Ten minutes into the game, Lenape had already sacked Shawnee quarterback Matt Welsey four times. Welsey’s other two pass attempts in the first quarter were desperate heaves with defenders bearing down on him.
This was the kind of game Lenape wanted to play.
And this was the legacy the players wanted to leave behind in their final game of the season.
“This is definitely the way we want to end our season — it’s special to do this on my home field in my last game,” said senior Connor Kennedy, whose Indians beat Shawnee, 24-7, Thursday morning at home in the annual Thanksgiving Day matchup between neighboring rivals.
With the win, Lenape still trails the series, 36-11-2, all-time. But the Indians have now won three of the last four matchups.
The win also clinched Lenape a share of the West Jersey Football League American Division title.
It feels like a consolation prize for a team that lost last week’s South Jersey Group 5 title game to Williamstown.
But the Indians were determined not to end this season empty-handed. They won 10 games this year and lost only twice, both times to a Williamstown team considered the best in South Jersey.
“We talked about it: Five, 10, 15 years from now, this football team deserves to walk into a gymnasium and see a banner with their year on it,” said Lenape coach Joe Wojceichowski. “Now we have something of substance to say that we were a successful, great football team.”
With so much on the line, it’s easy to understand why Lenape appeared hungrier for the win than a Shawnee team that won the South Jersey Group 4 championship last week and is set for a South-Central title showdown next week against Hammonton.
“I think we had a good attitude toward this game — I just think the team in red [Lenape], made more plays than we did,” said Renegades coach Tim Gushue, whose team dropped to 10-2.
Gushue did pull his starters early in the fourth quarter with his team down three scores. But before that, Lenape’s starters were simply beating Shawnee’s starters on both sides of the ball.
The Indians took a 14-0 lead into halftime, and the game never felt in question.
“Every time we come on the field, we feel like we’re one of the best defenses in the state so we feel like we have to dominate — especially in our last game as a unit,” said junior Xavier Coleman, who also had five catches for 90 yards and scored two rushing touchdowns. “We love each other and we play for each other — that’s what we do.”
Despite a wind so strong it felt almost violent at times, Lenape actually had most of its offensive success through the air.
Quarterback Brady Long finished 12-for-22 passing for 175 yards and a touchdown pass to Kennedy.
He nearly had a second touchdown pass to Kennedy on his last drive: Kennedy appeared to make a brilliant diving catch from 5 yards out, but it was called incomplete.
“I had that in my hands,” Kennedy said with a smile.
The Lenape receivers’ ability to track the ball through that swirling wind set the teams apart.
On Lenape’s first drive of the second half, Coleman had catches of 25 and 43 yards to set up his own 1-yard score — his second of the game.
Coleman had to shift his body and completely reverse course on his first catch — his team’s first offensive play of the half.
“We wanted to keep the momentum going, keep our foot on the gas,” Coleman said.
While Coleman was making highlight-reel catches, Shawnee was having trouble holding onto the ball.
Shawnee muffed two punts, with both turnovers leading to points for Lenape.
Lenape also picked off Shawnee once and turned the Renegades away on fourth-and-goal from the 11 in the third quarter.
“It’s a great feeling to do this on Thanksgiving and to send the seniors off right,” Coleman said. “It was a great season. I feel like this group is different. We’re a family. I appreciate every player and coach on this team. And I’m ready to get back at it for next year.”
Shawnee 0 0 7 0 — 7
Lenape 0 14 7 3 - 24
L: Xavier Coleman 2 run (Dylan Shank kick)
L: Connor Kennedy 26 pass from Brady Long (Shank kick)
L: Coleman 1 run (Shank kick)
S: Nate Summerville 12 pass from Matt Welsey (Oliver Stern kick)
L: Shank 24 field goal