LITTLE EGG HARBOR – No school. No locker room. No weight room. No home field. Not exactly a dream scenario for a high school football team and especially disheartening for a group of seniors looking to end their careers with fond memories.

With Pinelands Regional High School undergoing a substantial renovation project, the students were in and out of the school throughout the 2017-2018 school year and this year haven’t been able to set foot in the building. Instead, they’ve been across the street at the middle school, taking classes both inside and in temporary trailers in front of the school. The football players have a locker room and weight-lifting area that is basic at best. The football field is also undergoing renovations, which forced Pinelands to initially schedule road games for all its games this year.

None of that mattered, however, when the Wildcats took the field on Thursday afternoon for their second and final “home” game of the season. The athletic department was able to scratch together one last home game and a senior night at the Little Egg Harbor Sports Complex, and the Wildcats delivered with a memorable performance.

Senior running back Evan Burton ran for 168 yards and two touchdowns to go over the 1,000-yard mark on the season and sophomore running back Nik DiLeo added 149 yards rushing and two touchdowns to lead Pinelands to a 38-20 Shore Conference nondivisional victory over Keansburg that kept its playoff hopes alive. The senior-laden offensive line paved the way for 337 yards rushing while senior quarterback Garrett Brown threw a touchdown pass to Andrew Jenkins and senior Sam Cardillo kicked a 37-yard field goal.

Burton also became the first player in program history to have three 1,000-yard rushing seasons, and his effort helped the Wildcats close their regular season with a 4-4 record.

“The last three years we’ve faced a lot of adversity so I guess you could say we’ve gotten used to it,” Burton said. “We definitely have had to stay focused. Sometimes it’s a pain in the butt but we’ve just had to push through and work hard every single day. Today is going to stick with us for the rest of our lives. It was a great moment to have.”

“I’ve never seen a group of kids battle through what they’ve had to deal with,” said Pinelands head coach Matt Fuller. “With the split schedules last year and now having to go on the road for six out of the eight games, and to come out here trying to give us a chance to make the playoffs for the first time since 2004, they stepped up and did what they had to do. They didn’t let anything else get in their way. They handled the whole situation with pride and class. We’re so thankful and proud of them.”

The Wildcats defense forced four turnovers in the first half and also recovered an onside kick, enabling them to jump out to a 31-0 halftime lead that included a gaudy 253-7 advantage in total offense.

An interception by Jack Lawrie on the first play of the game led to Brown’s 13-yard touchdown pass to Jenkins for a quick 7-0 lead. Keansburg’s next play resulted in a fumble that was recovered by Burton at the Pinelands 46-yard line. He then ripped off a 34-yard run to set up Cardillo’s 37-yard field goal to make it 10-0. Pinelands then attempted and recovered an onside kick, and after a 26-yard run by DiLeo coupled with a personal foul penalty on Keansburg, Burton burst up the middle for a 12-yard touchdown run and a 17-0 lead with 3:26 left in the first quarter.

While having more scoring drives (three) than Keansburg had run offensive plays (two) through nearly nine minutes was a new experience, Pinelands had been in this situation before. Last season the Wildcats held a 13-0 lead on the Titans but ended up losing 14-13. Two years ago they held a big lead on Barnegat before losing 29-28.

“Obviously it helps to get up 17-0 in the first quarter of the game, but we had to keep our foot on the pedal the entire game,” Burton said. “We’ve been here before. Two years ago in the exact situation against Barnegat, we took our foot off the pedal and they came back in the second half. That was a heartbreaker in the last game of the year. We made sure that didn’t happen again.”

“I’m proud of them,” Fuller said. “Last year we were up 13-0 and it ending up being 14-13. That stuck in their minds.”

Keansburg finally put together a series of plays on its next possession, but Pinelands forced a three-and-out that ended with a sack by linebacker Shayne Michot. The Wildcats then marched 68 yards in 15 plays to extend their lead to 24-0. A 20-yard run by Burton moved the ball into Keansburg territory and Brown converted a third-and-18 with consecutive quarterbacks runs of 13 and nine yards. A penalty wiped out a Keansburg interception in the end zone and on the next play DiLeo plowed in for a 3-yard touchdown run.

Another turnover set up Pinelands’ fifth scoring drive of the first half. Burton stripped Keansburg quarterback Liam Riecks on a run and then recovered the fumble just inside midfield. On the next play, DiLeo broke free for a 49-yard touchdown run.

The lead nearly grew even larger when Burton sacked Riecks and knocked the ball free where Nick Carmona recovered it at the Keansburg 18-yard line. An interception in the end zone by Patrick Edwards, however, kept it 31-0 at the half.

Keansburg scored three times in the second half on a 57-yard touchdown run by Riecks, a 4-yard touchdown run by Isaiah Stanton and a 64-yard touchdown pass from Riecks to Edwards on the final play, but Pinelands added a 6-yard touchdown run by Burton to prevent any kind of comeback.

“It was awesome,” Brown said. “We know it’s not our last game but it’s our last game ever playing (at home). It’s not where we’d want to be playing but we have to do what we have to do.”

The win gave Pinelands an outside shot at qualifying for the NJSIAA South Jersey Group 3 playoffs. Under the new and controversial system of qualifying for the playoffs, the top 16 teams in each section (North Group 1/South Group 1, North Group 2/South Group 2, etc.) are in the playoffs based on their United Power Ranking, which is determined by power points and the Born Power Index. The teams are then separated into North 1, North 2, Central and South brackets based on geography. Pinelands entered Thursday’s game 22nd in the South Group 3 rankings. They will not know their fate until Sunday afternoon.

“We gave ourselves a shot,” Fuller said. “No one understands the new system so we don’t know how it’s going to shake out with the teams that are .500 or better but have a lower index than teams that don’t have a winning record. That’s going to be up to the NJSIAA and the committee on Sunday when everyone else is done. We gave ourselves a shot and that’s all we can ask for.”

Even if the Wildcats don’t make the playoffs they’ll still have something to play for in a consolation game. Pinelands is currently 4-4 and hasn’t finished with a winning record since 2004.

“That’s big,” Brown said. “To be in the playoffs would be huge and in a consolation game we have a chance to finish with a winning record.”

Burton fought back tears after the game and the senior night ceremonies with his family. He was a beast on the field with 168 yards rushing and two touchdowns on 27 carries plus a sack, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries on defense. With all he and his teammates have had to endure, the 48 minutes of actual game time has been their sanctuary each week this season. His outpouring of emotions was as much about the moment as it was the realization his high school football career is almost complete.

“All I cared about was getting the win; if I had zero carries and zero yards and we won I’d still be just as happy and as emotional,” Burton said. “It’s an honor to play in front of my friends and family and for my coaches and teammates. To be out here is anything I could have ever asked for.”


Box Score

Pinelands 38, Keansburg 20 

First downs618
Passing yards7340


Keansburg (3-5)0061420
Pinelands (4-4)17140738


Scoring summary

P – Andrew Jenkins 13-yard pass from Garrett Brown (Sam Cardillo kick)

P – Sam Cardillo 37-yard field goal

P – Evan Burton 12-yard run (Sam Cardillo kick)

P – Nik DiLeo 3-yard run (Sam Cardillo kick)

P – Nik DiLeo 49-yard run (Sam Cardillo kick)

K – Liam Riecks 57-yard run (kick failed)

K – Isaiah Stanton 4-yard run (run failed)

P – Evan Burton 6-yard run (Sam Cardillo kick)

K – Patrick Edwards 64-yards pass from Liam Riecks (Patrick Edward run)


Individual statistics

RUSHING – K: Liam Riecks 9-94, Nasir Williams 2-7, Isaiah Stanton 2-4, Patrick Edwards 1-1; P: Evan Burton 27-168, Nik DiLeo 19-149, Garrett Brown 5-20.

PASSING – K: Liam Riecks 3-8-1 73; P: Garrett Brown 4-8-1 40

RECEIVING – K: Patrick Edwards 1-64, Ryan Manges 1-5, Hunter MacDonald 1-4; P: Evan Burton 1-14, Andrew Jenkins 1-13, Jack Lawrie 1-8, Kevin Cameron 1-5.

INTERCEPTIONS – K: Patrick Edwards 1-0; P: Jack Lawrie 1-0.


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