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Highland beats Triton on Thanksgiving behind Brian Cooey’s big day

The senior quarterback ran for three key first downs and kicked two extra points as the Tartans finished with a 9-2 record for the second time in his three varsity seasons.

Highlands Brian Cooey during the 2016 season.
Highlands Brian Cooey during the 2016 season.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

There were a lot of lasts for Brian Cooey on Thursday – last football game in a Highland uniform, last game with his classmates, last time playing quarterback.

There also was a first.

Cooey made his first and only tackle of the long season, delivering a thunderous hit on a kickoff return in the second half of Highland's 20-12 victory over school-district rival Triton in a clash commemorated by T-shirts in the concession stand that read, "Turkey Bowl 2018 – The Backyard Brawl."

Cooey kicked a pair of extra points, ran for three first downs – including a key 12-yard gain when the Tartans were running out of the clock – and provided his standard measure of senior leadership as Highland finished the season with a victory on a cold, clear Thanksgiving Day.

"It feels really special," Cooey said, clutching the game ball. "There's no other group of guys I would want to play with than these guys. To end this way, it means so much to us."

Cooey and the rest of the Highland seniors led the way as coach Brian Leary and his assistants created a winning culture at the Black Horse Pike school that hadn't previously been known for a powerhouse football program.

Highland finished 9-2 this season. The Tartans also were 9-2 in 2016. Those are the only two nine-win seasons in program history.

Cooey and his classmates helped turn Highland into one of South Jersey's most respected programs in the course of three varsity seasons.

"I can't say enough about these seniors," Leary said. "They worked. They never wavered. They are my first class that I was with all four years here and they have really been a big part of what we've tried to do."

Eric Staton caught a 94-yard touchdown pass from Geff Giancaterino and Davaunte Payton ran 54 yards for another score for Triton (5-6).

"I feel like we had our chances and let it go through our fingers," Triton coach Dom Tomeo said. "That's not to take anything away from Highland. They are a great team. That's why they had the record they do.

"But we really hurt ourselves with mistakes and you can't do that against a team like that."

Tomeo told his players, some of whom seemed bitterly disappointed by the loss, to watch Highland celebrate with the trophy that annually is awarded to the winner of the rivalry game.

"That stings – let it sting," Tomeo said. "Remember that when you're playing PlayStation and you should be in the weight room."

Running behind an offensive line without a senior starter, Highland sophomore Johnny Martin gained 268 yards on 29 carries with a pair of touchdowns.

Martin finished the season with 1,968 rushing yards, a school record.

Cooey walked off the Tartans' home field as a record-holder as well. He won 23 games as a starting quarterback, the most in Highland history.

"He's the consummate leader," Leary said. "What he's done for us, you just can't replace that."

A top student with a 4.2 grade-point average, Cooey is one of the state's top kickers and punters. He has offers to join college programs such as Penn State, Rutgers, and Toledo as a preferred walk-on, with Colgate also expressing serious recruiting interest.

Cooey's football future is as a punter. But he loves playing quarterback, which is what made this Thanksgiving Day game extra special for him.

It likely was his last official football game under center. He made the most of it with a 25-yard completion and a sneak for a first down in the first half, plus runs of 11 and 12 yards for first downs at key junctures of the second half.

The 12-yard gain came on a fourth down, with the Tartans looking to keep the Mustangs from a last chance to tie the game with a touchdown and two-point conversion.

"I was talking with Dom [Tomeo] after the game and he said they weren't expecting that run in a million years," Leary said. "We put that belly-keep in this week and that's what we said, 'They'll never be expecting that.' "

Cooey admits it's usually a bad sign when he makes a tackle, since it's likely after a turnover or long kick return.

But his first tackle of 2018 was noteworthy as he delivered a heavy hit on the Triton kickoff return man, earning hugs and high-fives from his teammates on his way back to the sideline.

"He laid him out," Leary said.

Cooey said he won't ever forget his last game in a Highland uniform. He ran for key first downs. He led the Tartans to their ninth win against their archrivals before a large crowd on a bright, blustery Thanksgiving Day.

And he made his first and last tackle of his final season.

"Normally, you want to be careful not to get an injury," Cooey said. "But this was our last game. You're just going to leave it all out there."

Triton       0  12 0 0  – 12

Highland  7  0  7  6  – 20

H: Johnny Martin 5 run (Brian Cooey kick)

T: Eric Staton 94 pass from Geff Giancaterino (kick fail)

T: Davaunte Payton 54 run (pass fail)

H: Kasim Randall-Dale 30 run (Cooey kick)

H: Martin 2 run (kick fail)