St. Joe photo

St. Joseph quarterback Anthony Giagunto avoids Hammonton’s David Williams last month. Giagunto said the Wildcats underestimated the Blue Devils. St. Joe beat Hudson Catholic 72-0 in its next game.

Edward Lea

Most high school football teams would be thrilled with a one-loss season.

For St. Joseph High School, a single defeat was an opportunity to re-examine what it believes in.

The Wildcats lost to Hammonton 14-6 the night before Thanksgiving. The loss ended St. Joe’s 26-game winning streak. The Wildcats hadn’t lost since a 35-0 defeat to Holy Spirit on Oct. 1, 2010.

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“We were upset,” said St. Joe quarterback Anthony Giagunto, who had never lost as a starter. “We won game after game. We won tough games. We just thought Hammonton wasn’t going to be a big deal and it ended up to be a very big deal.”

St. Joe (9-1) will attempt to use the lessons learned from the Hammonton loss when it meets St. Mary’s of Rutherford (11-0) for the state Non-Public I championship 4 p.m. Saturday at the College of New Jersey in Ewing Township.

St. Joseph entered the Hammonton game in the midst of one of the most impressive regular seasons in school history. The Wildcats were undefeated against a schedule that featured the schools with the largest enrollments in the Cape-Atlantic League. St. Joe was No. 1 in The Press Elite 11 and had already clinched the CAL American Conference title.

But Hammonton controlled the game from the start and upset its neighborhood rival.

“I think you learn a lot from games like that,” St. Joe coach Paul Sacco. “It puts things back in perspective. It was a wakeup call and what we needed. They (Hammonton) were the better team that night.”

Sacco admitted he wanted to practice Thanksgiving morning to forget about the defeat, but he decided against it.

The day after Thanksgiving the Wildcats watched video of the loss.

“Films don’t lie,” Sacco said. “You can look around the room but there you are in color. You can make all the excuses in the world, but when you see the film, you see the things you’re doing and it’s a different story.”

St. Joe rebounded from the Hammonton loss with a 72-0 semifinal win over Hudson Catholic.

“We’re back to normal now,” Giagunto said. “We’re ready to go.”

In St. Mary’s, St. Joe faces an undefeated team that has not been tested all season. St. Mary’s has scored at least 40 points in nine of its 11 wins.

But St. Joe has dominated the Gaels in past state playoff games. The Wildcats beat St. Mary’s 51-0 in last year’s championship game and 40-0 in a 2010 title game.

St. Joe is now No. 3 in The Press Elite 11. It might be easy for a team to overlook an opponent it has beaten by the combined score 91-0 the past years. But the Wildcats say because of the Hammonton defeat that won’t happen Saturday.

“I’m expecting them to come out really hard,” Giagunto said. “They want this. They think this is their best team and they can beat us.”

St. Joe also knows it needs a state title to validate its tremendous regular season. The conference championship just won’t mean as much without a state championship beside it.

“If we don’t win Saturday,” Giagunto said, “it’s pretty much like we went 0-8 in my eyes.”

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