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Mainland wins state football title, and 9 more South Jersey stories you may have missed

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PISCATAWAY — With all the green surrounding a charter bus, you would have thought an Eagles tailgate had taken a wrong turn.

No, these fans weren’t supposed to be in Philadelphia on Sunday afternoon. Instead, the green they wore was in support of Mainland Regional High School as it played for its first state football championship Sunday afternoon against Ramapo. The Mustangs dominated, winning 56-0 to complete its first undefeated season in 15 years.

Ramapo, located in the New York City suburbs of Bergen County, made the 50-minute trek south to SHI Stadium, whereas the buses departing Mainland on Sunday morning made a 100-minute drive north.

“This team is so fun to watch,” said Dave Notaro, 53, who was there to support the football team and his daughter Avery, a Mustangs cheerleader. “They’re amazing. Great coaching staff, everything.”

Mainland athletic director Mike Gatley said 11 buses departed from the school carrying the team, cheerleaders, the band and parents. At least one more charter bus and several jitney buses were organized by families, alumni and “friends of the school,” as he put it.

“I know anyone who won’t be there will be watching it on TV,” said Gatley on Saturday, as there were live streams online for those not attending. “I’m sure Charlie’s (Bar and Restaurant in Somers Point) will be packed. It’s a big deal. This is a historic opportunity for any school down here and certainly for us. People are really excited, kids are excited.“

Gatley, who is in his final year as the school’s athletic director, said the students at Mainland had been in a frenzy last week during their two-and-a-half days of school, the week shortened due to Thanksgiving.

They aren’t called the “Corral Crazies” for nothing.

This is only the second year since the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association has introduced state championships for public schools. Mainland played in a state semifinal last year, losing a close game to eventual champion Millville.

So when the Mustangs beat Millville for the South Jersey Group IV championship two weeks ago in convincing fashion, excitement at the school reached an all-time high.

Last week, Mainland fans traveled well to watch their team win the state semifinal over Washington Township.

On Sunday, fans for Ramapo and Mainland were seated on opposite ends of the stadium. Mainland’s crowd was noticeably larger and louder throughout the game, even when rain began to fall in the second half. It was pretty easy to stay loud after Mainland built a 14-0 lead in the first quarter and then went into halftime with a 42-0 advantage.

Eric Young, 51, a 1991 graduate, was enjoying watching this Mainland team look dominant in the second quarter. The former Mustangs football player, who played on some sectional championship teams, made the 2-hour, 20-minute drive from Delaware with his mother, Georgia, to watch the game.

“They’re pretty good,” Young said. “They can throw the ball, and they’re running it well.”

This year’s Mustangs, who went 14-0, already stand out among the greatest teams in school history.

Mainland has had some tremendous teams throughout the years. There were the George Landis teams of the 1960s and the “Strang Gang,” nicknamed for quarterback Doug Strang, in the early 1980s.

The 1995 team featured two future professionals in John Stone and Dave Klemic. The 2008 team, the last to go undefeated before this season, featured Brent Caprio, one of the greatest quarterbacks in Cape-Atlantic League history.

Notaro, who graduated in 1989, remembers how good the football team was when he was there.

“But they were nothing like this (year’s team),” said Notaro, who went to every game this season. “They were always a good team. They had Northfield, Linwood, Somers Point all come together. All those towns have good programs. They’re filtering right into the school, you know?”

Notaro was a part of the commercial bus parked just outside the stadium that was filled with parents and alumni. They had a spread of food, refreshments, traditional tailgate games, including cornhole, and music.

Among the group on that bus were members of Mainland head coach Chuck Smith’s family, including wife Anne and oldest daughter Brianna.

Brianna, a 2009 Mainland graduate, has been along for the ride with her father all of her life. She was classmates with the seniors on the 2008 team. The family still sees Caprio around from time to time.

“Mainland has such a close-knit family, like we genuinely take pride in graduating from Mainland, so I think it’s exciting for everyone,” said Brianna, 32, of Somers Point.

Danielle Douris, 33, another 2009 graduate, was one of many Mainland fans also sporting Eagles gear. Philadelphia had a late Sunday afternoon game against Buffalo.

Douris, who was childhood friends with Brianna Smith, joked that she could catch the Eagles any Sunday.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime sort of thing going on, and I’m very excited to be here,” said Douris, 32, of Somers Point.

Anne Smith, a North Jersey transplant, joked that she is 24 years committed to this program, the amount of time her husband has spent as an assistant and head coach over two stints.

She was proud watching her husband navigate a season filled with lopsided wins. She said he remained even-keel, no matter the game that week, but this past week, Chuck seemed to be in an extra good mood. He was confident going into Sunday’s game, calling his team a “true family” and “ready to win,” she said.

“It’s been amazing. I’m very emotional about it. My entire family is here. I don’t even have words for this,” Anne said. “To be on the second year of having a true state championship (for public schools), you never know when you’re gonna get here again, so we’re making this happen.”

Gatley, who graduated from Mainland in 1980 and remembers the “Strang Gang,” noted how many alumni have children currently playing sports at Mainland. His three children — Jillian, Michael and Megan — all graduated from Mainland.

That’s why he wasn’t surprised to see the towns of Northfield, Linwood and Somers Point, along with neighboring cities, support the school the way they have. It’s also a testament to the following that made its way to Piscataway on a frigid, rainy Sunday afternoon.

“People would work their Friday nights around our games. … That’s just really special, and I can’t say it any other way. It’s what makes Mainland, Mainland,” Gatley said.

“All of that matters, no matter what sports. When you have that support in the community and the Corral Crazies travel with us, it’s what high school sports are all about. It’s the way it should be.”

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