Kevin Sinclair doesn’t know why the sports rivalry between Ocean City and Mainland Regional high schools means so much.
“I don’t how it got that way,” he said this week, “but it means a lot.”
What happened on a windy night 25 years ago goes a long way toward explaining why the rivalry is one of the region’s best. That night, Ocean City and Mainland Regional played one of the biggest and most anticipated football games in South Jersey scholastic history.
To understand what happened in 1996 on the Mainland football field in Linwood, one has to go back to 1995.
Mainland Regional beat Ocean City twice that year. Both wins were considered upsets.
Mainland won 38-21 on Sept. 23, 1995 in a regular-season contest. The teams met again in the South Jersey Group III semifinals with Mainland winning 21-16. The Mustangs would go on to beat Woodrow Wilson 42-14 in the South Jersey Group III final.
That set up the 1996 matchup. Ocean City took a 7-0 record into the Nov. 8 game. The Red Raiders averaged 47 points in those seven victories.
Ocean City featured Sinclair, who still holds the Cape-Atlantic League record with 5,380 career rushing yards. Scott Lipford, who later spent time with the San Francisco 49ers, starred at wide receiver. Matt LeFever was the Ocean City quarterback. His brother Greg excelled at linebacker.
Meanwhile, Mainland entered the game 5-1. The Mustangs relied on running back John Stone, who later played with the Oakland Raiders. Marcus Perry led the defense. Brad Eissler was one of South Jersey’s top defensive backs.
Mainland and Ocean City athletes — as they do today — often saw each other off the field.
“Those bragging rights are important,” Perry said this week. “We love to compete on both sides. To have that much talent so close to each other is pretty special.”
Fans packed the stands for the showdown. Local cable television showed the game live. The referee was current Ocean City athletic director Geoff Haines.
Most expected plenty of points to be scored, but offense was tough to come by.
The Red Raiders moved into Mainland territory on five straight possessions, but the Mustangs forced a fumble and stopped Ocean City on downs the other four occasions.
Sinclair rushed for 138 yards, but Mainland defensive back Carnell Davis held Lipford to a single catch for 19 yards.
“They ran Sinclair away from me the whole game,” Perry said.
The Mainland offense didn’t fair much better than Ocean City. The Red Raiders held Stone to 40 yards on 11 carries.
Jason Feinberg gave Mainland a 3-0 lead with a 23-yard field goal in the second quarter.
The Ocean City offense had one flash of brilliance in the second quarter. The Red Raiders drove 63 yards in four plays for their only score. Sinclair started the drive with a 46-yard run. Matt LeFever finished it with a 3-yard sneak into the end zone to make it 6-3.
That’s the way it stayed until late in the game.
The Mustangs’ last chance came with one minute, 54 seconds left when they got the ball at their own 48. One play later, Ocean City defensive back Ray Rogers made a diving interception of a downfield pass to give the ball back to Ocean City.
The drama was not done, however. On fourth down in the final seconds, Ocean City had to punt. Rather than kick into the wind, Matt Lefever ran around in the end zone and then took a safety as the clock hit zero. Ocean City won 6-5.
“It was a crazy game,” Sinclair said. “In four years at Ocean City, we had never taken a safety. I don’t think we even practiced that.”
Ocean City would go on to win the South Jersey Group IV title and be remembered as one of the best teams in South Jersey history.
“That team was one of the tops in the country,” Sinclair said.
Mainland went on to win the South Jersey Group III title and continue a dominant stretch that also saw it repeat as South Jersey Group III champion in 1997. Mainland beat Ocean City 9-7 in the first round of the 1997 playoffs.
Why is it worth remembering what happened 25 years ago?
Mainland and Ocean City were and always will be natural rivals. After all, the school’s communities border each other. The two football teams meet again 6 p.m. Friday.
What happened on the football field in the 1990s escalated the rivalry for every athlete and coach who played in a Mainland-Ocean City game since then no matter what the sport or setting.
Michael McGarry’s Must Win column appears every Friday in The Press.