PITTSGROVE TOWNSHIP (N.J.) - The Arthur P. Schalick High School football team was in search of its first sectional final appearance since 2004.
The Cougars hosted an unfamiliar opponent in Shore Regional High School in the Central Jersey Group 1 semifinals and prevailed in the thriller with a 16-14 victory.
Quarterback Kenai Simmons scrambled for a 63-yard touchdown with 1:23 left in regulation to stun the Blue Devils.
Schalick's Kenai Simmons (1) rolls out of the pocket in the semifinal round of the Central Jersey Group 1 football game played at Arthur P. Schalick High School in Pittsgrove Township, New Jersey on Friday, November 3, 2023. Collin Conway/D2 Sports Network
As the field narrowed and the clock winded down, Schalick's defense found its back against the wall in the red zone. Shore's offense was wearing the defense down, but the Cougars held firm and came up with a fourth down stop on a pressure by Alec Bramell that forced an errant throw.
Schalick took over on its own five-yard line with less than three minutes left to play and the season on the line.
Simmons didn't flinch.
The quarterback helped the Cougars march to their own 37-yard line after the turnover on downs. It took one play from scrimmage for Simmons to etch his name into Schalick football lore forever. On a broken pass play, Simmons evaded the pocket and forced numerous defenders to miss before he ran up the sideline and crossed the goal line for a 63-yard score.
"I was going through my reads and was like 'they're all covered,'" Simmons said. "So, I just tucked the ball away and made a run for it."
Simmons finished 9-for-15 passing for 122 yards, a touchdown, and an interception. On the ground, he accumulated 105 yards and a score on 13 carries.
"I try and get to the end zone every time I run the ball," Simmons said. "During the big run at the end I just used my speed and elusiveness and found my way across the end zone."
The host Cougars struck first early in the opening quarter as Hunter Dragotta kicked a 26-yard field goal through the uprights to establish a 3-0 lead. The lead was extended later in the first quarter as Simmons connected with Jake Siedlecki for a 26-yard touchdown.
Shore responded in the second quarter when Lucas White powered into the end zone on a five-yard run. The Blue Devils took the lead through the air as Josh Moeller located C.J. Spears in the corner of the end zone to put the Blue Devils ahead in the third quarter.
Shore's last possession following Simmons' heroics was washed away with an interception by Siedlecki to seal the win and punch a ticket to the Central Jersey Group 1 final.
It's been a long 19 years since Schalick last played for a sectional crown. The Cougars defeated Paulsboro, 20-6, for their last sectional title in 2004. Prior to last week's opening round Central Jersey Group 1 playoff win over Audubon, it had also been 16 years since the Cougars last won a playoff game.
The Pittsgrove program is relieved to end the drought.
"It started with last year's seniors that helped turn this program around," Schalick coach Mike Wilson said. "The leadership and resilience they showed the seniors and juniors this year has paved the way to the success we've had this season. The captains and other senior leaders on our team have just taken the torch passed to them and ran with it."
Schalick will host Tri-County Conference rival Glassboro in the Central Jersey Group 1 final on Friday at 7 pm.
"We don't want to be a flash in a pan," Wilson said. "We want to make sectional final contention the new normal around here from here on out."