PEMBERTON TOWNSHIP (N.J.) - Pemberton Township High School football coach Kareem Johnson is in his fifth season at the helm and knows the challenges of directing a rebuilding program.
The Hornets entered the 2022 campaign having lost 15 out of their last 17 games. The dreadful trend continued with a 21-0 season-opening defeat to backyard rival Northern Burlington on September 2.
Johnson, a 2003 Pemberton graduate and classroom assistant at the school, understands the mind of a Pemberton kid and the tendency to succumb to defeat when the light at the end of the tunnel isn't visible.
That's why Johnson grew emotional and shed tears following the Hornets' 32-22 victory over Burlington City in a West Jersey Football League Freedom Division matchup on Saturday afternoon.
"A lot of these kids, they deal with certain things. They're in a new world," Johnson said while beginning to choke up. "It's trust and from a coach (perspective) to the players there has to be a high level of trust."
"Sometimes it's hard to manage that when you are struggling," he added. "Sometimes you're struggling just because of the X's and O's, sometimes you're struggling because the kids (are dealing with) things that are mentally taking them away from the game. When those distractions move to the side and the kids are able to just focus on football and trust that the coaches are putting them it the right positions for them to become successful, that's when moments like this happen."
The Hornets established a 6-0 advantage on an 8-yard touchdown pass from Gabriel Rivera to Nyair Williams with 8:30 left in the second quarter. On the third play of Burlington City's next drive, Elijah Zapata-Smalls intercepted a pass and raced to the end zone to extend Pemberton's lead to 12-0 with 7:50 remaining in the second quarter.
"I just got in my drop," Zapata-Smalls said. "I kind of read it. I felt like (number) 11 was going to do a little hitch and when I got in front of him I turned around and the ball was right there. Did I think I was going to take it to the house? No. But I did."
Burlington City rallied with 14 unanswered points to take a 14-12 lead with 1:59 left in the opening half. Aaron Young caught touchdown passes of 13 and 47 yards, respectively, on back-to-back drives to give the Blue Devils their first lead of the contest.
Pemberton responded with an eight-play, 66-yard drive than spanned 1:47 to regain an 18-14 lead with eight ticks left in the second quarter. Rivera completed four passes on four attempts for 52 yards to set up a three-yard rushing touchdown by Zapata-Smalls.
Rivera, a converted wide receiver tasked with directing the Hornets' offense, finished the contest with three total touchdowns (two passing, one rushing) and 157 yards from scrimmage. The senior rushed for 33 yards and added 124 yards through the air on 11-for-14 passing with an interception.
Rivera went a perfect 8-for-8 on his final eight pass attempts for 110 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
"We just kind of put it in his hands and told him to just go out there and make plays," Johnson said. "Even though he's not a traditional quarterback, that's just what happens when you're a superstar athlete. We just called stuff and he made it happen for us."
"We do have some special guys that I do think get overlooked," Johnson added. "And Gabe is definitely one of them. Elijah's definitely one of them. We have a lot of guys that are here that are overlooked. When you really break down the film and you really watch these guys work, I'm pretty sure that they're definitely gonna make some college programs real proud of them at the next level."
Zapata-Smalls completed the afternoon with an astounding 28 rushes for 142 yards and a touchdown.
"It was more about reading the blocks," Zapata-Smalls said. "I had to follow (the blocks) because as a leader I got to be the one to make the plays. I got to be the one to do the things to help my team win."
The Hornets jumped out to a 26-14 lead on a six-yard touchdown strike from Rivera to Shaun Lake with 3:34 left in the third quarter.
The Blue Devils showed resilience by converting on fourth-and-15 from Pemberton's 32-yard line with a touchdown pass from quarterback Ayden Shansey to Young to cut the deficit to 26-22 with 11:46 left in regulation. Young, a 2022 South Jersey Sports Zone Preseason All-South Jersey Third Team selection, finished the contest with nine receptions for an eye-popping 219 yards and three touchdowns.
"I thought Aaron Young played a great game today," Burlington City coach and former Ball State offensive lineman Kadin Booker said. "Ayden Shansey (as well). Their chemistry going back to last year has been great. I'm really proud of both of them with how they've started this season off."
Rivera's 10-yard rushing score with 7:57 left to play heightened the lead to 32-22 and helped secure the victory.
Burlington City dropped its record to 0-3 and will move forward to host Cinnaminson on September 16.
"We're just young up front right now and we got to figure that out," Booker said. "I still believe in those kids up front and we're gonna get it figured out. It hasn't gone how we've wanted it with the 0-3 start, but they've played hard every minute. The majority of our team are freshmen. Them taking these lumps right now, I think it's going to benefit them in the future."
Pemberton will host back-to-back WJFL matchups against Bordentown and Triton after equalizing its record at 1-1.
Johnson credited Saturday's success and his squad's response to adversity to the principle of trust.
"When adversity hits, they're able to trust the coaches that they're going to put them in positions to come out of it," Johnson said. "And that's what we did."
"That's the culture that is starting to set in here. It's not just football. It's all sports. It's starting to happen in the community. These kids are starting to believe that they can be successful. That's my No. 1 thing that I've been trying to fight for; to show these kids that life is bigger than Pemberton. That they can do anything that they set their minds to and don't give up on themselves. Don't give up on the people that care about them and love them and trust and believe when someone is trying to point them in the right direction."