Top 10 time: Since the South Jersey finals in football are this weekend, here's my list of the most memorable championship games I have covered in the last 34 years:
Cold, hard rain turned the field at the Thundering Herd's famous old stadium into an absolute quagmire. Guys were ankle-deep in mud. From the elevated parking lot, the front of both benches looked like great lakes.
Senior quarterback Brian Purnell ran 78 yards for one touchdown — water splashing up behind him the whole time — and a freshman named Anthony Averett ran four yards for another. But the key was Woodbury's ferocious defense led by ends Aamir Petrose and Karon Gibson, who combined for five sacks and a safety.
A cold, cold day in Galloway.
Led by quarterback Mike Isgro, the host Braves took a 19-0 lead.
Cherokee rallied in improbable fashion, with two return touchdowns: Mike Kerbaugh with a pick-six and Mike Salvatico with a kickoff return.
Both teams scored touchdowns in the first overtime. Cherokee scored again in the second extra session, and Absegami was going in for another touchdown when Shane Kelly made a big hit and Chris Henderson recovered a fumble at the 2-yard line, and just like that, the Chiefs were champions. (Absegami turned the tables a year later with a 27-26 win.)
Junior quarterback Devin Leary completed the greatest passing season in South Jersey history by rallying the Chargers from a 10-0 deficit at Rowan.
Leary passed for 357 yards and three touchdowns. He finished the season with South Jersey-record marks of 48 touchdowns and 3,688 yards.
Ezrah Archie caught seven passes for 152 yards and two touchdowns. I'll never forget J.P. Roane's somersault into the end zone on a jet sweep for Timber Creek's final touchdown.
This was the last time a South Jersey team won a large-school, non-public title. In Spartan lore, this also was the Joe Sarnese game at the College of New Jersey.
Sarnese, a senior defensive back and Villanova recruit, had lost his father, his biggest fan and active supporter of the program, a couple weeks before this game. All the speedy athlete did in the state final against a North Jersey superpower program was return the second-half kickoff 81 yards for a touchdown and force a rushed extra-point attempt that was wide left in the final minutes.
This Holy Spirit team featured future NFL quarterback Joe Callahan as well as Tim Goodwin, Steve Hartley and running backs Donta Pollock and Nigel Jones.
Sarnese was the spiritual leader. "One star in the sky," Sarnese said after the game, pointing upward.
If you never saw Kevin Harvey, you missed out. This was the final game for the Red Raiders' dynamic quarterback, who scored two touchdowns to give him the still-standing record of 101 for his career.
Gerald Irvin ran for four scores and Wayne Hampton led a dominant defense for the Red Raiders. But the game at Gateway sticks out because it was the end of the high school line for Harvey, who went 43-1 as a starting quarterback in four seasons with four sectional titles – and a finishing run of 40 straight wins.
"The best I've ever seen – by far," Paulsboro coach Glenn Howard said that afternoon about Harvey.
This was the first time the sectional finals were played at Rowan. This was a Friday night game, traffic was a nightmare, there weren't enough gates to accommodate the crowd, there weren't enough quarters for ticket-sellers to make change on the $5.50 admission price, and there still were hundreds of people in line at halftime.
And the game was great. Millville coach Jason Durham called Pennsauken quarterback Manny Cortez a "once-in-20-years athlete." Cortez capped one of the greatest seasons ever with one of the greatest games ever: throwing for five touchdowns and running for three more.
By halftime, with all those people still outside the fence, Cortez had passed for 185 yards and run for 113. Amir Williams caught four touchdown passes from Cortez, covering 43, 23, 47 and 29 yards.
That was a terrific Millville team, 11-0 coming in and with a great back in Alquann Jones (who scored three touchdowns), but the Thunderbolts just couldn't keep up with an absolutely explosive Pennsauken team. For the season, Cortez threw 43 touchdown passes with four interceptions.
This was the first title for coach Clyde Folsom and West Deptford, won on a muddy home field surrounded by four-foot snowbanks in unforgettable fashion.
Tom Walls scored two touchdowns for West Deptford, and Kyle Mancuso ran for one. Buena's Andrew Mack ran for two scores.
The ending was pure drama. West Deptford took a 21-14 lead in overtime, and Buena cut the margin on 21-20 on Mack's touchdown.
Buena coach George Maxwell made the daring decision to go for two, even though his kicker was 2-for-2 on PATs, because the kid was a sophomore and he didn't want to put that burden on a 10th-grader.
The Chiefs sent Mack, who took a shotgun snap, into the line, and he was ruled down about an inch from the goal line, with Marc Robb leading a horde of West Deptford defenders. This still might be the greatest ending to a football game I ever saw.
This game at Rutgers was one for the books, with Adam Taliaferro leading the Camden County Vikings and the late, great Jamar Reynolds leading the Atlantic County Vikings.
Atlantic City also featured defensive end Lawrence "Dink" Triniwell, a 5-foot-10, 170-pound pass rusher who had 20 sacks that season. The guy was basically unblockable.
Atlantic City drove the length of the field in the final two minutes behind quarterback Doug Hiltner and won the game when Mike Lockwood, a converted soccer player who had kicked one field goal all season, made a 31-yarder with 0:08 on the clock.
This Pennsauken team might have been the best ever in South Jersey in the playoff era, and it finished an 11-0 season with a dominant performance on its field off Route 73.
Pennsauken had two defensive ends who went on to play in the NFL: Greg Mark and David Griggs. It had two guys going to the University of Miami — when the Hurricanes were "The U" and the best program in college football — in Mark and quarterback Jason Hicks.
Running backs Tim Loper and Shaun Arline generated a combined 227 rushing yards behind a Mark Lilley-led offensive line as the Indians secured the first undefeated season in coach Vince McAneney's incredible career at Pennsauken.
Oh, yeah, one other thing: It was biting cold and Coach Mac paced the sideline in his standard outfit of gray polyester slacks, short-sleeved, light-blue dress shirt, and burgundy sports coat (cigarette burns and all).
The coldest I've ever been in my career was covering this game, which was played in a steady, heavy rain-snow mix in East Camden. It was like taking a cold shower for 2 1/2 hours in 35-degree temperatures.
Woodrow Wilson had a great team that year, with quarterback David Goree setting the state record for career touchdown passes and big-play guys on the outside such as William Spearman and Jeff Love, among others.
But Mainland dominated the game behind its hard-hitting defense, its offensive line, and the running of fullback Tony Tedeschi and halfback Tony DeSalle, a pair of mudders who combined for more than 250 yards and four touchdowns.
And here's the kicker: As far as the NJSIAA is concerned, the game never happened. Mainland's title was vacated after the Mustangs found an Atlantic County appellate court judge on Friday night, 16 hours before kickoff, to issue a temporary injunction of an NJSIAA ruling that senior linebacker Jason Cairns couldn't play because he had been ejected from the previous game.
Cairns played and had three sacks. NJSIAA executive director Boyd Sands stood on the sideline and stewed (as much as anybody could stew in that weather). And the NJSIAA soon declared the title vacant because Mainland had used an ineligible athlete.
"This isn't about winning and losing," Mainland coach Bob Coffey said in an emotional speech at midfield after the game. "It's about standing up for your players. It's about doing the right thing."
For conversation's sake, here are some honorable mentions:
2011: Holy Spirit 51, Camden Catholic 7 in Non-Public 2. Chalie Roman's team at TCNJ unfurled maybe the most dominant championship-game performance I can remember by an offensive line/running game.
2008: Shawnee 28, Hammonton 7 in South Jersey Group 3. Tim Gushue's team won its 19th straight game and second straight title as Chris LaPierre capped one of the best seasons ever by a South Jersey running back with four touchdowns, giving him a still-standing record of 44 for the year.
2017: Lenape 10, Rancocas Valley 7 in South Jersey Group 5. Steve Mulville's 33-yard field goal with 0:05 on the clock made the difference on a cold Saturday night at Rowan as the Indians won the first sectional title in program history.
2014: Delsea 42, Allentown 35 in OT in South Jersey Group 3. Wild game at Rowan won by the Crusaders behind quarterback Quinn Collins as well as a typically dominant offensive line. I'll never forget Ameer Banks returning an onside kick for a touchdown.
2011: St. Joseph 51, St. Mary 0 in Non-Public 1. This might have been the Wildcats' best defensive team. Led by NFL-bound end Max Valles and South Carolina-bound linebacker Kaiwan Lewis, St. Joseph allowed 19 points in 10 games, and two of them were the result of a safety. They could have played 12 quarters at the College of New Jersey. Or 16. St. Mary wasn't scoring.
2001: Woodrow Wilson 27, Egg Harbor Twp. 14 in South Jersey Group 3. The Mike McBride-coached Tigers, featuring junior linebacker Preston Brown, won their first title in the playoff era on an incredibly warm Dec. 1 afternoon in East Camden. I'm telling you, it must have been 75 degrees. Maybe 80.
2003: Eastern 14, Washington Twp. 7 in South Jersey Group 4. Behind quarterback Anthony Orio, Eastern became the first No. 8 seed to win a South Jersey title. Coach Dan Spittal's team stunned top-seed Mainland by 14-13 in the playoff opener, beat Cherokee by 50-43 in double overtime in the semifinals, lost by 7-2 to Washington Twp. on Thanksgiving, then came back 12 days later and beat the Minutemen in the title game on a snow-banked field.