Charlie O'Neill remembers his first appearance in a championship football game for Haddonfield, and the senior two-way lineman concedes he was far from cool and collected.
"I was very nervous," he said about his sophomore season when Haddonfield lost to West Deptford, 22-14, in the South Jersey Group 2 final at Rowan University.
Now, O'Neill will be returning to Rowan in his final high school game when Haddonfield (9-2) meets Woodstown (11-0) in Saturday's 1 p.m. sectional Group 2 final.
Unlike his sophomore year when he started on a predominantly senior team, O'Neill is the one whom the younger players look up to.
Actually, so do the older ones.
"He's a great leader, a great player and a starter since his sophomore year and a player who has a lot of experience," said Haddonfield quarterback Mike McLaughlin, who has thrown 16 touchdown passes this year.
"Everybody rallies around him, and he is a hard worker and is everything you want in a lineman and a football player."
This season has been even more gratifying to O'Neill, a 6-foot, 245-pounder, because after he performed so well as a sophomore, his junior season was hampered by a high ankle sprain.
He admits to coming back too early, and ended up sitting out the first part of last season.
"It was tough because we were a young team and I really wanted to contribute," he said.
This year has been much different.
O'Neill will do anything to help his team win. This year, for instance, he switched not one, but two positions.
Previously an offensive guard and nose tackle, he has moved to offensive and defensive tackle.
"He has handled every change perfectly and like the leader he is," Haddonfield coach Frank DeLano said. "Charlie has put the team first and himself second."
O'Neill says the only thing that matters to him is winning, and he acknowledges having a blast in the postseason.
Woodstown will be the third straight undefeated playoff opponent that the Bulldogs meet. They defeated No. 4-seeded West Deptford, 21-9, in the first round, avenging a 31-14 regular-season loss to the Eagles.
Haddonfield then beat top seed Camden, 45-19, in a semifinal.
Those two opponents went a combined 20-2 this season.
"It's been really exciting," O'Neill said of the postseason. "We were considered a dark-horse team, but I am not surprised because I have seen how much we have improved."
As for his leadership, O'Neill says he is only trying to do what the seniors did when he was a sophomore.
"I really looked up to the seniors and they helped me so much, so I felt that is now my job as a senior," O'Neill said.
It's a job well done.
"He has meant a lot on and off the field, trying to help the young players develop," DeLano said.
O'Neill says that playing football for Haddonfield has meant so much to him and he will miss it tremendously. And he appreciates the opportunity to play for the championship in his final game.
Unlike in his previous final, O'Neill won't have the same level of anxiety. As a senior, his quiet confidence and leadership have set the tone for what has been a highly impressive postseason run.
Haddonfield vs. Woodstown
Saturday, 1 p.m. at Rowan
Previous titles: Haddonfield, one (2011). Woodstown is seeking its first.
Coaches: Haddonfield, Frank DeLano (12th season, 83-46); Woodstown, John Adams (fourth season, 27-14).
How Haddonfield can win: With the continued reliance on a diversified attack. Haddonfield runs the ball more than it throws, but QB Mike McLaughlin has passed for 1,443 yards and 16 touchdowns. RB Mike DeFeo has rushed for 708 yards (6.5 average) and 10 TDs. Another key will be how Haddonfield stops the potent Woodstown ground game, and DeLano thinks that junior Mark Walker (80 tackles, 13 tackles for loss) is among the best linebackers around. He will have to have an active day.
How Woodstown can win: With senior Semaj Thomas leading a ball-control offense, the Wolverines are predominantly a ground team and will have to run the ball effectively. Thomas has come back strong after suffering a broken ankle Oct. 15 against Pennsville. He has rushed for 606 yards (7.6 average) and 11 TDs, and in the Wolverines' 19-0 Thanksgiving win over rival Salem, he gained 162 yards and scored two TDs. On defense, the Wolverines will have to put heat on McLaughlin. Lineman Nathan Prus (51/2 sacks, 13 tackles for loss) leads a strong defense.
Fast fact: Haddonfield is appearing in a sectional final for the fourth time in the last five years.
- Marc Narducci