An all-time rivalry may be running out of time

St. Joseph High School’s Cody Sampson, right, tries to hold off Hammonton’ Dylan Rosu during last year’s meeting between two of the Cape-Atlantic League’s premier programs. Sampson and Rosu remain key players for their teams heading into today’s game. Sampson, a running back and defensive back, has rushed for 605 yards and 13 touchdowns on 63 carries. Rosu is a linebacker on one of South Jersey’s top defenses.

The winner of today's high school football game between Hammonton and St. Joseph will earn bragging rights.

Maybe for a year. Maybe until 2016. Maybe forever.

Hammonton (6-3) and St. Joseph (9-1) will kick off at noon at St. Joe in the 52nd meeting of the neighborhood rivals. Hammonton leads the series 27-23-1. Hammonton handed St. Joe its only loss of last season when it beat the Wildcats 14-6. St. Joe is ranked No. 2 in The Press Elite 11.

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Fans will pack the home and visiting bleachers today to watch these schools, located a few blocks from each other, play. Many more will stand along the fence that surrounds the field.

"There's always chirping this week," St. Joe running back and Hammonton resident Rocco Ordille said. "Everyone is talking and giving their input on who is going to win. It's big. Everyone is talking about it no matter where you go."

But this could be the end - or at least a pause - in one of South Jersey's most intense annual rivalries.

Hammonton will join the West Jersey Football League in 2014. St. Joe will remain in the Cape-Atlantic League.

The WJFL schedule for 2014 and 2015 will be announced in December. There is a chance Hammonton will not have an open date to play St. Joseph.

There is talk that St. Joe and the rest of the CAL will try to merge with the WJFL in 2016, so the rivalry could be renewed that season.

But who knows?

What is for certain is that today's game is special.

When the rivalry first started, it sometimes matched cousin against cousin and in some cases brother vs. brother.

That is no longer the case.

Most of St. Joe's players live outside of Hammonton. But there is still a connection between the schools. Hammonton wide receiver and defensive back Alex Padovani is friends with Ordille. Padovani attended the St. Joseph Regional Elementary School in Hammonton.

"I came from St. Joe," he said. "This game is huge for me. I know most of the (St. Joe) kids. It's fun playing against kids you know. We go to the same parties. You see them around."

The rivalry is special because football is identified with the town of Hammonton. The Hammonton Hawks are perennial power in the Atlantic County Junior Football League.

"Many people in the town think this is the most important game of the year, including the playoffs," Padovani said. "There's a different mindset around football in Hammonton."

The rivalry is special because of the excellence of the programs. St. Joe has won 15 state titles since the state Non-Public playoffs began in 1993. The Wildcats will play St. Mary of Rutherford for the state Non-Public I championship on Dec. 7.

Hammonton has made 30 playoff appearances - the most of any CAL public school. The Blue Devils have won five South Jersey titles. Hammonton lost to Shawnee 10-7 in the first round of the S.J. Group IV playoffs this season.

This rivalry is special because of the coaches. St. Joe coach Paul Sacco is in his 32nd season with a career record of 275-56-5. Hammonton coach Pete Lancetta is in his 26th year with a career record of 208-60-2. Sacco is the winningest coach in CAL history. Lancetta is No. 2.

This rivalry is special because it's competitive. The CAL has had trouble scheduling football games because of the dominance of the league's parochial teams - St. Joe, Holy Spirit and St. Augustine Prep. Some of the league's public schools say they can't compete against the parochial schools because the nonpublic schools can draw students from more than one town.

But Hammonton and St. Joe have split their last four meetings. Hammonton has won four of the last six games. St. Joe holds a 6-4 edge over the past 10 years.

In past years, coaches and administrators connected with the Hammonton and St. Joe at times tried to downplay the rivalry.

That's because the rivalry sometimes bordered on getting too intense. And Hammonton or St. Joe often have had to play a championship game the first weekend of December.

Bu there is no denying this game's meaning to both schools.

"This game is ranked very high for us," Ordille said. "We're not even thinking about the state championship. There's one thing on our mind, and that's Hammonton."

Last year's game is the perfect example of what the rivalry means to both schools.

Hammonton celebrated as if it had won a championship when it handed St. Joe its first loss of the season.

The St. Joe players and coaches left the field with despair in their eyes, their faces drained of color.

History says St. Joe and Hammonton will go on to play in many more big games.

But if they never meet again after today, they will lose a game that has helped define both programs since they first met in 1962.

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