EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Most of the first half was bully-ball.
A team that was 2-6 to start the postseason was pushing around a team with an 11-1 record.
It was the final statement by a Shawnee football team in the midst of a remarkable turnaround that had many reconsidering their critiques of the state’s playoff system.
Many questioned whether Shawnee, at 2-6, belonged in the postseason. Even in defeat on Saturday night, the Renegades once again answered emphatically.
Shawnee fell, 20-17, to Long Branch in Saturday night’s inaugural South/Central Group 4 Bowl Game, giving one of the state’s most highly regarded teams all it could handle in a showdown at MetLife Stadium.
It ended a historic playoff run in which Shawnee captured a South Jersey title to earn a trip to the first-ever super-sectional game.
The Renegades coughed up a 17-point lead, surrendering 20 unanswered points thanks largely to three second-half turnovers.
But, on the final drive, in the final minute, they were in Long Branch territory.
On fourth-and-23 from their 27-yard line, quarterback Matt Welsey hit Nate Summerville for a 29-yard completion with 40 seconds left. Welsey just missed Joe Dalsey’s outstretched hands two plays later on a throw that would have put Shawnee on the edge of field-goal range, and Welsey was sacked on fourth down to end the game.
Shawnee ends its season with a 6-7 record, a turnaround sparked largely by the superlative play of the southpaw Welsey — who was inserted into the lineup in week 8 — and Dalsey, who moved to running back from quarterback with the insertion of Welsey.
Dalsey finished Saturday night with 15 carries for 108 yards and a touchdown and 4 catches for 62 yards and a touchdown. He also converted his only field goal attempt — a 31-yarder that put Shawnee ahead by 17-0 in the second quarter.
Welsey finished 15-of-25 passing for 201 yards.
For Long Branch, despite being held in check for much of the game, running back Jermaine Corbett rushed 21 times for 85 yards and two touchdowns. The performance put him over 2,000 for the season. He was instrumental in a second half in which an up-tempo style by Long Branch helped turn the momentum of the game on its face.
Long Branch scored two touchdowns in the first five minutes of the third quarter. Corbett punched it in from 1 yard out on the first drive of the third quarter. Shawnee fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and Long Branch scored again, taking a lead it never lost.
It was in stark contrast to a first half in which the Renegades bulldozed Long Branch on the game’s opening drive, marching 77 yards in 9 plays, ending in a 17-yard touchdown run by Dalsey.
Dalsey scored his second touchdown on the final play of the first quarter — a 16-yard pass from Welsey to make the score 14-0 to end the first quarter.
In the first quarter alone, Dalsey ran for five times for 62 yards and caught 2 passed for 31 yards.
Long Branch didn’t see its first shred of momentum until late in the second quarter when the team raced 40 yards in a four-play scoring drive that ate up 1:03 of the clock and made the score 17-7 with 1:10 left in the half.
Shawnee 14 3 0 0 — 17
Long Branch 0 7 13 0 — 20
S: Joe Dalsey 17 run (Dalsey kick)
S: Dalsey 16 pass from Matt Welsey (Dalsey kick)
S: Dalsey 31 field goal
LB: Jermaine Corbett 6 run (Joe Mazza kick)
LB: Corbett 1 run (Joe Mazza kick)
LB: Matthew Clarke 20 pass from Marc Dennis (kick blocked)