If anyone could boast of having the best defense in town, it would be Camden High Football.
The Panthers, ranked state No. 10 in NJ.com’s latest Top 20, enter Thursday’s Thanksgiving rivalry game against Eastside (formerly Woodrow Wilson) with four shutouts. Camden also had four other contests in which the opponent was only able to score once.
However, it was the Tigers’ defense that led the conversation as Camden was kept out of the end zone barring a safety as Eastside dominated the Panthers 25-2 at Mike Rozier Stadium in Camden in front of a police-estimated crowd of 1,000.
“They say we had the talent (on defense) this year, we just have to get the offense right,” said junior defenseman Terron Loyd, who intercepted two passes and returned one to score the Tigers. “Next year I have the feeling that we will be the top dogs.”
Eastside beat Camden for the third straight game. However, the Panthers still lead the series, 54-34-3. The Tigers ended the season with a 5-5 record. The Panthers ended a championship campaign with a 10-3 mark.
“It’s the Turkey game; it’s Thanksgiving,” said rookie head coach Melik Brown. “It’s your rivalry. Records don’t matter. All the preseason and postseason stuff doesn’t matter. When you play the Turkey game, it’s all about bragging rights. We still have bragging rights for a year.”
Eastside last played a game 20 days before Thursday’s matchup, and it showed. At the break, the Tigers took a 7-2 lead. A poor snap on a punt attempt led to a safety for Camden when senior James Heard Jr. attacked senior punter Luis Rodriguez in the end zone.
Junior Judah Anthony caught a 61-yard pass from sophomore Makhi Brunson with 6:44 in the first quarter for a 7-2 lead after junior Julius Dominguez’s successful point-after-try. The first half was sloppy and undisciplined as the two sides combined 18 penalties, many of them personal fouls and unsportsmanlike conduct.
“We just asked the guys to lock themselves in when it’s time to play football,” Brown said. “We gave them time off to recover and get well. We just asked her when it’s time to play football, play football. As long as we play football, everything else takes care of itself.
“What you have to understand is that it was a rivalry game, so the emotions are running high. One thing I talked about with the guys was emotional control. be physical be violent But between games, control your emotions. Emotions got us a bit overwhelmed at the beginning of the game, but we calmed down a bit and were able to make the plays we had to make to get the win.
Junior Fatim Diggs added a 1-yard dive in the third quarter. The score was set by a 74-yard catch-and-run by junior William Love, who placed the ball on the 2-yard line.
Loyd’s first pick (he had one in the first half that was nullified by a roughing-the-passer penalty) put the ball on Camden’s 39-yard line for the Tigers. Seven plays later, Eastside was in the end zone when senior William Norman caught a 3-yard pass from Brunson.
“The defense has played hard all year,” Brown said. “They just kept playing … a real bunch. Like I said, as long as football comes first, we’re a great team. When we start worrying about everything else that has nothing to do with football, we make mistakes. When we play football, we can play with the best.”
Loyd capped the goal with a 50-yard pick-6 in the fourth quarter.
“We worked hard this week,” said Loyd. “I feel this has been earned. We knew what we were getting into. We actually knew that we were better than them. We showed that today.”
Camden could only muster 62 yards for total offense.
“It was probably the worst football I’ve ever played in,” said head coach Rob Hinson. “We lost discipline. We’ve lost focus. I don’t know if we were prepared enough. There really wasn’t anything positive to take away from today. It starts with me, all the way down. We took a few steps back as a program today.
“We’re going to give them a couple of weeks off and then we’re going to go back into the weight room and start building our culture back up because after today we don’t have as solid a foundation as I thought. Everything starts with me. It’s going to be a really tough offseason.”
With the expansion of the football playoffs, many Thanksgiving Day traditions are being sidelined. Could the Camden town rivalry be next?
“We’ll always play this game on Thanksgiving,” Brown said before the question could be finished. “It’s traditional. You can’t have this game on any day other than Thanksgiving. This is a day when we bring the whole city together to glorify our young people. If we try to switch it to something else, it won’t be the same. Keep that on Thanksgiving because after we play the soccer game we’re going and sharing turkey.”
Hinson wasn’t so decided.
“It seems like it’s getting harder and harder to achieve,” he said. “You know what I mean? Both teams are good teams. We’re still a good team even though we had a crappy day. They’ve had a season of ups and downs. They’ve had a lot of injuries. They’ve had a lot of players who haven’t started early, so they’re still a good team.
“The expectations from us – and I also know the expectations from their program – are that we will play until late in the season. Then you have to weigh various factors. If you’re not having the kind of season you want and you’re not playing late, you’ve got teenage kids to focus on for a couple of weeks. I’m still happy to be there. I still like what it means to our community. But it seems like it’s getting a little harder to keep up that tradition.”
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