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Tiny Clayton, the little school that could, on verge of history

Elijah Rehm figured it would be something special when tiny Clayton High School broke into football prominence. He was wrong.

The little team that could: tiny Clayton has shocked South Jersey football in advancing to the Group 1 sectional title game.
The little team that could: tiny Clayton has shocked South Jersey football in advancing to the Group 1 sectional title game.Read more

Elijah Rehm figured it would be something special when tiny Clayton High School broke into football prominence.

He was wrong.

It has been more than special.

It has been magical.

"It's like a movie," Rehm said of the excitement in the little Gloucester County town and in the hallways of one of South Jersey's smallest public high schools. "It's just amazing."

As recently as 2009, Clayton was playing an abbreviated, seven-game schedule because a lack of players and serious shortage of competitiveness on the field pushed the program to the brink of a shutdown at the varsity level.

And in the seven full seasons from 2003 through 2010, the Clippers went a combined 6-54, with a pair of 0-10 records and three 1-9 marks, as well.

Today, Clayton is 9-2 and steaming toward the South Jersey Group 1 title game next Saturday against Pennsville at Rowan University.

The Little Team That Could has its sights set on the first sectional championship in the program's history.

"I try to push it out of my mind," Clayton coach Marvin Tucker said the other day, before a light practice in advance of the annual Thanksgiving Day game vs. Pitman. "I don't want to think about it.

"I see people all the time, on the street, in schools, at Dunkin' Donuts and they always want to talk to me about the team and how good we've been doing and how excited they are.

"I appreciate it. But I don't want to think about it.

"We're not done yet. As good as this is, what's it going to be like if we win the championship?"

Before this season, the Clippers had just one playoff victory in the 42-year history of the state tournament. That was in 1991.

But this year's team already has won a pair of tournament games, beating longtime rival Gloucester and neighbor Glassboro to advance to the South Jersey title game, which will be held a couple of miles up Delsea Drive at Rowan's Richard Wackar Stadium.

Both playoff victories were held at Clayton's historic Haupt Field, a quaint little complex with a midget-league feel that never hosted a sectional tournament game before the Nov. 13 clash with Gloucester.

And Clayton's 34-21 victory over Glassboro on Nov. 20 was played before a crowd of around 1,700 spectators - more than 10 times the number of spectators that used to file through those iron gates and into the stadium off Academy Street in the heart of the little borough.

"It's like we've given a spark to the town," Clayton two-way senior back Tyreek Jackson said. "Things used to be like dull. Now everybody is excited."

Clayton has made steady progress in five seasons under Tucker, a former assistant coach at Delsea who is an administrator in the town's middle school.

Clayton was 2-8 in its first season under Tucker in 2011, but the coach believes he laid the foundation for future success with an emphasis on discipline and accountability.

"We used to have guys who would show up, then not show up, quit and then think they were coming back to the team," Tucker said. "That wasn't happening."

Jackson and Rehm grew up in town, neighbors and "best friends since third grade," according to Jackson.

They used to go to Haupt Field as youngsters, watching Clayton teams with barely 20 players on the roster struggle before "crowds" that might have numbered in the dozens.

"They were down," Rehm said of Clayton football. "Things changed when Coach Tuck got here."

Said Jackson: "Things were dead around this program."

The Clippers went 5-5, 4-6 and 5-5 in Tucker's next three seasons, qualifying for the playoffs in 2014.

This season was the breakthrough, even though the Clippers lost the opener to Pennsville by 23-19.

"It might have been the best thing," Tucker said of the opening-night loss. "We didn't get too high. These guys knew they had to work."

Tucker credits his seniors, especially Rehm and Jackson, with leading this team to new heights.

The Clippers have solid senior linemen such as Nick Lemeshuk, A.J. Pasquale and Da'Shaun Johnson, among others, as well as some talented juniors and sophomores.

But the team relies heavily on its senior playmakers. In the victory over Glassboro, Rehm unfurled one of the best individual performances by a South Jersey player this season: He blocked a punt and recovered it for a touchdown, ran 85 yards from scrimmage for another touchdown and returned an interception 65 yards for another score.

"I didn't even realize what I was doing," Rehm said. "I was just having fun. We had some guys who used to play for us on the sideline, and I was having fun with them and with my teammates.

"It was like backyard ball."

Rehm grew up playing sports with his first cousins, former Glassboro stars and current Rutgers players P.J. James and Ronnie James.

"He was competing with them his whole life," Tucker said.

The 5-foot-8, 170-pound Rehm has caught 22 passes for 448 yards. He has blocked four punts, lifted three interceptions and made 59 tackles as a hybrid linebacker/safety.

"He's a ball-hawk," Tucker said of Rehm.

The 5-foot-7, 160-pound Jackson leads the team with 11 touchdowns. He's returned two punts for scores. He has rushed 104 times for 693 yards (6.7-yard average) and eight touchdowns.

"Those guys tote the wire pretty tight," Tucker said of Rehm and Jackson.

Tucker said Clayton has been "overlooked for a long time" as a football program because of the team's struggles on the field but also because the three nearest high schools - Delsea, Williamstown and Glassboro - have been perennial powers.

"We've got those three monsters surrounding us," Tucker said. "We're like the little brother."

On the Monday after his team beat Glassboro to qualify for the sectional title game, Tucker gathered his team to watch "Rocky III," with Mr. T as a co-star and "Eye of the Tiger" as its pounding theme song.

"I wanted them to see what happens when you trade your passion for glory," Tucker said. "We can't do that. We have to keep our passion.

"These kids, they think they know Rocky, but they haven't really seen it.

"I think they understood. They were texting me, Eye of the Tiger.

Those players were sitting in the dark, watching another installment of a famous cinematic story about an underdog.

They were three days away from winning their ninth game of the season and 12 days away from representing Clayton in the South Jersey championship.

Their senior leader was right: It's like a movie.