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NJSIAA’s new ‘Bowl Games’ are better than expected | Phil Anastasia

The intensity with which Williamstown, Penns Grove and Willingboro played at MetLife Stadium, and their reaction to the result, underscored the value of the new super-sectional games.

Penns Grove coach John Emel and his players celebrate 35-26 win over Willingboro in Group 1 South/Central Bowl Game.
Penns Grove coach John Emel and his players celebrate 35-26 win over Willingboro in Group 1 South/Central Bowl Game.Read moreTim Tai/Staff photographer

I have this theory about March and the craziness of the competition during that month.

Here's the idea: It's the sadness, not the madness, and the tears, not the cheers, that fully illustrate the value of those games and that super-charged segment of the scholastic sports calendar.

Perhaps the same is true when it comes to the NJSIAA's new November to Remember.

It wasn't exactly the football version of March Madness at MetLife Stadium during the first weekend of the state's inaugural "Bowl Season," with super-sectional games between public school champions, as well as championship finals for non-public teams.

But it was something special.

"As much as we enjoyed playing at Rowan, it's no comparison," Penns Grove coach John Emel said. "I'd rather play here."

Emel was in a great mood, because Penns Grove on Saturday became the first 13-0 team in South Jersey history, twice rallying from a 20-point deficit to beat Willingboro, 35-26, in a wild Group 1 South/Central Bowl Game.

But the true measure of these new-fangled "Bowl Games" involving public schools was Williamstown's reaction to a 14-7 loss to Sayreville in the Group 5 South/Central showdown on Friday night.

The Braves were devastated.

And strange as it sounds, that's a great sign for this unconventional concept for the state's playoff system.

When the plans for "Bowl Games" were announced last spring, I was against the idea. I thought it silly to play another game after the sectional finals, with no real prize on the line.

It was a state semifinal game in form but not function. The South champion in each group would play the Central champion in each group, as would the North I champion and the North II champion.

But that was it. No next step for a true state champion, although that's probably coming for the 2020 season.

Still, these so-called super-sectionals seemed like exhibition games or glorified scrimmages, but at the end of the long season instead of the beginning.

It seemed all risk and no reward. Teams took the chance on ending championship seasons on a down note, with a loss, while they would stand to gain . . . what?

A trophy?

The right to call themselves the South/Central champion? The half-state champion?

I wondered whether some teams might not be emotionally engaged after winning a sectional title. I fretted that perhaps that would be a safety risk, given the physical nature of the sport.

But I underestimated just how much high school football players love to play high school football games.

They get only 10 a season, 12 if they are part of a great team. Each one is special. And the chance to play another one – against a quality opponent, on a big stage, in an NFL stadium – was an irresistible allure.

Listen to Williamstown senior Wade Inge on playing on the same field as the NFL's Giants and Jets: "The energy was amazing. You felt like a superstar, out on that turf. Like an NFL superstar. Every kid should get to be able to do this one day."

Here's Emel, on his players' reaction to taking that field: "It's special when you are on the same field as the guys these kids look up to. It's something any team that plays there will never forget."

Penns Grove players, coaches, and fans drove two hours from the little Salem County town to East Rutherford. The Red Devils started slowly – falling behind by 20-0 and 26-6 – before staging a remarkable rally.

There was no shortage of joy during the postgame celebration, when NJSIAA executive director Larry White, a justifiably proud 1971 Penns Grove graduate, presented his alma mater with the commemorative trophy, shaped a little like a miniature version of the NFL's Vince Lombardi Trophy.

"To make a mark, to go 13-0, it means so much to the program, to the players, to our family and friends," Penns Grove senior Tyreke Brown said, gesturing to the hooting and hollering red-clad fans behind the team's bench.

About 18 hours earlier, the silence was deafening in the Williamstown locker room. More than a few players rubbed tears from red-rimmed eyes.

The Braves' loss was the stuff of a bad dream: a fumble in the end zone in punt formation in the final minute, when a successful kick and one more stand by the Braves' ferocious defense would have sealed a 7-6 victory.

This was no exhibition game for the Braves, no "friendly" at the end of a championship season. Williamstown wanted to win this game in the worst way, to finish 13-0, to complete the perfect run from the end of August to the end of November.

"Unforgettable pain that will never go away," Inge said of the stunning setback.

Shawnee, Woodrow Wilson, and Haddonfield will play in Bowl Games this coming weekend. Maybe after competing in rivalry games on Thanksgiving and being two weeks removed from winning South Jersey championships, the Renegades, Tigers, and Bulldawgs will take the field with less than full intensity and focus.

I doubt it.

Penn Grove's cheers showed the value these players and coaches place on these new Bowl Games.

But not as much as Williamstown's tears.