WEST DEPTFORD – The Cedar Creek High School football team did a lot of things right in the second half of last Friday’s South Jersey Group II semifinal against West Deptford.
But playoff success requires a complete game, and the Pirates didn't finish the job. Their frenzied comeback fell short in a 28-20 loss, and they failed to reach their third straight sectional final.
West Deptford advanced to the title game 11 a.m. Dec. 3 at Rowan University. The top-seeded Eagles will go for their eighth South Jersey title against the winner of Saturday’s semifinal between sixth-seeded Haddonfield (6-3) and seventh-seeded Cinnaminson (7-2).
Fourth-seeded Cedar Creek rallied from a 21-7 halftime deficit. Junior Malachi Melton hauled in a Louie Barrios 88-yard bomb for his second touchdown of the game with 10 minutes, 30 seconds left in regulation. But Clay Olley’s extra-point attempt was blocked, leaving the Pirates trailing by a point.
West Deptford missed a 35-yard field goal attempt on its next possession, and a subsequent drive stalled at the Pirates’ 43, giving Cedar Creek a chance from its own 6 with two and a half minutes left. The Pirates moved the ball to near midfield on passes to Shane Jones and George Ramp, but Mike Gismondi stepped in front of a Barrios pass for an interception, and West Deptford’s T.J. Hoyt scored from nine yards out to seemingly secure the victory.
But Cedar Creek had one more chance, driving to the Eagles 25 before Gismondi picked off another pass to squash the Pirates’ hopes.
"We felt like we were definitely going to come back,” Melton said. “It came down to the mistakes we made. I'll take it on me. I should have never slipped on that route (on the final West Deptford interception). We could have definitely come back and won this, but I guess it just wasn't meant to be."
"We've dug ourselves a hole a few times this year, and against a team like this and this setting, it's hard to kind of turn it on in the second half,” said Cedar Creek coach Tim Watson. “The further you get along in the playoffs the more difficult that gets. But I'm very proud of the way they battled in the second half. As much as our defense has been a stalwart for us, we let up too many big plays in the first half. We weren't tackling as well as we normally do, and we gave up a couple key third and long conversions on big pass plays, and that really hurt."
West Deptford’s Kenny Lim scored three rushing touchdowns in the first half as the Eagles built a 21-7 lead, and he set up the last touchdown with a diving, 34-yard catch at the Cedar Creek 3-yard line. But Lim left the game with a sprained knee suffered on a defensive play late in the half, and did not return to start the second half.
The Pirates quickly took advantage. Dom Simmons caught a Barrios pass, broke a tackle and rumbled 41 yards to set up an 8-yard touchdown pass from Barrios to Melton, getting Creek to within 21-14 with 8:28 left in the third quarter.
West Deptford took the game’s opening kickoff and drove to the Creek 23, but Michael Gulig picked off a Pete Orio pass to end that threat.
After a short punt, Lim got the Eagles on the board with a 31-yard touchdown run on second and one.
Cedar Creek’s Isaiah Campbell forced a West Deptford fumble at the Creek 36, but the Pirates gave the ball right back on an interception by West Deptford’s Darren McKeown, and Lim scored from five yards out.
The Pirates got back in the game on a juggling, 34-yard touchdown catch by Naz Chapman with 6:36 left in the half. Joe Curry registered his third sack of the half to push the Eagles back to midfield, but Lim’s great catch set up his third touchdown of the game with 2:29 left in the half.
The Pirates and Eagles were meeting in the playoffs for the third straight year and the fourth time in the last six years. But this was an earlier meeting than the previous three, as West Deptford beat Cedar Creek for the Group II title in 2012 and 2016, and the Pirates rallied for a thrilling win over the Eagles in the 2015 sectional final.
Cedar Creek advanced to the semifinals with a come-from-behind 19-15 win over Willingboro, while West Deptford reached the semifinal round with a 51-12 win over Pleasantville.
"A lot of people didn't think we were even going to make it this far,” Melton said. “I'm proud of these guys, especially the seniors. I don't want to stop playing with those guys. All 22 of them are just amazing. I'll take them over anybody, man. They're something special."
"From the word 'Eat' on the side of our helmets, we just love each other,” said senior Dom Simmons. “We play with each other, we never quit. We took the loss, but I know that we gave everything we had on that field today. It just wasn't meant to be, I guess."