HAMMONTON - The Hammonton High School football team needed 2 yards on fourth down in the fourth quarter to help clinch its first South Jersey championship in 13 years Friday night.
Or the Blue Devils could punt.
Hammonton's successful program was not built on booming punts. The Blue Devils went for the 2 yards.
They gained 6.
Top-seeded Hammonton, No. 2 in The Press' Elite 11, staved off a Timber Creek comeback to win the South Jersey Group III championship 23-17. Blue Devils fullback Josh Baez rushed for 116 yards and two touchdowns. Timber Creek, the second seed, is No. 7 in the Elite 11.
"I've never won a championship in my life," said Ian Evans, Hammonton's standout defensive and tight end. "This is the best feeling I ever had."
The key fourth-down conversion defined Hammonton's effort Friday and the program in general. The Blue Devils are known for their physical, gritty play.
Hammonton had fourth-and-2 at its own 40-yard line with less than three minutes left.
The Blue Devils lined up to punt but then called timeout.
Coach Pete Lancetta thought back to 1993, the year Hammonton won the first of its four South Jersey championships under him.
Hammonton rallied in the fourth quarter and beat Salem 28-22 in the title game that season. The Blue Devils went for and converted a fourth down on their own 16-yard line on their winning drive.
"If we went it for it on our own 16, we sure as heck could go for it on our own 40," Lancetta said.
So the Blue Devils handed off to Baez, who barreled across the line of scrimmage for 6 yards to give Hammonton a first down with 2 minutes, 40 seconds left in the game.
"That gave us a ton of momentum to finish off the game," Hammonton quarterback and defensive back Nick Crescenzo said.
The drive eventually stalled and Hammonton had to punt. Timber Creek got the ball back on its own 31-yard line with only 21.7 seconds left.
Crescenzo intercepted a desperation pass two plays later as time ran out.
"It was a fitting ending," Lancetta said. "He's the man. Nick's our captain and our leader. Champions step up, and that's what these kids did."
Hammonton (11-1) was the top seed and No. 2 in The Press' Elite 11. But second-seeded Timber Creek (9-3) was a trendy pick to win Friday's game because of its big-play ability with running back Nahjee Gibson and wide receiver Damiere Byrd, both Division I college prospects. Timber Creek also had a noticeable size advantage on the offensive and defensive lines.
But the Blue Devils never trailed.
Crescenzo and Baez rushed for touchdowns in the second quarter as Hammonton built a 14-0 lead.
The Blue Devils ran behind an eight-man line, something they hadn't done all season. Hammonton rushed for 261 yards and threw just one pass Friday night.
Linemen Evans, Justin Andronico, Nate Haden, Jacob Hosko, Bill Fackelman, C.J. Plummer, Steve Musto and Antonio Rodriguez opened up holes for Baez and Crescenzo (seven carries for 63 yards).
"It was fun," Baez said. "It was our 11 guys against their 11 guys, head up."
The Blue Devils' defense contained Timber Creek for the first three quarters. Linebacker Tim Alexander had two tackles for losses and Evans a sack.
Hammonton led 17-3 late in the third quarter before Timber Creek quickly got back into the game.
Quarterback Niquan Walker threw a 24-yard touchdown pass and ran 44 yards for another score to cut Hammonton's lead to 23-17.
But just when Timber Creek had grabbed the momentum, Hammonton got the 2 yards it needed on fourth down to preserve the win. The decision was a risky one. The field was slick. Baez could have slipped. If he didn't make it, Timber Creek would have the ball in prime field position.
Timber Creek coach Rob Hinson said he expected Hammonton to go for it.
"Their whole team is a bunch of tough kids," Hinson said. "Any one of our guys is capable of making someone miss and going the distance. "
By making the first down, Hammonton never gave Timber Creek a realistic chance of making a play like that.
The Blue Devils are one of the state's top programs. But they had not won a South Jersey title since 1996. Hammonton was 0-5 in title games since then, including a 28-7 loss to Shawnee in last year's title game.
"Don't remind me," Lancetta said with a laugh about not winning a championship in 13 years. "I'm really happy for the seniors, and I'm really happy for myself. I'm going to lie."
The Blue Devils and their fans sprinted onto the field in celebration after Crescenzo's interception.
After the celebration on the field wound down, the Blue Devils piled into buses for a ride around town, escorted by fire engines and police cars with their sirens blaring.
That's a ride champions get to take.
Contact Michael McGarry:
Timber Creek 0 3 0 14 - 17
Hammonton 0 14 3 6 - 23
HAM-N. Crescenzo 14 run (Sandoval kick)
HAM-Baez 30 run (Sandoval kick)
TC-Barth 24 field goal
HAM-Sandoval 21 field goal
TC-Thomas 24 pass from Walker (Barth kick)
TC-Walker 44 run (Barth kick)
First Downs 10 12
Rushing yards 174 261
Passing Yards 66 0
Turnovers 2 0
Rushing-Gibson 16-77, Byrd 2-30, Simmons 2-(-7), Walker 8-65, Lowe 1-9 TC; Baez 23-116, N. Crescenzo 7-63, D. Crescenzo 10-46, Sanchez 6-36 HAM.
Passing-Lowe 2-4-0-30, Walker 2-7-1-36 TC; N. Crescenzo 0-1-0-0 HAM.
Receiving-Gibson 2-38, Simmons 1-2, Thomas 1-24 TC.
Records-Timber Creek 9-3, Hammonton 11-1.