With his helmet ripped off and blood running down his forehead, Gerald Owens went to the sideline to a standing ovation from the West Deptford fans. It wasn’t the first time Owens brought the fans to their feet, or the last.
Owens capped off a dominant junior season with a masterful 206-yard, five-touchdown effort, leading the West Deptford High School football to its second straight NJSIAA South Jersey Group 2 title, 42-28, over Cedar Creek Saturday.
Teammate Joe Diaco had a career-high three interceptions to lead a defense that picked off Pirates quarterback Damon Mitchell four times, helping the team secure a perfect 12-0 season.
“It feels amazing,” Owens said. “I’m blessed. Our team is blessed to be back here again and blessed to have a perfect season.”
Owens—who scored on runs of 19, 6, 64, 37 and 4 yards—said the will to send the seniors out on a winning note far outweighed any pain he may have endured over the course of three hours.
“It’s the desire, the will to win for the seniors,” Owens said. “I want them to go out with the best memories ever. I don’t want them to go out into life and onto college with a loss. I want them to come out with a win and I am going to everything I can. I would come out on this field in a full body cast. I will sacrifice everything I have.”
Check out photos from the game at Viewfinder: West Deptford Football Repeats as Group 2 Champs.
Owens did the bulk of his work in the first half, rushing for 184 yards
and four touchdowns, including a 64-yarder in which he broke three tackles and sprinted away from the Pirates’ secondary.
“Gerald Owens’ first half was as dominant of a first half as we have ever had in a championship game,” West Deptford coach Clyde Folsom said.
Cedar Creek was able to stay within striking distance thanks to the elite athletic ability of Mitchell. With the Eagles guarding against the pass, Mitchell did most of his work on the ground. He collected 130 yards rushing and three touchdowns in a half that seemed to be a showdown between who could get bigger gains between Owens and Mitchell.
“Our kids hung in there and they got it done offensively,” Folsom said. “There is no question it was going to be a shootout. We knew that coming in because of the personnel they had and what we are not that great at in terms of coverage in space. Our kids hung in there and they believed and made some big plays.”
The Eagles took their biggest lead of the game midway through the second quarter when Owens took a third-and-17 handoff and broke free for a 37-yard touchdown that gave West Deptford a 28-12 advantage. Not to be outdone, Mitchell responded by completing a couple of passes on the Pirates' next series and eventually found the end zone on a 5-yard run. A two-point conversion brought Cedar Creek to within eight points and 28-20 at the half.
The Pirates had a chance to even the score on their first possession of the second half, but Diaco recorded his second interception of the game in the Eagles' end zone to preserve the lead.
'I have got to get in'
On West Deptford’s ensuing possession, Owens had his helmet ripped off after being tackled and took a shot above the eye that would require several stitches. While Owens was being patched up, Folsom dialed up a run to Diaco, who had carried the ball just three or four times all season, by his count.
“I was thinking in my head, ‘I have got to get in, I just got to get in,’” Diaco said.
Diaco did, scoring from 11 yards out to increase the lead to 35-20 with 3:56 left in the third quarter.
Mitchell tried to bring the Pirates back, completing passes of 12, 12 and 25 to move his team in West Deptford territory. However a deep pass got away from him and Connor Smith was able to out-muscle the intended receiver for another interception in the end zone.
After a defensive stop, Cedar Creek was able to get back within a score on a 5-yard touchdown run by Mitchell with 6:27 left, but the Eagles answered right back when Smith broke off a 40-yard run and Owens followed with a 4-yard touchdown carry.
Smith finished with 150 yards rushing and Josh Cornelius added 81 on the ground.
“The O-line is amazing,” Owens said. “We had a couple of injuries, but we fought through adversity.”
Cedar Creek had one final chance, but Diaco sealed the game with his final interception with 4:56 left and the Eagles ran out the clock to celebrate their second-straight title—plus a perfect season and 21-game win streak.
“It feels great to (have my biggest game) on a stage like this in a state championship,” Diaco said. “It feels good to help my team to a victory and a perfect season.”
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