Even Iverson Clement was surprised.
The Rancocas Valley senior was back to return a punt he felt would never come his way. His team was trailing Millville, 14-7, in the fourth quarter of the South Jersey Group 5 semifinal two weeks ago. But the punt came his way and Clement was ready.
Sixty-two yards later he was in the end zone, having scored his third punt-return touchdown of the season, with less than four minutes left in the game. The Red Devils then faked a PAT attempt and scored on a two-point conversion in a 15-14 victory over the defending champion Thunderbolts.
Now Rancocas Valley (10-1) will meet Lenape (10-1) in the championship game at 6 p.m. Saturday at Rowan.
The Red Devils will attempt to beat Lenape for the second time, no small feat. Rancocas Valley handed the Indians their only loss, 10-7 on Oct. 6.
It's no surprise that Iverson made the big play, only that he got the chance to do so. Many teams have used the strategy of punting out of bounds rather than deal with the speed and slippery moves of Clement.
"Everybody was surprised," Clement said. "They wanted to test me and I got an A-plus."
Clement also received that grade last year when he rushed for more than 1,400 yards and 21 touchdowns. And despite being the focal point of every defensive coordinator's game plan, he has excelled again this season.
He is averaging more than 27.3 yards on 15 punt returns. Iverson has rushed for 1,419 yards and 13 touchdowns, averaging 7.1 yards per carry. He has also caught 10 passes for 128 yards and two touchdowns, and is also a key performer as a safety.
"He has had a phenomenal year and has been a big reason we are here," Rancocas Valley coach Dan Haussman said. "We have put so much on him."
That is fine with the 5-foot-11, 195-pound Clement, who has enjoyed his multiple roles.
"I like it, being here for my team," he said.
Clement committed during the spring to the University of Florida. And despite the Gators' coaching change, for now he says he still plans to go there and play for new coach Dan Mullen. Clement even visited the campus during last week's 38-22 loss to Florida State.
"I have been there 10 times and I feel pretty secure," he said.
Still, other schools have continued to recruit him.
"Once this game is over I will worry about college, but right now I am trying to help my team win a championship," he said.
During the spring, Clement won the state Group 4 long jump championship with a leap of 23 feet, ½ inch.
That type of athletic ability has him a candidate at multiple positions on the next level.
"I will play whatever the coaches want me to play," he said. "I am going in as a running back and will train for running back, but if I am needed at slot corner I will do that."
And of course, his college coach should consider him as a punt returner. Whether opposing teams should actually let him exhibit his returning skill, either this Saturday or in college, is a risky proposition.
Lenape (10-1) vs. Rancocas Valley (10-1), Saturday at 6 p.m. at Rowan University.
Road to Rowan
Lenape: Beat Vineland, 35-0, and Howell, 63-28.
Rancocas Valley: Beat Eastern, 57-9, and Millville, 15-14.
Rancocas Valley (1987) SJ. Group 3.
Lenape: Tim McAneney is 50-24 at Lenape and 102-75 overall.
Rancocas Valley: Dan Haussman is 57-27 with the Red Devils.
Lenape players to watch
Senior RB-CB JoJo Kellum (1,549 yards rushing, 8.9 avg., 29 TDs)
Senior QB Matt Lajoie (64-92 passing, 1,192 yards, 11 TDs, 582 yards rushing, 5.8 avg., 10 TDs
Senior WR-DB Jake Topolski (23 receptions, 515 yards, 5 TDs, 2 interceptions)
Senior OL-DE Aaron Acosta (6-1, 255)
Senior RB-LB Mike Galaida (5-10, 200).
Rancocas Valley players to watch:
Senior RB-DB Iverson Clement (1,419 yards rushing, 7.1 avg., 13 TDs, 10 receptions, 128 yards, 2 TDs, 15 punt returns, 27.3 avg., 3 TDs)
Junior QB-DB Bryce Mangine (74-135 passing, 1,083 yards, 10 TDs, 160 yards rushing, 7 TDs).
Senior WR-SS Keshawn Harris (210 yards rushing, 5.0 avg., 2 TDs, 6 receptions, 105 yards, 1 TD)
Senior OG-MLB Kyle Sapp (44 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, 7 sacks)
Senior WR-DE Daequan Jackson-Swoope (42 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 6 sacks)
Fast fact: Rancocas Valley beat Lenape, 10-7 on Oct. 6. It was the only game that either team failed to score at least two touchdowns.
Pick: Lenape 14-13.
— Marc Narducci