EGG HARBOR CITY — Fans at the Central Jersey Group 2 championship game, hosted by Cedar Creek, might have been lulled nearly to sleep by halftime on Saturday afternoon after a first half that featured a defensive struggle between the Pirates and Camden, and only three points — a 26-yard field goal by Creek’s Taylor Manning with eight seconds left in the second quarter. But the second half was worth the price of admission.

Camden hasn’t won a championship in 43 years and the Panthers found themselves trailing 24-7 with just eight minutes to play, but quarterback Jalin Brownlee — who missed the past month with injury and came on in the second half in relief of Deuce Chestnut — rallied his team back to within 24-23 with a touchdown pass and two-point conversion with 2:55 remaining. But during Camden’s last-gasp drive in the final minute, Jamal Chapman scooped up a fumble and scored with 2.7 seconds remaining to give Cedar Creek a 31-23 victory and the Pirates’ first sectional championship since 2015.

Cedar Creek (9-2), the No. 2 seed in Central Jersey Group 2, advances to Rutgers University on Dec. 8 to take on South Jersey Group 2 champion Hillside in the regional title game. Camden, the No. 4 seed, finishes 8-4 after an emotional roller coaster the past few weeks that saw a shooting in the stands and the death of a young boy during their semifinal matchup with Pleasantville on Nov. 15, a game the Panthers finished at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia five days later, scoring a 22-0 win over the Greyhounds.

One of Cedar Creek’s two losses came against Camden earlier this year in a matchup that saw the Pirates score four touchdowns in the fourth quarter but ultimately come up short, 42-41, because of a bad snap on an extra-point attempt with a few seconds remaining.

“This is amazing. It’s the best shot at redemption I’ve ever had, and it’s the best feeling. I never thought I’d be able to do this in the four years I’m here. It’s an amazing feeling. I just love being able to do it with all my brothers. This is the closest bond I’ve ever had on a team,” said Tyler Hendrickson, Cedar Creek’s long snapper, and also a defensive end. “Camden had some fight, too. Nobody quits in a championship game, but we love it because it’s great competition. We love that it wasn’t a blowout type of win. We love the fight.”

“Credit to Camden, they fought back on this field just like we did earlier this season. It made for another classic. We had two classics with them this year,” said Cedar Creek head coach Tim Watson. “They went with a little bit of a quarterback rotation, which made it a little bit tough to get into a groove defensively because you didn’t know what to do — with Deuce Chestnut in there we were focused on stopping him from running the ball. We game planned for both and knew we could see both. Brownlee did a great job.”

Camden wiped out the 3-0 deficit on its first possession of the second half, taking a 7-3 lead when Brownlee connected with Chestnut — who switched to wide receiver for the second half — on a 22-yard scoring strike to open the third quarter. But the Pirates answered back two possessions later when senior star Malachi Melton raced 81 yards on a jet sweep around the left side to put Cedar Creek back in front, 10-7. Creek then stretched its lead to 24-7 on a pair of touchdown runs by quarterback Louie Barrios, one of which was set up by an interception from sophomore linebacker C.J. Resto.

“This is a great feeling. This is something I’ve always dreamed of, doing something like this, especially with the guys we have. There’s no better feeling than this right now,” Barrios said. “It started with the seniors, we laid the foundation. We have a good group of guys, and during weight room sessions we’d always remind everybody what this is about and what we want. We went out and accomplished our goals. We have one more game, but this one right here means a lot.”

The Panthers weren’t done, however, as a huge run by Nasir Dale helped set up Brownlee’s 12-yard touchdown pass to Blakney Hassan, and after Brownlee ran in the two-point conversion, Camden had shaved the lead to 24-15 with 4:17 to go. The Panthers recovered the onsides kick, and with 2:55 remaining Browlee rolled right and threw another touchdown pass to Hassan, and the conversion had the Panthers within 24-23. Cedar Cree was forced to punt on its next possession, giving Camden one more shot, but the Pirates’ defense came up big in the form of Chapman’s scoop-and-score.

“We grow every single week. In the beginning of the year we struggled with several sophomores in the lineup, but we just grow every day and every week. And it’s showed today, holding that team to only 23 points in a championship game,” Hendrickson said about Cedar Creek’s defense. “After last year, being down, this year it’s great just being back on top.”

“In practice our defense gives us the hardest struggle, so we knew we had a special group of guys on that side of the ball,” Barrios added. “There’s no better feeling than this, just look around at all the people here, all the alumni who came out. We did it for everybody today.”

“These guys care about each other. Early on we wondered about how we’d get the ball around with all the playmakers we have on offense, but that never was an issue. Early on they recognized that this was a special group and if we all shared in the glory of it, everything was going to work out. They bought into that, and we never looked back once they did,” Watson said. “We have tough kids in this sophomore class, and that’s why they are in there. Some of them aren’t the biggest — C.J. is 155 pounds soaking wet — but he’s a tough kid, and he’s a competitor. We wanted to make sure we got competitors on the field. And with those guys, it doesn’t matter who they are playing, they like to grind it out and aren’t afraid to get into a fight.”

Watson said he kept seeing momentum build with his team as the weeks went by. Since an 18-6 loss to Pleasantville in the first week of October, the Pirates have won six straight games, scoring more than 30 points in each of those six wins and holding opponents to less than 20 points in five of the six games.

“We felt the momentum building (throughout the season). We had some big wins, and even with the losses — the Camden loss especially — we looked at it and said this team can be pretty special. I think there were a couple times early on when we said we think we’re going to be better than we thought. We always knew if things worked out we had enough talent to get things done, and we started to see some of that magic, some of that specialness you can’t quite define, emerge at certain times. Once everybody bought into just caring about each other and doing everything for that, we knew we had a pretty good shot,” he said. “This feels great. I don’t know if it has sunk in, but to be honest, I started to accept this and believe in this a long time ago with this group. I took it inside my heart and mind, and I think these guys did, too, and I feel like we’re supposed to be here.”

What’s next: Camden’s season is complete. Cedar Creek takes on Hillside on Dec. 8 at Rutgers University in the regional championship game at 1 p.m.

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