Children run up to Bridgeton High School football quarterback Ronald Williams and wide receiver Cappadonna Miller after practice and games.
The youngsters treat the Bulldogs like they're professional athletes.
"It's like they're shocked to see us," Williams said of the young fans. " They say, 'You play quarterback,' or they say to Cappadonna Miller, 'You're the wide receiver.' "
The Bulldogs (3-0) have created a buzz in their school and community with their undefeated start. Bridgeton hosts Hammonton (2-1) in a Cape-Atlantic League interconference game at 7 p.m. today.
Many of the Bridgeton football players sit together at lunch. Teachers come up to them and congratulate them for their victories. Strangers see the Bulldogs in stores around town and tell the players they are rooting for the team.
"Everybody is pumped about this," said Williams, who plays quarterback and defensive back. "The team is excited to keep winning. It feels good to be winning."
Tonight's game will serve as a credibility test for both teams, but Bridgeton more so than Hammonton. Two of Bridgeton's wins have come against teams with 0-3 records.
The Bulldogs will be seen as a legitimate South Jersey Group II contender with a victory over Hammonton, which is a bigger school and competes in South Jersey Group IV. Hammonton is a perennial power with 30 playoff appearances - the most of any CAL public school.
"Watching the film, our kids recognize Hammonton is a well-coached team that makes very few mistakes," Ellen said. "They have a great running attack, but they're balanced this year. They're able to throw the football."
Bridgeton and Hammonton were once CAL rivals back when Hammonton played in - and often dominated - the CAL National Conference. Bridgeton is still in the National Conference, while Hammonton now plays in the American Conference.
Hammonton beat Bridgeton 41-0 last year. That was the first time the two schools played since 2005.
But the schools played several classic games in the 1990s and early 2000s. Bridgeton beat Hammonton 14-7 to win the 1999 South Jersey Group II championship. Hammonton upset an undefeated Bulldogs team 12-7 at Bridgeton in 1994.
Bridgeton, like Hammonton, is a town where football is important.
The core of this year's Bridgeton team grew up together.
"We've known each other since we were 7 years old," Williams said. "When we were in the midget leagues, we never lost. We always won championships. It's almost like we're brothers together. Off the field, we have a good bond together."
Many of their fathers played football. Williams' father, also named Ronald, played running back and defensive back for that 1994 Bridgeton team that was ranked among South Jersey's best before the Hammonton loss.
"Football is big to our fathers," Williams said, "so it's big to us."
Most of the current Bulldogs started as sophomores last season. They finished 6-5, losing 46-0 in the South Jersey Group III semifinals to eventual champion Delsea Regional.
But the Bulldogs showed their character by rallying on the road from a 17-0 deficit to beat Barnegat 18-17 in a South Jersey Group III playoff game.
"Sometimes you have kids who are great in practice, but when they get in a game they don't execute," said Bridgeton coach Dave Ellen said. "These kids do both. They execute during the game at big moments."
This season, the Bulldogs have outscored their opponents 145-15.
The Bulldogs feature playmakers at almost every position. Williams has thrown four touchdown passes. Running back Stefon Bowman has rushed for five scores.
But what Bridgeton has done best is convert turnovers into touchdowns.
Miller has returned interceptions 28 and 27 yards for scores and recovered a fumble for another touchdown. Nazir Williams has returned an interception 43 yards for a touchdown.
In Hammonton, Bridgeton faces a team that has won two straight after opening the season with a 30-0 loss to Holy Spirit, the No. 1 team in The Press Elite 11.
Hammonton quarterback Jonathan Triboletti is an accurate passer with six touchdown passes in the last two games. Hammonton wide receiver Alex Padovani, who has verbally committed to Villanova, has caught four touchdown passes.
Dylan Mento, a 6-foot-4, 200-pound senior, is another talented receiver who is tough to defend because of his size. Hammonton is experienced and strong on the offensive and defensive lines.
Tonight's game is also special because it also gives Bridgeton a chance to show off its refurbished football stadium. The facility was renovated last year with an artificial grass field installed.
The stadium opened in the spring of 2012, but tonight is the biggest game it has hosted since the renovation.
The facility draws wows from everyone who sees it and tonight it will have plenty of first-time visitors as both teams try to boost their playoff chances.
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