OCEAN TOWNSHIP - Ocean reached the state playoffs with a perfect record because the Spartans made the big plays at the most critical junctures against their toughest opponents.

Unfortunately for the third-seeded Spartans, they got a bitter taste of what it's like to be on the other side of that equation in a last-second, 27-23 loss to sixth-seeded Seneca (8-2) on a frigid Friday night at Carelli Field in the NJSIAA South Jersey Group III quarterfinals.

Ocean senior Trebor Pena rushed for 184 yards and three touchdowns in his final game. (Photo by Scott Stump)
Ocean senior Trebor Pena rushed for 184 yards and three touchdowns in his final game. (Photo by Scott Stump)

Seneca will now travel to face second-seeded Somerville next week in the semifinals.

Just when Ocean (8-1) thought it had weathered a storm of dropped passes, red zone failures, costly penalties and Seneca's big-play offense, the Golden Eagles came up with the two most clutch plays of the night to complete a stunning comeback with just 10 seconds left in the game.

An Ocean punt pinned Seneca at its own 21-yard line down 23-21 with no timeouts and just 1:19 remaining, and the Golden Eagles found a way to pull it off. Senior quarterback Malin Jasinski hit a pair of 11-yard passes to get them to the 43-yard line before he rolled out to his right and found junior wide receiver George Thorp streaking down the sideline for a 47-yard bomb to Ocean's 10-yard line with 28 seconds remaining.

Two plays later, Jasinski scrambled to his left and found Thorp again in the back of the end zone for a touchdown with 10 seconds to go. The Golden Eagles then went for the two-point conversion and didn't get it, but the damage was done.

"To allow them to score in that instance is a rough pill to swallow,'' Ocean coach Don Klein said. "We were in pretty good coverage (on the 47-yard pass), and they were able to convert, so that was disappointing, obviously."

"We knew we had to throw the ball, and push it down the field at the end,'' Thorp said. "On that last play (for the touchdown), it was kind of a fluky route. It was a break, but then Malin threw it over, so I had to turn around and go catch it."

The heart-breaking loss overshadowed one last brilliant performance by Ocean senior Trebor Pena.

The Temple recruit entered the game as the Shore Conference's leading rusher and did not disappoint on the big stage, finishing with 184 yards rushing and three touchdowns on 28 carries. He also had a pair of interceptions on defense and a 74-yard kickoff return that set up one of his own touchdowns.

"I've been telling everyone all along that he's the most electrifying player in the Shore Conference, and he did nothing to discount that tonight,'' Klein said. "He takes over games in so many different facets. Losing him is going to be tough."

Ocean had taken a 23-21 lead on a 19-yard field goal by freshman kicker Tyler Douglas with 7:07 left in the game, which came after Seneca sophomore defensive end Adam Klenk hit Pena for a loss on third-and-goal from the 1-yard line.

That red zone frustration was emblematic of a game in which Ocean was stopped on downs twice inside the Seneca 25-yard line and had a touchdown called back for holding. The Spartans also dropped two potential touchdown passes.

In addition, Ocean had a chance to ice the game with one last first down after Seneca burned all of its timeouts, but came up short on 3rd-and-6 with under two minutes remaining.

"That's the story of the game,'' Klein said. "We were very consistent with capitalizing on the opportunity to make big plays during the regular season, and we didn't make some of those plays tonight."

The teams were deadlocked at 14 at halftime thanks to explosive plays by both sides. Seneca scored on a 65-yard run by junior Najheem Johnson and a 40-yard run by senior Travis Laster, but it was Pena who had the final say of the half to give the home team a lift going into the locker room.

His 74-yard kickoff return set up his own 1-yard touchdown run with just 46 seconds left in the half to tie the game.

Seneca recovered an onside kick to start the second half, but Ocean's defense was able to hold. However, the Golden Eagles took a 21-14 lead on their next possession when Jasinski ran for a 2-yard touchdown that was set up by his 44-yard bomb to senior wideout Johnny Kennevan.

Ocean had an immediate answer with a 10-play, 68-yard drive powered by senior running back Nasir Thompson, who finished with 101 yards on 20 carries in the loss.

Pena also rattled off a 27-yard run on the drive, which he capped with his third touchdown of the night from a yard out. The extra point was wide left, which kept Seneca in front, 21-20, going into the fourth quarter.

That set up the heart-breaking finish for the home team, extinguishing a comeback year in which the Spartans had their first winning season since 2015 and brought home their  first division title in six years.

"We're really proud of what this team was able to accomplish,'' Klein said. "These seniors have paid a significant price. They've bought into everything, and they stayed the course through some rough seasons."

"I'll never forget this season,'' Pena said. "This has been the greatest time with my teammates and one of the best experiences of my life."

Box score

Seneca 27, Ocean 23

.                                     S                     O

First downs                 13                   15

Rushes-yards            21-181           51-281

Passing                     14-27-2          3-12-1

Passing yards              180                 20

Fumbles-lost                 0-0               0-0

Penalties                      5-30               4-40

Seneca (8-2)   7    7   7  6 - 27

Ocean (8-1)    0   14  6  3 - 23

Scoring summary:

S: Johnson 65-yard run (Kennevan kick).

O: Pena 3-yard run (Douglas kick).

S: Laster 40-yard run (Kennevan kick).

O: Pena 1-yard run (Douglas kick).

S: Jasinski 2-yard run (Kennevan kick)

O: Pena 1-yard run (kick failed).

O: Douglas 19-yard field goal.

S: Thorp 10-yard pass from Jasinski (pass failed).

Individual statistics

Rushing - O: Pena 28-184, Nungesser 3-(-4), Thompson 20-101. S: Jasinski 10-30, Laster 8-81, Johnson 2-67, Brown 1-3.

Passing - O: Nungesser 3-12-1 20. S: Jasinski 14-27-2 180.

Receiving - O: Pena 1-5, Gavakis 2-15. S: Johnson 6-34, Laster 2-8, Thorp 3-68, Kennevan 2-58, Carlin 1-12.

Interceptions - O: Pena 2-36. S: Thorp 1-2.



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