HAMMONTON — The Hammonton High School football team huddled together after it played St. Joseph on Wednesday night.
“Gotta believe,” the Hammonton players shouted.
Before the game, few believed the Blue Devils could beat St. Joe, the No. 1 team in The Press Elite 11. Even Hammonton coach Pete Lancetta wasn’t sure about his team’s chances.
“I’ll be honest with you,” Lancetta said, “I thought we had a shot, but I didn’t think we’d pull it off. Never in my wildest dreams.”
After the game, the believers were everywhere.
The Blue Devils ended St. Joe’s 26-game winning streak with a stunning 14-6 victory on a chilly night. With the win, Hammonton finished the season .500, avoiding its first losing season in 23 years.
“The only thing that mattered was that we thought we had a chance and that we believed in each other,” Hammonton quarterback Christian Mortellite said.
Wide receiver and defensive back Alex Padovani epitomized Hammonton’s determination. He broke his femur and sprained his medial collateral ligament in the first game of the season. Padovani, a junior, easily could have missed the entire season, but he returned two games ago and caught a touchdown pass Wednesday.
“It felt great that I could contribute after not playing most of the year,” he said.
There was good reason why so few gave Hammonton a chance. The Blue Devils had lost three straight before Wednesday, including a 37-6 loss to Timber Creek in the first round of the South Jersey Group IV playoffs last Friday.
With a loss Wednesday, Hammonton would have its first losing season since it finished 2-7 in 1989 — Lancetta’s first season.
In a program that is accustomed to competing for South Jersey titles, that weighed heavily on the players and coaches.
“We’re not used to this,” Lancetta said. “That’s a lot of pressure on the kids. But I said they’ve been practicing as hard through the losses as they did when the season started.”
Meanwhile, St. Joe hadn’t lost since a 35-0 defeat to Holy Spirit on Oct. 1, 2010.
But Hammonton controlled Wednesday’s game with a stingy defense, the running of fullback David Williams (19 carries for 55 yards) and timely passing from Mortellite.
Hammonton took a 7-0 lead with 27.6 seconds left in the first quarter when Mortellite completed a 33-yard to pass to Dylan Mento to give the Blue Devils the ball at the St. Joe 2-yard line. Williams followed with a touchdown run.
The Blue Devils went up 14-0 with 1 minute, 8 seconds left in the third quarter when Mortellite threw an 8-yard touchdown pass to Padovani, who made a leaping catch over a St. Joe defender.
“When you have a kid like that, you throw it up and let him make a play,” Lancetta said.
St. Joe did not play crisp. Passes that were normally caught bounced off receivers’ hands. The Wildcats committed three turnovers.
But the Hammonton defense shutdown the St. Joe running game. The Wildcats rushed for just 35 yards in the first half.
Hammonton junior linebacker Brian Siligato made three tackles for losses.
“The coaches were in my ear all week telling me not to let (St. Joe) run all over us,” Siligato said. “That’s what I did.”
St. Joe rallied in the fourth quarter. The Wildcats scored with 10:44 left on C.J. LaFragola’s 14-yard run. St. Joe had two more possession but couldn’t score. Mento clinched the victory when he intercepted a desperation pass with 1:24 left.
“Hammonton came to play,” St. Joe coach Paul Sacco said. “They wanted it more. It’s a tough pill to swallow. We waited too long to play. They did a good job. What else can I say?”
The Hammonton players rushed the field in celebration when the game ended. The St. Joe players wandered off stunned.
The Hammonton vs. St. Joseph game is always one of the most anticipated of Thanksgiving weekend. The schools, located a few miles from each other in the same town, are both perennial powers. Hammonton leads the series 27-23-1.
St. Joe still has games left. The Wildcats host Hudson Catholic in a state Non-Public I semifinal on Dec. 1.
The Blue Devils’ season is over. They had a disappointing year by their lofty standards — until Wednesday. It was almost as Wednesday’s upset wiped away every loss this year.
“I wanted to hopefully help us win a state title,” Padovani said. “We fell short but this is a good second best.”
Contact Michael McGarry:
St. Joseph 0 0 0 6—6
Hammonton 7 0 7 0—14
H—Da. Williams 2 run (Salmon kick)
H—Padovani 8 pass from Mortellite (Salmon kick)
SJ—LaFragola 14 run (kick missed)
Rushing—SJ, LaFragola 6-53; H, Da. Williams 19-55
Passing—SJ, Giagunto 16-27-2-154; H, Mortellite 4-6-1-84
Receiving—SJ, Pease 8-100; H, Padovani 3-51
Records—St. Joseph 8-1; Hammonton 5-5