By Michael McGarry

HAMMONTON – With its neighborhood rival ahead by a touchdown and the fourth quarter about to start, the St. Joseph High School football team turned to its seniors for inspiration Saturday afternoon.

The Wildcats rallied with two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to beat Hammonton 28-21 in the 52nd meeting between these schools. Hammonton leads the rivalry 27-24-1.

The running of Salaam and twin brother – running back A’Laam – set up the tying and winning touchdowns. C.J. LaFragola tied the game with a 2-yard touchdown run with 11 minutes, 46 seconds left in the game. Rocco Ordille scored the winning run on a 14-yard run with 3:14 to play.

Fans filled the home and visiting bleachers to watch one of the Cape-Atlantic League’s most intense rivalries. These teams are both perennial powers. St. Joe (10-1) is No. 2 in The Press Elite 11 and will play St. Mary of Rutherford for the state Non-Public I title on Saturday at the College of New Jersey. Hammonton (6-4) lost in the first round of the South Jersey Group IV playoffs to Shawnee.

But the future of the Hammonton vs. St. Joe rivalry is in doubt because Hammonton is leaving the CAL for the Jersey Football League after this season. The WJFL schedule is expected to be announced later this month and Hammonton may not have an open date to play St. Joe.

If Saturday was the last meeting between these schools, it provided enough thrills to last at least a few years.

The Blue Devils took a 7-0 lead in the first quarter when Alex Padovani scored on a 54-yard fake punt.

St. Joe quickly tied the game. A’Laam Horne picked up the following kickoff at the 2-yard line and returned it 98 yards for a touchdown. Horne outsprinted would-be tacklers and even jumped over a pile of players near midfield.

Hammonton appeared to be on its way the upset in the second half. The Blue Devils methodically took control of the game behind running back Justin Fucetola, who rushed for 115 of his 123 yards in the third and fourth quarters.

Fucetola finished a 15-play 79-yard drive with a 2-yard touchdown run to give Hammonton a 21-14 lead with 51.4 seconds left in the third quarter.

St. Joe then leaned on the Horne brothers. The sophomores used their speed to create big plays.

Salaam Horne (13 carries for 121 yards) scrambled 31 yards up the middle and then ran around end for 14 yards to setup of LaFragola’s tying touchdown.

A’Laam Horne (seven carries for 46 yards) had runs of 13 and six yards on St. Joe’s winning touchdown drive.

Both teams showed excellent sportsmanship after the game. Players and coaches went of their way to congratulate each other.

After such a physical and thrilling contest, it seemed silly that the game’s future is in doubt.

I've covered high school sports and variety of other events and teams - including the ShopRite LPGA Classic and the Phillies - since 1993.