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.
"We got in the huddle and our seniors LaQuay (Brown) and (Mike) Luko looked at us and said, 'C'mon, do it for us. It's our last game at home. Our last game against Hammonton,' " St. Joe sophomore quarterback Salaam Horne said. "We moved the ball down the field and scored."
The Wildcats rallied with two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to beat Hammonton 28-21 in the 52nd meeting between the schools, which are located a few blocks from each other. Hammonton leads the rivalry 27-24-1.
"The emotions were real high," Horne said. "The game kept going back and forth.
The running of Salaam and his twin - 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. Rocco Ordille scored the winning TD on a 14-yard sweep 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 ranked No. 2 in The Press Elite 11 and will play St. Mary of Rutherford for the state Non-Public I title Saturday at The College of New Jersey in Ewing Township. Hammonton (6-4) lost in the first round of the South Jersey Group IV playoffs to Shawnee.
Despite the big crowd and the attention of the game generates, the future of the Hammonton vs. St. Joe rivalry is in doubt because the Blue Devils are leaving the CAL for the West Jersey Football League after this season. The WJFL is expected to announce its 2014 and 2015 schedules later this month, and Hammonton may not have an open date to play St. Joe. The rivalry could be renewed in 2016 if the CAL joins the WJFL, but that is far from a certainity.
If Saturday was the last meeting between these schools, it provided enough thrills to last at least a few years.
"This game was high intensity," LaFragola said. "We were both trying to tee off on each other just trying make a play."
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.
"C.J. LaFragola made a good block and pinned the (Hammonton) player on the ground, so I just jumped over them," A'Laam Horne said.
Hammonton appeared to be on its way to an upset in the second half. The Blue Devils methodically took control of the game behind running of Justin Fucetola, who rushed for 115 of his 123 yards in the third and fourth quarters. Fucetola followed the lead blocking of Dylan Rosu and made most of his yards between the tackles.
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.
"We did what I thought we needed to do, and we did it well," Hammonton coach Pete Lancetta said. "I thought we were better up front. I thought we were going to go right at them, and it worked for the most part. But don't expect them to give up. They're good."
St. Joe leaned on the Horne brothers in the final 12 minutes. 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 set up LaFragola's tying touchdown.
A'Laam Horne (seven carries for 46 yards) had runs of 13 and 6 yards on St. Joe's winning touchdown drive.
"We said we have to ride the two sophomores," St. Joe coach Paul Sacco said. "People say to me, 'You have a lot of confidence in two young kids.' They showed all year long why."
Both teams displayed excellent sportsmanship after the game. Players and coaches went out 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 think this is the biggest game ... for both teams every year," Padovani said. "It gets real chippy. It gets real emotional. But it's a classic rivalry."
St. Joe now has bragging rights.
Who knows for how long?
Contact Michael McGarry:
Hammonton 7 7 7 0-21
St. Joseph 7 7 0 14-28
HAM-Padovani 54 run (Padovani kick)
SJ-A. Horne 98 kickoff return (Ryker kick)
HAM-Armor 3 run (Padovani kick)
SJ-S. Horne 3 run (Ryker kick)
HAM-Fucetola 2 run (Padovani kick)
SJ-LaFragola 2 run (Ryker kick)
SJ-Ordille 14 run (Ryker kick)
Rushing-Hammonton, Fucetola 21-123. St. Joseph, S. Horne 12-113.
Passing-Hammonton, Triboletti 5-21-0-40. St. Joseph, S. Horne 2-4-0-42.
Receiving-Hammonton, Lancetta 1-31. St. Joseph, Sampson 1-31.
Records-Hammonton 6-4; St. Joseph 11-1