounding.
They finished with 489 yards on the ground. Doug Goldsmith did the most damage with 250 yards and five touchdowns.
As they’d promised, the Panthers rode Smyth’s arm.
He threw or ran for all but five of Palmyra’s yards.
Smyth finished 20-of-36 for 283 yards, three touchdowns and an interception.
“It’s just disappointing,” he said. “Some of these guys will play in college and some won’t. But I love them all.”
The group sobbed on the field, seniors at a small school where the varsity team went 1-9 when they were in ninth grade.
“I’ll always remember these guys,” Geisel, who took over as head coach in 2013, said. “This is a special group. They’ll always have a place in my heart.”
Mark Trible; (856) 486-2424; firstname.lastname@example.org
Player of the Game: Shore running back Doug Goldsmith ran for 250 yards and five TDs.
Play of the Game: Palmyra senior quarterback Max Smyth hit running back Elijah Karnjay for a 58-yard score to make it 28-14 before halftime.
Well said: “They just start pounding, pounding and pounding.” – Palmyra coach Jack Geisel