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James Melody of Cedar Creek and Dennis Thomas of Millville find new homes: Must win
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James Melody of Cedar Creek and Dennis Thomas of Millville find new homes: Must win

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Cedar Creek High School football coach James Melody and Millville coach Dennis Thomas didn’t just make career-changing decisions a few years ago.

They made life-changing decisions.

Their choices couldn’t have worked out any better. Both teams will play in South/Central regional championships at Rutgers University’s SHI Stadium this weekend. Cedar Creek (12-0) meets Woodrow Wilson (10-2) in the Group III game 7 p.m. Saturday. Millville (11-1) plays Winslow Township (9-3) for the Group IV title 4 p.m. Sunday.

But hindsight is 20/20 and the decisions Melody and Thomas made to come to their respective schools didn’t seem so clear cut when they were first made.

Melody was an assistant at his alma mater Union High School, one of the state’s top programs. When the Cedar Creek job opened up after the 2019 season, Melody had to decide whether he wanted to drive two hours for a job interview. If he got the job, would he be comfortable moving from North to South Jersey?

“I grew up in Union and that was I all knew,” Melody said. “But I was ready for a challenge.”

Melody also would be replacing Tim Watson, a charismatic coach who built Cedar Creek into one of South Jersey’s top programs in less than a decade.

The old saying is you never want to be the coach who replaces “the man.” You want to be the coach who replaces the coach who replaced “the man.” Lots of people have struggled with the scenario Melody stepped into.

“Tim did a great job, and it was big shoes to fill,” Melody said. “Trust me, I heard a lot about it.”

Thomas’ situation was similar to Melody’s. Thomas coached at Salem, where he starred at running back. He led Salem to a 8-4 record and the South Jersey Group I final in 2014. But when the Millville job opened up in 2015 Thomas decided to pursue it. He admits that before he decided to apply to be the Thunderbolts coach he had probably never even been to Millville.

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“It was one of the hardest decisions that I ever had to make in my life,” Thomas said. “Knowing the relationship that I have with the kids in Salem. There’s a still a connection between me and all the kids in Salem. One of the reasons I did it is I feel that God led me to Millville. I prayed and felt as though that’s where God wanted me to be.”

What Cedar Creek and Millville have in common — and what probably eased both Melody and Thomas’ transition — is that sports is important at both schools. That’s not the case at every school, but it should be. Sports are a window into a school. The general public can’t watch a chemistry class Wednesday afternoon, but they can see the work ethic, demeanor and effort of the football team every Friday night or Saturday afternoon.

At Cedar Creek the importance of sports flows from the school’s administration. Principal Scott Parker was a standout football and baseball player at Egg Harbor Township in the 1990s.

“When I got to know the people at Cedar Creek, it was an easy decision,” Melody said. “This community has welcomed me with open arms. I’ve built relationships with these kids that are going to last a lifetime. It’s been the best life choice that I’ve ever made.”

Few high schools in the state relish their sports tradition more than Millville. The Thunderbolt Club has been around since 1955 and celebrates the achievements of Millville athletes.

“It’s a great community,” Thomas said. “I love working with the leaders in the community. I’m a part of that. Me and my family have a lot to offer Millville, but Millville has a lot to offer us as well.”

Millville for a long time was one of the few schools to sell season tickets to games. It’s a sign of what football means to the city.

“I don’t take that lightly,” Thomas said. “I understand the importance of football in the city, and I cherish that. But my main goal is to help build these kids academically, spiritually and on the football field. My goal isn’t so much to win games but win kids off the streets.”

No matter what happens this weekend, both Cedar Creek and Millville are South Jersey champions. Cedar Creek has won 14 straight. Millville is 51-24 and also won the 2016 South Jersey Group V title under Thomas.

Life presents choices, and Melody and Thomas’ success shows that sometimes in order to find a new home the best thing one can do is leave their old one.

Contact: 609-272-7185

MMcGarry@PressofAC.comTwitter @ACPressMcGarry

Contact: 609-272-7185
Twitter @ACPressMcGarry

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