HAMMONTON - Few southern New Jersey high school football teams can match Hammonton's playoff history.
The Blue Devils want to make their postseason experiences - both the positive and the negative - work for them tonight.
Top-seeded Hammonton (10-1) hosts No. 2 Timber Creek (9-2) for the South Jersey Group III championship. Kickoff is 7 p.m.
"We are so ready for this game," Hammonton senior lineman Bill Fackelman said. "We've had an unbelievable week of practice. We're ready to go."
Hammonton has been in this spot before under coach Pete Lancetta. The Blue Devils have made the playoffs in 19 of Lancetta's 21 seasons. They won the South Jersey titles in 1993-94 and 1996.
But Hammonton is 0-5 in South Jersey finals since 1996. The Blue Devils, however, were underdogs in nearly all of those games, including in last season's 28-7 loss to undefeated Shawnee.
That defeat is a big part of Hammonton's motivation tonight.
Fackelman and other Blue Devils left the field in tears after the loss. The bus ride home from Shawnee was silent.
"I remember the bus ride like it was yesterday," Fackelman said. "That was the worst feeling I've had (in sports). We tried, but it wasn't enough. I really felt beaten down."
The Blue Devils want to be the team celebrating at the end of tonight's game.
"We want to feel what it's like to win," quarterback and defensive back Nick Crescenzo said.
Lancetta said he doesn't feel any extra pressure because it's been 13 years since the Blue Devils won a South Jersey title.
"I think it's a tribute to our program and to our players that we've been back so many times," Lancetta said. "You'll see schools there and you won't see them again for five years."
Lancetta has talked to the current Blue Devils this week about the Hammonton teams that did win South Jersey championships in the 1990s.
Lancetta told them about the 1993 and 1996 Hammonton teams that both finished undefeated. Both were favored to win South Jersey titles, but neither had an easy time in the championship game.
The 1993 team trailed Salem by six points in the fourth quarter. The Blue Devils rallied and scored on a fade pass with 12 seconds left to win 28-22.
The 1996 team grinded its way to a 14-0 win over Moorestown on a rainy day.
"We have to be ready," Lancetta said. "It's not going to be a picnic. There's going to be some adversity. When you get to this level, no matter who you play, you're going to face a quality football team."
Timber Creek is trying to win its first South Jersey title since the school opened in 2001.
The Chargers are No. 7 in The Press' Elite 11. Timber Creek will have a size advantage on the offensive and defensive lines. Chargers running back Nahjee Gibson and wide receiver Damiere Byrd are both Division I college prospects with the speed to score any time they touch the ball.
"We can't get discouraged if they get some first downs," Lancetta said. "They're going to make their yards, but how many times can we get off the field without giving up points? That's what our philosophy is going to be."
This may be Hammonton's best team since 1996. The Blue Devils are a senior-oriented group. They are No. 2 in The Press' Elite 11.
The defense, led by linebacker Antonio Rodriguez and University of Maryland-bound defensive end Ian Evans, has yet to allow a point in the playoffs.
On offense, the Blue Devils feature a potent running game with Crescenzo, his cousin David Crescenzo at halfback and running backs Josh Baez and Jared Sanchez.
"It's no secret," Lancetta said. "We need to be able to run the ball."
Both teams have the talent to test the other's resiliency.
The winner could be the school that weathers those moments the best.
Fackelman listened as Lancetta spoke about the 1993 and 1996 Hammonton teams.
"Those were special groups of guys" Fackelman said. "They knew how to persevere through tough times. If we're a special group, we have to do the same thing."
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