TOMS RIVER - Philadelphia Eagles All-Pro defensive tackle Fletcher Cox had some inspirational words for the Kingsway Regional High School football team.
Cox, along with teammate Javon Hargrave, recorded a virtual message for the program ahead of its Friday night playoff game in Toms River.
Their message was simple: Fight hard. Play hard. Line up and go win.
The Dragons took the message to heart and delivered.
Fourth-seeded Kingsway traveled 70 miles and defeated second-seeded Toms River North 21-14 in the South Jersey Group 5 final on Friday night. The Dragons captured their first sectional title since 2001.
The advice from the pair of professional interior rushers sparked an apparent fire and led to the Dragons’ desired outcome on Friday evening.
“Our guys look up to those two guys,” Kingsway coach Mark Hendricks said. “That just makes our guys feel great, (knowing) that they took two minutes out of their day to send us a message. That gets us excited. That’s what high school football is all about. It’s just that influence and how far that goes. It’s just good to see those two take a minute of their time to do something special for the kids.”
Kingsway was in full-control until Toms River North exhibited its big-play ability and conducted a four-play, 92-yard two-minute drill to tie the contest at 14 with 57 seconds left in the game.
The Dragons didn’t flinch and immediately responded with Nate Maiers’ game-winning, 36-yard touchdown to Luke Van Brill with seven seconds remaining in regulation to cease the Mariners’ rally and bring home the trophy.
“Best feeling ever,” Van Brill said. “When I was in the seam, I saw (Maiers) looking at me to throw it. I thought nothing but, ‘I’m just going to the end zone. I’m gonna win this thing for the team.’ That’s what we did. No one thought we’d be here. Best feeling ever.”
“We’ve been down, we’ve been up and people have come back on us, but we just keep pushing,” Van Brill added. “We didn’t give up.”
It wasn’t the first time Maiers and Van Brill collaborated to produce points. The duo was the last to strike, and also the first.
Facing a fourth-and-5 on their own 49-yard line on their first drive of the game, the Dragons lined up in punt formation. Maiers fired a strike to a wide-open Brill up the left sideline that resulted in a 51-yard touchdown with 6:53 left in the first quarter.
“We’ve been practicing that all week,” Van Brill said. “Everyone’s like, ‘we may not run that,’ but (Coach Hendricks) called it and I got the touchdown. Great feeling.”
“We couldn’t start better,” Maiers said. “We repped it in practice last week and we knew it was gonna be wide open.”
It’s important to note that the operation wasn’t smooth for the entire duration of the battle.
Maiers threw a pair of interceptions in the first half — one in the end zone — that resulted in a momentum shift that favored Toms River North in the second stanza.
The Mariners took the first turnover and turned it into a 12-play, 86-yard drive that resulted in an 8-yard touchdown run by quarterback Micah Ford with 7:06 left in the second quarter. The extra point attempt failed and the Dragons clinged to a one-point lead.
Following a key pass breakup by Darrell Brown on fourth-and-goal with just under three minutes left in the first half, Kingsway retained possession and took a 7-6 into halftime.
“Defensively, my hat’s off to our kids,” Hendricks said. “We throw the interception in the end zone, we throw the interception over here — (the defense responded) and made plays on first down. They played disciplined football.”
Following the break, the Dragons orchestrated a 15-play, 69-yard opening drive that chewed eight minutes and seven seconds off the clock. Brown capped the drive with a 3-yard touchdown run to give Kingsway a 14-6 advantage with 3:53 left in the third quarter.
“We ate up a majority of the third quarter doing that,” Hendricks said. “Ground and pound. Kyle Kupsey caught a nice, little hook over the middle. We wanted to take every square inch of time. Again, I’m super excited for our kids. This is great for them understanding what it takes to win.”
Brown finished the contest with 51 rushing yards, a rushing touchdown, a key pass deflection and 14 receiving yards.
“The one thing about Darrell, he just keeps coming at you,” Hendricks said. “His resiliency and his ability to just keep going hard and keep practicing hard is gonna be what serves him well. He’s a really hard worker. Darrell learned how to be a leader amongst this group. He’s a player to watch. He’s only going to be better next year. We’re talking to all college coaches about him.”
The Dragons improved their record to 7-4 and will advance to face Hillsborough in the second annual NJSIAA South/Central Group 5 regional championship.
“We made a couple of changes and got hot at the right time,” Maiers said. “The first loss (of the season), we lost 38-nothing to Shawnee. It’s what you gotta do in football.”
More importantly, Maiers was happy to win a sectional title for his brothers. His older siblings, 2021 Kingsway graduates Ben and Steve, were stripped of their opportunity to chase a championship due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Dragons’ program was periodically shut down and only played five games (3-2 record) in 2020.
Maiers only completed 40 percent of his passes on Friday night (8-for-20), but threw for 215 yards, a pair of touchdowns, and rushed for 60 yards.
And he helped lead Kingsway to their first sectional title in two decades.
“We had a good team last year,” Maiers said. “We got shut down, so it’s kind of like we’re winning it for them guys. It’s awesome.”