GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP – In the final game of their high school football careers – and the first edition of a longtime rivalry ever played under the lights - Josh Coursey and Andrew Marcucci gave performances worthy of the prime-time setting.
Coursey scored two touchdowns and returned an interception 75 yards, and Marcucci made several timely pass completions to spark Absegami to a 21-7 win over Oakcrest Wednesday. It was the first Thanksgiving Eve game in the 40-year history of the rivalry between the schools from the Greater Egg Harbor Regional School District.
“This was a really great ride, said Coursey. “I call these people my brothers, this is my family right here, and I’m really happy that we ended it the right way. This game was really important to me. It’s a tradition that we’ve been doing forever, and this is a really good rivalry. I respect that school (Oakcrest) a lot. It’s just a real good way to end our season.”
Coursey was surprised to hear that it was the first time the Absegami-Oakcrest game was played on the night before Thanksgiving instead of on Thanksgiving Day.
“See, I don’t know why they changed it up, but I’m happy to be a part of something new. You’ve got to try everything once. It didn’t affect me much, but I’m happy I get to go eat Thanksgiving dinner.”
Absegami finished its season at 5-5, which is pretty remarkable considering the Braves were 1-4 at one point. But they won three straight games to earn a berth in the South Jersey Group IV playoffs, suffered a 41-0 loss to powerhouse Shawnee, then rebounded with the win over Oakcrest.
Coach Dennis Scuderi said the turning point was a game at Triton Regional when the Braves were down 21-9 and staring 1-5 in the face before Marcucci made a big run on fourth down to spark a comeback victory.
“It changed the entire season,” Scuderi said. “I’m proud of them. They did a great job, they fought hard. This season could have gone a lot of different ways, and for us to be able to piece it together after a 1-4 start … I’m proud of these kids.”
“As seniors, we just refused to go out that way,” Coursey said. “We wanted to do something good, we wanted to go out with a bang.”
On Wednesday, the Braves took a 14-0 lead at halftime and withstood an Oakcrest rally. Junior quarterback Frank Sayers, who battled back from a pair of injuries this season, entered the game in the second half and threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Naji Hart to get the Falcons to within a touchdown.
On Absegami’s next possession, Marcucci found Carnel Davis wide open for a 74-yard completion. Coursey ran for his second touchdown from six yards out to restore a 14-point lead.
“It feels great,” Marcucci said. “There were different experiences. I was just happy that we ended the season as a .500 team. With the team that we had, we didn’t know what the outcome was going to be. I’ll take .500 over having a losing record, any day. I knew we were a better team than 1-4. We just had to come out in games and show it.”
Zach Sterr kicked three extra points in his final high school game, adding to his record-setting career at Absegami. Senior Dante Cooper and junior Ryan Morris also had outstanding games for the Braves defense, with both making tackles for losses and Morris getting an interception in the third quarter.
Oakcrest finished an injury-plagued season at 2-8. But second-year coach Eric Anderson said he saw plenty of hopeful signs for the future.
“The good thing is that we never gave up in any game and we kept fighting,” Anderson said. “No matter what the adversity was, whether it was turnovers or all of the injuries we’ve had at the skill positions and on the defensive line, the kids just kept fighting. It was “Next guy up, next guy in,’ and they never quit, and I’m proud of that. And that’s something to build on. The young guys saw that, and the young guys that got in, they got game experience and hopefully that will pay off in the future.”
Absegami drove for its first touchdown, set up by a big run by Jaden Johnson on fourth down deep into Oakcrest territory. The drive appeared to stall when a Marcucci pass was intercepted by Alex Harley, but the senior safety fumbled the ball back to Absegami on the return. Given that second chance, Marcucci threw to Coursey for a 5-yard touchdown with 4:22 left in the first quarter.
The Braves had another scoring opportunity early in the second quarter, as Coursey returned a punt to midfield and made a great tightrope catch along the sideline at the Oakcrest 22. Marcucci appeared to score on a quarterback keep but was ruled to have fumbled the ball when hit at the goal line by Oakcrest’s Cesar Zarate and Kevin Albright, giving the ball to the Falcons on a touchback.
The momentum swing continued when Oakcrest’s Dale Reese intercepted a pass with less than two minutes left in the half, and the Falcons converted a fake punt to get the ball into Absegami territory. But Coursey stepped in front of an Angel Casanova pass and returned it 75 yards to the Oakcrest 6, setting up Johnson’s 1-yard touchdown plunge with 40 seconds left in the half.
The Braves had one more scoring chance on a fumble recovery with 28 seconds left, but a bad snap ruined Sterr’s field goal attempt, and Absegami took a 14-0 lead into halftime.
NOTE: Absegami honored senior kicker Zach Sterr on the field at the end of the first quarter. Sterr ends his career as the Braves’ all-time leader in field goals (15), points by a kicker (120), extra points (75) and field goals in a season (six, in 2016).
Oakcrest- 0 0 7 0 - 7
Absegami- 7 7 7 0 - 21
A – Coursey 5 pass from Marcucci (Sterr kick)
A – Johnson 1 run (Sterr kick)
O – Hart 13 pass from Sayers (Long kick)
A – Coursey 6 run (Sterr kick)
Records: Oakcrest 2-8; Absegami 5-5