Christian Mortellite confessed he gets nervous before each Hammonton High School football game.
It's no wonder. He's made just five varsity starts,
"Before every game, I get the butterflies," he said. "Coach always says it's a good thing."
While nervous on the inside, Mortellite appears calm to onlookers. The junior's nearly flawless play - six touchdown passes and one interception - has sparked the Blue Devils to an undefeated record and into one of the season's most anticipated games.
Hammonton (5-0) hosts Holy Spirit (3-2) at 7 p.m. today. The Blue Devils, No. 4 in The Press Elite 11, can clinch the Cape-Atlantic League National Division with a win.
"I'm excited, and our team is excited," Mortellite said. "This is what you want to do. When you're a kid, you want to play in front of thousands of people for the (division) championship."
Holy Spirit, No. 5 in The Elite 11, can put itself in position to win the division with a victory. Almost as an important, a win would boost the Spartans' playoff chances and restore some of their air of invincibility.
Holy Spirit began the season No. 1 in The Press Elite 11. The Spartans remained in that spot until a 34-7 loss to St. Joseph on Oct. 1. Spirit's other loss was a forfeit. The Spartans beat Oakcrest 41-16 in the season opener but forfeited the game because they used an academically ineligible player.
But even though their average margin of victory in their four on-the-field wins is 26.5 points, the Spartans feel they haven't played their best football yet. They have hurt themselves with penalties and turnovers.
"We have to get back on track," Spirit linebacker Ethan Gambale said. "We've been our worst enemy."
Spirit's game against St. Joseph received plenty of hype. Spirit coach Charles Roman described it as his team's "Super Bowl." Many local football fans wondered how Spirit would respond to the defeat.
"We'll never put that game behind us," Gambale said. "But we can't stay in the past. It's motivated us to work harder. We can let our season be a failure because we lost to St. Joe. We have a division title to play for. We have a state championship to play for. It's my senior year. We're not going to let this thing go down the drain."
Spirit features two of the state's running backs in Donta Pollock (4,245 career rushing yards) and Nigel Jones (3,543 career rushing yards). The seniors are on the verge of becoming the first teammates in New Jersey history to reach the 4,000-career yard rushing milestone in the same season, according to South Jersey football historian Chuck Langerman.
Hammonton coach Pete Lancetta said the Blue Devils have to slow Pollock and Jones.
"I don't think you're ever going to stop them," he said. "(Spirit) gets in those tight sets, and they just mash you. We're going to have to tackle well, which is easier said than done."
Hammonton is a perennial power with 28 playoff appearances and five South Jersey titles.
But these Blue Devils have as much depth and speed at running back as any Hammonton team of the past.
Running back Russell Forchion has the speed to score from anywhere on the field, running or receiving. His eight touchdowns have covered an average of 29.8 yards.
"We have a great line, and we have some of the best backs in South Jersey," Mortellite said. "They can turn a 5-yard out pass into an 80-yard touchdown."
Mortellite is also a different type of Hammonton quarterback. Blue Devils quarterbacks traditionally think run first and pass second.
The 6-foot-4 Mortellite is a prototypical dropback passer.
Despite his inexperience, Mortellite has completed 29-of-40 passes.
"Our passing attack has really opened things up for us," Lancetta said. "He doesn't get rattled back there."
Mortellite was better known as basketball player before this fall. He started for the Blue Devils' basketball team as a sophomore, averaging 14 points.
"I've been playing football since I was 6 years old," he said. "Just playing one sport isn't my thing."
So is Mortellite now a basketball player who plays football or a football player who plays basketball?
His answer shows that he stays calm even when faced with a tough question.
"It depends on the season," he said. "If I said basketball, the football coaches would be on me. If I said football, the basketball coaches would be on me. We'll just leave that as an even (answer)."
Contact Michael McGarry:
No. 5 Holy Spirit (3-2) at No. 4 Hammonton (5-0), 7 p.m. (97.3 FM)
Why this game is important: Hammonton is No. 4 in The Press Elite 11, and Holy Spirit is No. 5. Hammonton can clinch the Cape-Atlantic League National Division with a win.
Holy Spirit key players: Donta Pollock, RB, 138 carries for 955 yards; Nigel; Jones, RB/DB, 85 carries for 585 yards; Tom Hehre, QB, 27-of-52 for 303 yards and three touchdowns; Matt Rubino, 14 catches for 188 yards; Dan Mastromatteo, LB; Ethan Gambale, LB; Nico D'Angelo, OL.
Hammonton key players: Dave Williams, RB, 65 carries for 390 yards; Russell Forchion, 35 carries for 240 yards; Christian Mortellite, QB, 29-of-40 for 468 yards and six touchdowns; Bob Barbieri, WR, nine catches for 155 yards; Nate Haden, OL/DL.
Spectator tip: Skip lunch. The Hammonton snack stand is one of the region's best.