Mainland’s 2020 season ended the first week of November because the Mustangs’ final two games were canceled due to the Covid-19 protocol. That meant the Mustangs had to go through an entire offseason with a sour, rotten taste in their mouths from a 63-0 whipping at the hands of arch-rival Ocean City. The Red Raiders jumped out to a 14-0 first-quarter lead, then poured on 28 more points in the second quarter to force the always embarrassing running clock in the second half.

Jake Schneider finished with 153 receiving yards and a touchdown while quarterback Joe Repetti racked up 70 rushing yards and four touchdowns, including two through the air. Heck, even place kicker Brendan McGonigle finished with nine points — going a perfect 9-for-9 on extra points.

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“That was a horrible feeling and we were pretty pissed off about what happened. It’s something we feel horrible about and that ended our season, so it left a bad taste in our mouths. That’s not who we are and that’s not who we want to be. We knew we had to work hard, and we’ve had a pretty good preseason and camp. I think we’ve done a good job with working hard, now it’s about executing and doing whatever we’re asked to do,” said Mainland senior H-back Mike Ordille. “You have to use a loss like that as motivation. You don’t want that to happen again. You have to understand that’s not where you want to be, so you have to put in the work. If one guy doesn’t do their job this thing doesn’t work. That’s how football is and that’s what makes it such a great game. It’s all about contributing and understanding the role you have. That’s what makes this thing work. We have the talent. Last year, we’ve put that behind us and now we’re looking ahead.”

Mainland certainly has been motivated this offseason. They want to shake off last year’s 2-4 record and get back to the championship form the Mustangs displayed the two years prior to 2020. Whether or not the Stangs can make it back to the state playoffs will ride on the health of their potentially dynamic backfield of quarterback Marlon Leslie — a transfer from Pleasantville — and junior running back Ja’Briel Mace, who has already established himself as one of the best ball carriers in South Jersey.

“I feel good. I feel really confident about the team and feel like we can do some great things this year, especially with our offensive line. We haven’t had an offensive line this big in about three years,” Mace said. “I’m being more patient. I’m trying to take more time to read the holes because I feel like last year I just tried to hit the hole. I have to be more patient, and in the offseason, I really worked on that. I also feel like the last two years I haven’t done a great job with blocking, but I feel like this year I’m doing a much better job with that.

“Me, personally, I feel like I can separate myself from other running backs because of my work ethic. I get motivation from teammates. Seeing them working hard just makes me want to work even harder.”

“I think the most important thing about him is he’s a great kid, a tremendous worker and he’s a great teammate to be around,” Ordille said of Mace. “He’s so talented, and having a guy like that — when you have him and M.J., two guys who can really open up your offense — Ja’Briel is just fantastic with the football in his hands and can do so many things. We’re really going to lean on him this year.”

Mainland has just seven seniors, so plenty of young guys will get their chance to crack the lineup, and coach Chuck Smith is hoping a defense that allowed 28 points to Absegami, 49 to St. Augustine Prep, and 63 to Ocean City last year can play much better and give the offense a chance to point up some points of its own. That shouldn’t be a problem with a guy like Leslie running the show. He comes in as a junior with two years of varsity experience already and is bigger and stronger than he was last year. He’s becoming a true dual-threat quarterback and could be a huge game-changer for the Mustangs this year.

“Marlon, that’s my guy. I’ve known him since we were about 12 years old and we’ve always wanted to play on the same team together,” Mace said. “I’m just really looking forward to this year. I can’t wait. He brings a lot to the table. He can throw and run, just like Lamar Jackson. All I know is that defensive ends are going to have a helluva night trying to read me and M.J. It’s going to be a struggle for them.”

“We just have so many weapons, on both sides of the ball. We have M.J. at quarterback and that brings a whole new dynamic to the offense,” Ordille added. “We have so much talent, now it’s about executing and putting everything together. The thing about it is, he can do so many things. He can take off and run, we can do designed runs for him, and he’s a great thrower, too. When you bring a guy like that in it just opens the whole offense up because he can do so many things. He’s a great asset to have.”

The Mustangs say they are proud of their work ethic and the effort they’ve put in this offseason, and they’ll have to lean on that as they try to navigate what could be a very difficult schedule. They open up at Egg Harbor Township on Friday at 7 p.m., then have a brutal stretch where they take on Millville and Hammonton on the road, come back home for Ocean City, then hit the road again for Burlington Township. The back end of the schedule is not for those with weak stomachs, either — at Deptford to start October, then back home for Vineland, Clearview, and Delsea, all perennial state playoff qualifiers.

“Our effort and how we prepare ourselves each week is going to determine what kind of team we are this year,” Mace said. “Obviously that (loss to Ocean City) made everyone mad and we have a chip on our shoulder from that game. I know when we play them (this year) it’s going to be an exciting game. After that game, we weren’t able to finish the season (because of Covid) but then we were all back in the lab, just working.”

“This is a big year for me. It’s been nice to progress, and to see improvement is important. I have to take a leadership role now as a senior and I have to make the most of the opportunity I’m given in this last year,” Ordille said. “I’m more familiar with the routines, how practice goes — I’ve seen everything and you become more familiar with everything. Now it’s just about executing and doing what you’re asked to do.”

Ordille said he likely won’t pursue a college football career, so he only has about a dozen or less Friday nights to enjoy, and he’s trying to soak it all in. Even the hot two-a-days of August.

“You can’t take this for granted. You live in the moment and try to make the most of it. You have to understand (as a senior) that you have one more crack at it and you have to do what you can. It’s all about doing what’s asked of you and that’s what I’m going to do this year. We have a small senior class but it’s a good group and we have guys who can lead. It’s about leading by example,” he said. “We’ll have fans back this year, the atmosphere will be great. We’re just soaking it in and just enjoying this ride. You only get four years and you just have to make the most of it.”

Mainland 2021 Schedule (Home games in BOLD)

August 27 at EHT, 7

Sept. 2 at Millville, 6

Sept. 10 at Hammonton, 6

Sept. 17 vs. Ocean City, 6

Sept. 24 at Burlington Township, 7

October 1 at Deptford, 6

October 8 vs. Vineland, 7

October 15 vs. Clearview, 6:30

October 22 vs. Delsea, 6

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