HAMMONTON - The Egg Harbor Township High School football team had a four-point lead in the fourth quarter, but Hammonton had the momentum Friday night.
Hammonton had a first down at the EHT 18-yard line with slightly more than two minutes to play.
Egg Harbor linebacker Zach Agostino flashed back to last Thanksgiving. The EHT defense was in the same position against Mainland Regional in their annual holiday game. The Eagles cracked, and Mainland scored to win.
"I kept bringing up that game," Agostino said. "The drive was so similar to Mainland. (Hammonton) is down inside the 20. They needed a touchdown to win, just like Mainland. I'll never forget the feeling after that (Mainland) game. It was an all-time low."
The Eagles learned from their Thanksgiving experience. EHT stopped Hammonton on downs with 1 minute, 47 seconds left and won Friday's showdown for the Cape-Atlantic League American Conference title 23-19.
"We returned a lot of guys," EHT quarterback and defensive back Scott Miller said. "We wanted the championship more than anything."
The victory gives EHT its first conference title since 2000, when it shared the championship with Ocean City, Atlantic City and Mainland Regional.
"This is for the whole program and what we've been through in the past," EHT coach Tony DeRosa said. "We've had a couple of bad years. This is the culmination of hard work by these kids."
The game was the most anticipated of the season. Both teams were undefeated. EHT (8-0) is No. 5 in The Press' Elite 11. Hammonton (7-1) is No. 6.
Egg Harbor and Hammonton were at their best on a cold night. There were few penalties, no turnovers and plenty of big plays, most notably by quarterbacks Miller of EHT and Nick Crescenzo of Hammonton.
Both Miller (14 carries for 89 yards) and Crescenzo (12 carries for 60 yards) nimbly avoided pass rushers to scramble for long gains.
Both team showed there mental toughness. EHT and Hammonton each appeared on the verge of taking control throughout the game.
"I wish I could have seen sitting in the stands watching it," Hammonton coach Pete Lancetta said. "I knew it was going to be a great game."
Hammonton appeared headed for the go-ahead touchdown in the final minutes. The Blue Devils began their final drive on their own 24-yard line with 8:11 left in the game.
One play could have doomed EHT. The Eagles briefly lost their poise on a key play.
Crescenzo scrambled on third down. EHT linebacker Khalil Stockley sacked him and knocked the ball loose. Hammonton recovered at the EHT 44 for an 11-yard loss. But EHT was whistled for a personal foul after the play.
Instead of fourth-and-19, Hammonton faced a fourth-and-4 at the EHT 29-yard line. The Blue Devils converted the fourth down on Crescenzo's 10-yard run to the 18-yard line.
But EHT then stiffened.
Three Hammonton running plays produced two yards. The Blue Devils threw on fourth down but the pass over the middle was incomplete with 1:47 left.
Egg Harbor Township appeared headed for an easy victory early in the second half. The Eagles trailed 13-10 at halftime but dominated the third quarter behind the running of Tejay Johnson (15 carries for 96 yards) and Agostino (11 carries for 42 yards).
EHT took the opening kickoff of the second half and drove 59 yards in 11 pays to take a 17-13 lead. Agostino scored on a 9-yard run on a fourth-and-one play.
The Eagles scored on their next possession. Miller threw a 20-yard fade to Johnson, who caught the ball between two defenders to give the Eagles a 23-13 lead with 1:26 left in the third quarter.
"Those two drives were phenomenal," Agostino said. "We were running the ball up the middle, and they couldn't really stop us."
But the momentum shifted back to Hammonton as the Blue Devils rallied.
They got within four points on Josh Baez's 1-yard touchdown run with 10:33 left in the game but got no closer.
Both teams are headed for the playoffs next weekend - EHT in South Jersey Group IV and Hammonton in Group III.
The Eagles and their fans celebrated when the game was over. EHT had some teams earlier this decade that failed to live up to preseason hype.
These Eagles haven't fallen into that trap.
A few weeks after that heart-breaking loss to Mainland last year, the EHT team met and set a goal to win the conference this year.
The Eagles accomplished that goal, but it wasn't easy.
"That was rough times," Agostino said, "but that last 15 yards, (Hammonton) couldn't get."
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