FRANKLIN TOWNSHIP - The Hammonton High School football team has relied on two factors for its success this season: A solid ground game preached by coach Pete Lancetta and the skills of senior Jared Sanchez.
But those factors were not enough to prevent the Blue Devils from losing 16-14 to host Delsea Regional High School in a South Jersey Group III semifinal Friday night.
Sanchez kept up his recent stretch of hot play by snagging a key interception in the first half that led to a Blue Devils touchdown, but the Crusaders got key efforts from multiple offensive players in the win.
With the victory, the second-seeded Crusaders (9-1), No. 8 in The Press Elite 11, face the winner of today's Lacey Township-Winslow Township semifinal for the Group III title in two weeks. The third-seeded Blue Devils (7-3), No. 9 in the Elite 11, have only a Thanksgiving game against St. Joseph to look forward to.
"It's not really the wins and losses - it's the effort the boys put in, and my hat is off to them," Lancetta said. "I told them that sometimes you do everything right and it doesn't work out for you. This was one of those nights."
Trailing 16-14 and facing a third down inside the Delsea 30 late in the game, a pass from quarterback Tyler D'Amelio to Robert Barbieri was broken up. Delsea's Darius Convery intercepted a fourth-down pass to seal the win.
"I made a read on the play and just went up and got it," Convery said. "I think I'm one of the best players in South Jersey, and I was able to make the play."
Hammonton went to its ground game early to take a 7-0 lead.
At the beginning of the game, Hammonton came out and did what the Blue Devils usually do - run the ball. D'Amelio converted a key sneak on one of the drive's two fourth-down plays, and he also scored the game's first touchdown from 1 yard out. The Blue Devils' 13-play drive also featured a D'Amelio-to-Jordan Brown pass to convert a key fourth down.
Delsea followed with an impressive drive of its own to close the first quarter. Sophomore quarterback Josh Awotunde carried the ball five times for 30 yards on the 11-play possession and also hit Tyler Coulbourn for a 10-yard touchdown pass with 21.6 seconds left in the first quarter to tie the game at 7.
On the ensuing drive, the Blue Devils drove to the Crusaders' 30-yard line, but a penalty pushed them back to the 35. Hammonton attempted its third fourth-down conversion of the game, but a halfback option was thwarted.
In the second quarter, Brown took a short screen on the left side and then ran untouched into the end zone with 5 minutes, 10 seconds left in the second quarter to give Hammonton a 14-7 lead.
Delsea mounted a late drive but missed a 38-yard field goal with 1.1 seconds left in the half.
Early in the second half, Awotunde hit Convery with a 38-yard strike down the right sideline. Tyrone Saud's subsequent 9-yard carry took the ball inside the Blue Devils' 10-yard line, but the Hammonton defense stiffened, stuffing a series of running plays before a fourth-down pass fell incomplete.
Marshall Brooks scored with 58 seconds left in the third to pull Delsea within 14-13, but the Crusaders missed the extra point. A 58-yard touchdown by Sanchez early in the fourth was called back for holding, giving Delsea new life.
A 22-yard reception by Coulbourn in the fourth quarter set up Frank Freijomil's eventual game-winning 33-yard field goal with 5:34 left.
The Blue Devils took over on their own 46 with just more than 5 minutes left and drove to the Delsea 28 with 1:27 left, setting up Convery's clinching interception.
Lancetta said he considered trying a long field goal but decided against it.
"We ran the ball a few times, but it was a little too far out," he said. "We thought something was there with Barbieri, but it just didn't work out. I told the kids that how they react to a loss like this ahead of our Thanksgiving game will help define them as players and people."
Delsea was relieved to move on, Convery said.
"Hammonton is like a mirror image of us," he said. "They are physical. They run the ball and they make plays. Thankfully, we were able to make a few more than them tonight."
Contact James Clark:
Hammonton 7 7 0 0-14
Delsea 7 0 6 3-16
H-D'Amelio 1 run (Sandoval kick)
D-Coulbourn 10 pass from Awotunde (Freijomil kick)
H-Brown 12 pass from D'Amelio (Sandoval kick)
D-Brooks 3 run (Conversion pass attempt failed)
D-Freimojil 33 field goal
TEAM STATISTICS H D
Rushing yards 106 105
Passing yards 23 128
Turnovers 1 1
Rushing-Hammonton, Alexander 9-23, Sanchez 8-24, Brown 7-38. Delsea, Awotunde 10-38, Brooks 10-33, Saud 4-22.
Passing-Hammonton, D'Amelio 3-9-23-1. Delsea, Awotunde 9-13-128-1.
Receiving-Hammonton, Brown 2-19. Delsea, Saud 4-34, Coulbourn 3-43.
Records-Hammonton 7-3, Delsea 9-1.