HAMMONTON - Friday night lights.

The phrase has become part of America's vocabulary. Its cultural significance goes well beyond high school football.

In many cities and towns, the stadium is a gathering place for the community to relive past dreams and forge new ones - on and off the field.

The sport is the lifeblood of this Atlantic County municipality, and the fact that two high schools with perennially successful programs - Hammonton and St. Joseph - are located within minutes of each other only adds to the mix.

When members of the Hammonton Board of Education made the decision to play all Hammonton High School football games at noon on Saturdays this season as a cost-saving measure, they didn't take into account the feelings of people such as Rey Triboletti.

The 43-year-old Hammonton resident graduated from Hammonton High in 1985 and played football for the Blue Devils. Now the president of the high school's All-Sports Booster Club, Triboletti's feelings are very clear about when games should be played.

"High school football is all about Friday night, especially in a town like Hammonton," Triboletti said as he carried tubs of Gatorade and ice behind the Blue Devils' snack bar before a recent Saturday game against Egg Harbor Township.

"The Saturday games are a hassle at times. Kids have other sports commitments, whether it be at the high school or youth level. It's just not the same now."

When Triboletti and others talk about the city of Hammonton's uniqueness with regard to football, they aren't exaggerating.

On the same Saturday afternoon that the Blue Devils hosted Egg Harbor Township as the light towers stood unused, the stadium with no lights over at St. Joseph High School was in full swing, too.

The Wildcats Nation gathered under party tents as Bruce Springsteen music blared and sausages sizzled on commercial-style grills. Daytime Saturday football is a tradition at St. Joe's. And Berlin resident Joy Casey, 46, was in full party mode.

"My son, Patrick Casey, is a senior on the team. He's one of the captains," Casey said, proudly displaying a Wildcats jersey with Casey on the back. "St. Joe's football is a nice tradition. It's a small school, and it's very family-oriented. It keeps people coming back."

That's definitely the case for Rick Ruberton. The 53-year-old Hammonton resident spent the early afternoon swapping tales about St. Joe teams of the past, and he won't stop reminiscing anytime soon.

"I played on the 1974 St. Joe's team, which was the first to beat Hammonton," Ruberton said. "We pretty much started the rivalry, because it meant either school had a chance to win."

Right next to Ruberton stood Ralph D'Amelio. He was conspicuous wearing a blue Hammonton football shirt in a sea of St. Joe's red. Ruberton and his buddies rib D'Amelio, a 47-year-old Hammonton resident, pretty hard, but it turns out there's a good reason for his taste in fashion.

D'Amelio, a St. Joe grad, watches his son Tyler, a junior, quarterback the Hammonton High School team on a weekly basis. D'Amelio talked about the process that went into his son picking a rival school over his own alma mater.

"It was a tough decision, because both places are good schools with good football programs," he said. "Tyler was involved with the Hammonton Hawks, the youth football team, and he just decided to move on to Hammonton from there."

That issue of youth football resonates in the city. The Hawks are one of the premier feeder programs in southern New Jersey. At many Hammonton High School games, kids wearing Hawks jerseys are everywhere - a fact not lost on Mike Gatley.

Gatley, a 49-year-old Linwood resident, is Hammonton High School's athletic director. He's also president of the Cape-Atlantic League and South Jersey Coaches Association, and he knows how much football means in town.

"Kids start out wearing the powder blue jersey and Michigan wing on the helmet of the Hammonton Hawks, and they end up wearing the royal blue jersey and Michigan wing on the helmet of Hammonton High School years later," he said. "I played for Mainland (Regional) High School, but until you get into a job like this you don't realize what kind of hold football has on the place."

Gatley is aware of the discontent in some sections of the community regarding the lack of Friday night games, but his hands are tied.

"As an athletic director, we do a lot of our scheduling a year in advance," he said. "So, unless I'm told otherwise, we'll be kicking off at noon Saturdays next year as well. As an AD, I always try to help my coaches to the best of my ability when it comes to winning or losing. The Saturday games may not be what the kids or some others want, but it has no effect on wins and losses."

But booster-club president Triboletti, whose 16-year-old daughter, Emily, is a junior at Hammonton, says it's about much more than that.

"If you're a parent, you know where your kid is for a few hours on a Friday night when there's a football game," he said. "You know they're somewhere having fun and that they're not at a party drinking or getting into trouble somewhere."

Triboletti was planning to leave the Blue Devils' game against Egg Harbor Township early to watch his sons, Jonathan, 14, and Rey, 10, play youth football for the Hawks against the Pleasantville Jokers later that afternoon.

"It's a hassle," he said. "There's no way I'm going to miss my sons play, but they and their teammates also want to see the high school team play. I don't think they (the school board) factored that into their decision making."

Triboletti's colleague at the snack bar, Betty Walczak, says the 50-50 raffle is down significantly on a per-game basis at Hammonton this season.

"We used to have a drawing worth $700, but it's been about $200 or $300 this year," said the 52-year-old Walczak. "That tells you right there that there aren't as many people coming to the games. It's sad."

But for some in Hammonton's downtown business community, Saturday-only football isn't such a bad thing.

Linda Cashan, a 54-year-old Hammonton resident, owns and operates the Casciano Coffee Bar & Sweetery on Bellevue Avenue. Growing up in Mount Holly and attending Rancocas Valley Regional High School, Saturday football is all she knew.

"It was a day for the whole community to rally around the school team," she said. "To me, it feels very natural to have games on a Saturday afternoon."

And for Cashan's business, there has been a definite boom due to the lack of Friday night lights.

"I see a difference on Saturdays - there are a lot of uniformed students in here, sports players from field hockey and soccer," she said. "There have been people in here before and after football games as well."

Nearby at Bellevue Bagel Cafe, Kristina Fondacaro, a 16-year-old junior at Hammonton, works behind the counter on Saturdays. She was planning to end her shift in time to see the game that Saturday, but she missed the Friday night games.

"Everyone at the school used to look forward to the games under the lights," she said. "It just seemed to be so much more fun."

Contact James Clark:

609-272-7262