HAMMONTON - Hammonton High School's football team got off to a terrible start against Moorestown on Friday night.
Once the Blue Devils regained their composure, however, they showed the talent and toughness that they've displayed for most of the season.
Hammonton rebounded from a 14-0, first-quarter deficit to earn a 33-21 victory in an exciting South Jersey Group III semifinal.
"It's amazing what we can do when we put our minds to it," Hammonton running back/linebacker Jordan Brown said. "We worked so hard to get to this point, there was no way we were going to quit when we got behind."
The Blue Devils (9-1), the No. 7 team in The Press Elite 11, will take on Timber Creek for the sectional championship on Dec. 3 at Rowan University.
They will be making their third appearance in the championship game in the last four years and will be seeking their second title in that span.
That quest didn't seem possible early in the game.
Moorestown (6-5) stunned the large crowd in Hammonton's bleachers by scoring on its first two possessions via a 9-yard run by running back Delaney Wallace and quarterback Andrew Lisa's 33-yard TD pass to wide receiver Zac Frantz.
And the Quakers were poised to add to the lead when a Hammonton fumble - its second turnover in as many series - put them back in scoring position at the Blue Devils' 7-yard line.
But Hammonton's defense stepped up with the first of three goal-line stands.
"That was the whole difference in the game," Hammonton coach Pete Lancetta said. "If they go up by 21, we would have had a tough time. But once we stopped them, I told the kids we were going to come back and win this."
He was right.
Hammonton closed the deficit to 14-13 on quarterback Christian Mortellite's 11-yard TD pass to Bob Barbieri and an electric, 65-yard interception return for a TD by defensive back Alessandro Padovani. Padovani, who is also the Blue Devils' place-kicker, ran behind a blue-and-white wall of blockers en route to his first touchdown of the season.
"I missed my first extra point, so I wanted to do something to make up for it," Padovani said. "On the interception, I was just in the right place at the right time, but once I caught it, the whole defense blocked for me. I mean, it seemed like all 10 guys threw a block for me. I pretty much just jogged into the end zone."
That was the highlight of a solid performance by Hammonton's defense. Lisa, who is headed to the University of Pennsylvania, experienced some success. He completed 18-of-34 passes for 217 yards. He hit seven different receivers, including wide receiver Drew Pederson, son of Philadelphia Eagles quarterback coach and former Eagles quarterback Doug Pederson.
But the Blue Devils repeatedly stiffened near the goal-line and also added another interception by Dylan Rosu in the fourth quarter.
"I was very proud of the defense today," Lancetta said. "Lisa is the best quarterback we've faced and we knew they'd gain some first downs and score some points. But we came through when it counted."
So did Hammonton's offense.
When Moorestown focused on stopping Blue Devils running back David Williams early in the game, Brown took over. He rushed for a game-high 88 yards on 10 carries and scored the go-ahead touchdown with a 41-yard burst through the middle in the fourth quarter.
Russell Forchion added an incredible, 31-yard TD in the third quarter. He took Mortellite's handoff over the left side, then cut back all the way across the field en route to the end zone.
Williams who finished with 86 yards on 14 carries, capped the scoring with a 7-yard TD with two minutes, 43 seconds left in regulation.
"Once we got behind," Brown said, "we just all pulled together and said, 'We worked so hard, so let's not go out like this.' "
Contact David Weinberg:
Moorestown 14 0 0 7 - 21
Hammonton 0 13 7 13 - 33
M - Wallace 9 run. (Martinelli kick)
M - Frantz 33 pass from Lisa. (Martinelli kick)
H - Barbieri 11 pass from Mortellite (Kick failed)
H - Padovani 65 interception return (Padovani kick)
H - Forchion 31 run. (Padovani kick)
M - Wallace 1 run. (Martinelli kick)
H - Brown 41 run. (Pass failed)
H - Williams 7 run. (Padovani kick)
First Downs - M 18, H 15
Rushing Yards - M 78, H 233
Passing Yards - M 217, H 28
Turnovers - M 2, H 3
Rushing: Wallace 15-43, Lisa 8-23, Franz 2-10, Bonett 1-0, Ruffin 4(-4) M; Brown 10-88, Williams 14-86, Forchion 9-52, Mortellite 4-7 H.
Passing: LIsa 18-34-217-2 M; Mortellite 3-3-28-1 H.
Receiving: Wallace 2-57, Ruffin 6-51, Frantz 3-45, Peterson 3-35, Bonett 1-28, Martinelli 2-28, Howard 1-21 M; Forchion 2-17, Barbieri 1-11 H.
RECORDS: Moorestown 6-4; Hammonton 8-1