Things started well for Cherry Hill East.
Dante Gazzola took the opening kickoff and barreled 23 yards to the 48.
The powerfully built junior carried the football on the first three plays of the annual "Battle for the Boot" between Cherry Hill East and crosstown rival Cherry Hill West on Thanksgiving Eve.
Taking a handoff from quarterback Nick Gazzola, his identical twin, Dante Gazzola ran for 3, 5, and 3 yards for a first down on the Cherry Hill West 41. Next, Nick Gazzola faked an inside handoff to his brother, skirted around left end, stiff-armed a would-be tackler, and raced down the sideline for a touchdown.
It was 6-0 in favor of Cherry Hill East less than two minutes into the game.
"We try so hard," Nick Gazzola said after the game. "So many guys on this team try so hard to win a game."
In the end, Cherry Hill West's players hoisted the Al DiBart Memorial Trophy — a.k.a., The Boot — and chanted "West Side . . . West Side" and celebrated a 48-12 victory that marked the purple-clad Lions' fifth straight triumph over the red-cloaked Cougars.
The Lions deserved their moment on the cold, clear night at Jonas Morris Stadium as they got great work from junior quarterback Monte Williams (two rushing touchdowns, four passing touchdowns) and junior wide receiver Naiem Simmons (four touchdown catches) and earned their first and only win of the long season.
"I can't tell you," Cherry Hill West coach Brian Wright said, "how much it means to these kids to win this game."
In truth, it was easy to measure the Lions' happiness since it was in direct proportion to the Cougars' heartbreak.
The loss was Cherry Hill East's 28th in a row. The Cougars were 0-10 in each of the last two seasons, and they lost the final eight games of the 2015 season as well.
In 2012, Cherry Hill East completed a 4-6 season with a 28-0 win over Cherry Hill West.
Since then, Cherry Hill East is 3-47.
"We all want to win so bad," Nick Gazzola said. "There's tears after every game."
Wednesday night's loss was frustrating on multiple levels for the Cougars.
After that promising start, Dante Gazzola — a first-team All-West Jersey Football League National Division player as a linebacker — was lost for the game with a knee injury on Cherry Hill West's first offensive series.
"That killed us," Nick Gazzola said of the loss of his brother, a top fullback as well as linebacker.
The Cougars entered the game believing they could win, since Cherry Hill West also was 0-9, and that quick start and early lead only built the confidence along the sideline and raised hopes even higher — resulting in even more disappointment when things went south in a hurry.
"It's so frustrating to come out and lose to West like this," Nick Gazzola said.
He turned at looked at the scoreboard.
"West isn't that much better than us," Nick Gazzola said. "To lose 48-12, we lost to Timber Creek [49-6] like that. West is not that much better than us."
Cherry Hill East has some good players, just not enough of them. Football teams need numbers. They need depth. Otherwise, even quality athletes can get swallowed up in the hurly-burly of the action with 22 players out on the field.
The Gazzola brothers could play for any team in South Jersey. They are strong, fast, and physical.
"They're really good," Wright said. "We talked all week about stopping them."
The brothers grew up in Salem, moving to Cherry Hill as fifth graders.
"We grew up playing fotball there," Nick Gazzola said of Salem. "We learned that mentality, you have do more, go further. I don't want to speak badly about anybody else, but they are so hungry down there.
"They are poverty-stricken. I was too. I was poor at one point, eating PB&J for dinner and I was hungry."
Cherry Hill East has other quality players. Junior Isaac Jean-Baptiste — who made a few good tackles Wednesday night — was a first-team, all-division choice as a defensive back, and junior Dominic Seta was a second-team choice as an offensive lineman.
But the Cougars have lost so many players over the last few seasons — guys who have transferred to other schools, or opted not to come out — that they struggle to stay competitive with teams over the full 48 minutes.
"At our school, it's 'East football stinks' and it's this vicious cycle that nobody wants to come play with us because we're not any good, but we can't get better if we don't have more players," Nick Gazzola said. "I mean, we were playing football this year with 18 kids. We were down to 18 kids."
There's a ballot question before the NJSIAA general membership on Dec. 4 that will, if passed, allow bigger schools such as Cherry Hill East and Cherry Hill West to form co-op progams in football.
Mike Beirao, the athletic director for both schools, said that's not an option in Cherry Hill. He believes both schools can be competitive in the sport.
Nick Gazzola and many of his teammates believe it, too. The 5-foot-10, 190-pound quarterback ran 12 times for 132 yards and two touchdowns on Wednesday night.
He broke loose for 59-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter, cutting Cherry Hill West's lead to 41-12.
On the next play, Simmons took a short pass, slipped a tackle, and raced 63 yards for a touchdown for the Lions.
"I try my heart out every game," Nick Gazzola said. "I try so hard to win. So many of us try so hard to win.