LINWOOD, N.J. - The final team huddles are so emotional, and always a study in contrasts. One team celebrating, one consoling, it's always how it goes, but the interesting part is the compassion the team in the celebratory mood can have for its beaten opponent.
The cheering yesterday was in the Mainland huddle after the Mustangs held on for a 21-14 win over visiting Southern Regional in the South Jersey Group 4 football championship.
Mainland finished 12-0, but more important, the Mustangs made amends for last season, when they stood in the same shoes as Southern Regional.
Just a year ago, Mainland lost a tough 22-19 decision to Toms River North in the Group 4 final. At that point, nothing anybody could say in that final get-together around midfield could cheer up the Mustangs.
So, despite the elation they felt upon completing an undefeated season, there was still empathy for the members in the other huddle.
"It's the worst feeling ever," said Mainland defensive lineman and Delaware recruit Lance Miller about losing in a championship game. "You wonder how you are ever going to get up to play again when you lose such a tough game, and I could feel for them."
Some teams are simply overmatched in a championship setting; others show they truly belong on the field.
Put Southern Regional in the latter category, even though the 10-2 Rams were playing in their first sectional final.
After a scoreless first quarter, the Rams imploded and found themselves in a 21-0 halftime hole.
"We have never been here before and the first half we played like that, and in the first half they played like they've been there," Southern coach Chuck Donohue said. "That was the difference in the game."
Still, Southern had enough character to scare the living wits out of Mainland. The Rams had the ball in Mainland territory before the Mustangs sealed the matter on an interception by Michael Gonzalez with 14 seconds left.
This has been a season in which Mainland wasn't challenged very often. The Mustangs had won every game by 24 points or more until overcoming a 27-7 deficit on Thanksgiving to beat Egg Harbor Township, 30-27.
And then yesterday the Mustangs appeared to have the game in hand, but Southern Regional showed the true mark of a champion - a refusal to quit.
So when the teams were lined up to shake hands, one could sense a mutual deep respect. Mainland coach Bob Coffey made it a point to tell the Southern players and coaches how much he admired their effort.
"They played great, were really tough, never gave up and were well coached," Coffey said of the Rams. "Southern was a quality team, and I am happy we could pull it out."
After the teams shook hands, the teams went to opposite sides of the fields and the moods in the respective huddles were drastically different.
Yet the message from both coaches was the same. Each was proud of their players, Coffey for completing this undefeated journey and Donohue for the way his team fought the extremely good fight.
"You don't do this job to win championships," Donohue said. "You do this job to coach in games like this and watch your kids play like this and I'm very proud."
Actually, the score still does count, which is why the Mainland players packed into trucks and paraded around town afterward.
"It means so much to win this," said Mainland quarterback Brent Caprio, who threw three touchdown passes yesterday. "When we lost last year, we saw how those seniors felt losing that last game and we wanted to go down as one of the best teams in Mainland history and feel we deserve this because we worked so hard."
So both teams were able to walk off the field with their heads held high.
They both battled so hard, but there can only be one winning team - and only one huddle where the cheering seems to never stop.