LINWOOD, N.J. - Mainland junior Eddie Irizarry has been a solid complementary performer all season for the Mustangs' football team. In the biggest game of the year, he assumed a leading role and looked comfortable doing so.
Irizarry had two touchdown catches and added a key interception yesterday as Mainland defeated visiting Southern Regional, 21-14, in the South Jersey Group 4 championship game.
An announced crowd of 4,620 watched Mainland jump out to a 21-0 halftime lead and then hold off a second-half rally by the resilient Rams.
Ranked No. 2 in South Jersey by The Inquirer, Mainland finished 12-0 in winning its first sectional title since earning the Group 3 crown in 2002.
Irizarry went into the game as Mainland's fourth-leading receiver with 16 receptions for 365 yards and three touchdowns.
His two catches yesterday went for Mainland's first two scores, a 1-yard reception on a third-and-goal play and then a 53-yard touchdown in which quarterback Brent Caprio hit Irizarry in stride on a deep post pattern.
Not only did Irizarry earn a championship, but he was also was given the game ball.
"I've never had a bigger game in my life," Irizarry said. "It's the greatest feeling in my life, winning a [sectional] championship."
Midway through the second quarter, Irizarry's interception helped set up Mainland's third score. Three plays after the pickoff, Caprio hit Kyle Davis for a 33-yard touchdown with just 1 minute, 12 seconds remaining in the first half.
"Eddie stepped up in a big spot," Caprio said. "He wasn't our No. 1 guy all year and came out today and made plays, and that is what good players do in big games."
Of course, Caprio has been making plays his entire career. Yesterday he completed 13 of 22 passes for 159 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. Southern did a good job limiting him on the ground, holding Caprio to 19 yards on 11 carries.
Caprio ended the season with 27 touchdown passes and scored 21 TDs.
Southern (10-2) was playing in its first sectional final, and the Rams were hurt by turnovers, committing four. Two of them led to 14 Mainland points.
In addition to Irizarry's interception, Mainland's Kevin Gallagher picked up a fumble at the Southern 4-yard line to set up the first touchdown.
Southern is a team that uses a conservative ball-control offense and sturdy defense to beat teams.
Trailing by 21-0, the Rams had to throw the ball more than they would have liked, but still they battled back in the second half. For the game, Rams quarterback Brian Sullivan completed 9 of 27 passes for 123 yards and a touchdown with two interceptions.
"We made a lot of mistakes in the first half and they capitalized," said Southern coach Chuck Donohue, who also has coached St. Joseph, Haddon Heights and Buena to the playoffs. "That is a great football team, but we think ours is also."
Linebacker Anthony Stroffolino, who would make anybody's all-tough team, recovered a fumble on the Mainland 26 to set up Southern's first touchdown.
Penn State recruit Glenn Carson finished that drive with a 3-yard run, cutting the deficit to 21-7 with 3:57 left in the third quarter.
So, as poorly as Southern had played in the second quarter, it still was within range.
"It's no surprise how we played in the second half," said Carson, who also made several big plays at linebacker. "I think the difference today was that they got a few big plays on us."
Things got even more interesting when Sullivan hit Dave Troutman for a 9-yard scoring pass with 2:51 remaining. That came three plays after Carson made a 16-yard reception in traffic on a fourth-and-10 play from the Mainland 40-yard line.
Leading by 21-14 with 2:51 left, Mainland wouldn't have been criticized if it had tried to run out the clock, even though Southern had all three time-outs.
On the next series, Caprio got two first downs on completions of 15 and 13 yards to Troy Brennan, but the Mustangs turned the ball over on downs on their own 31 with 56.8 seconds left.
Southern got into Mainland territory, but Michael Gonzalez finished matters with an interception with 14 seconds left.
Mainland had held on, and one had to wonder where the Mustangs would have been had Irizarry not made so many big plays.
"Eddie did the same in the Hammonton game and got a game ball," Mainland coach Bob Coffey said. "He is a big-game guy, an easy, happy-go-lucky kid who does a great job, and we're lucky to have him."
Southern 0 0 7 7 - 14
Mainland 0 21 0 0 - 21
M: Irizarry 1 pass from Caprio (Slotoroff kick)
M: Irizarry 53 pass from Caprio (Slotoroff kick)
M: Davis 33 pass from Caprio (Slotoroff kick)
S: Carson 3 run (Gross kick)
S: Troutman 9 pass from Sullivan (Gross kick)