GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP - Absegami High School had just taken the lead over Hammonton with the game's first points on Tom Macauley's 28-yard field goal with 10 minutes, 13 seconds left in the fourth quarter Friday night in a game the Braves needed to win to keep their slim South Jersey Group IV football playoff chances alive.
The home crowd roared with anticipation as the Braves' defense took the field on the ensuing drive. Absegami had shut down the Hammonton offense all night, and when an illegal-block-in-the-back penalty shoved the visiting Blue Devils back from midfield to their own 33-yard line, the crescendo in the stands grew louder still.
But running back Jared Sanchez caught a screen pass on the left side after Blue Devils quarterback Tyler D'Amelio rolled right, drawing much of the defense with him. Sanchez pulled out a host of elusive moves to run untouched for a 67-yard touchdown.
Esteban Sandoval's extra point made it 7-3 Hammonton, which held up as the final score in the Cape-Atlantic League interdivision matchup. The Braves were driving late, but Sanchez intercepted a deep pass with 1:27 left to seal the victory.
The Blue Devils (6-2) clinched a home playoff game in Group III next Friday against an opponent to be determined. Hammonton already had clinched a playoff spot. Unofficial first-round pairings will be announced today.
The Braves (4-4) missed the playoffs and will have a consolation game instead next week.
"I had a good week of practice coming in," Sanchez said. "I worked very hard. One of the reasons my name is always being called out (by the P.A. announcer) on both sides of the ball is that I'll do whatever it takes to help my team win. I'm always busting it and laying it on the line for my teammates. On the touchdown, I planned the moves I was going to put on them (the Absegami defense) 10 yards before they were near me. It worked out well."
It was fitting that Sanchez scored the game-winning touchdown. He finished with 62 yards rushing on 15 carries and had 87 yards receiving on two catches. But despite his offensive feats, Sanchez's biggest impact was felt on defense. Absegami gained just 120 yards rushing on 40 carries (a 3-yards-per-carry average), but the Braves always seemed to be one step away from breaking a big play.
That is, until Sanchez showed up with a bone-rattling tackle to keep runs by Absegami quarterback Rashad Kinlaw and standout running back Ben Martin from turning into big gains. Though he plays as a defensive back, Sanchez hits like a linebacker. Some of his tackles along the sidelines even drew appreciative comments from the Absegami fans.
"I know they have great athletes over there (at Absegami), and I know Ben Martin is going to play in (NCAA) Division I with Rutgers, but if Jared can't play college ball at a nice school, then I don't know anything about football," Hammonton coach Pete Lancetta said afterward. "He keeps coming up big in big games. He had a great game against Atlantic City last week, and he follows it up with this."
Even players on the other side of the ball tipped their hats to Sanchez.
"He's a great player," Martin said of his rival. "He stepped up and made huge plays for his team tonight."
The Blue Devils opened the game strong, driving from their own 46-yard line down to the Absegami 2. On fourth-and-goal, Lancetta decided to eschew a field-goal attempt by Sandoval, one of the CAL's top kickers. But Sanchez was tackled for a 3-yard loss on a running play by Absegami's Darryl Loveland, turning the ball over on downs.
Lancetta was asked after the game if he regretted his decision the longer the game went scoreless.
"It didn't really cross my mind," he said. "That's hindsight, and it would be nice if we could coach like that. I definitely would have called a different play, but we're not a field-goal-type of team. We were trying to punch it in there."
Contact James Clark:
Hammonton 0 0 0 7 - 7
Absegami 0 0 0 3 - 3
A-Macauley 28 field goal
H-Sanchez 67 pass from D'Amelio (Sandoval kick)
First downs 20 20
Rushing yards 93 120
Passing Yards 102 58
Turnovers 2 3
Rushing-Hammonton, Sanchez 15-62, Rosu 8-19, Brown 7-15, D'Amelio 3 (-9), Alexander 2-6. Absegami, Kinlaw 18-48, Martin 17-49, Bing 3-10, Chance 2-13.
Passing-Hammonton, D'Amelio 3-8-2-102. Absegami, Kinlaw 5-10-2-58.
Receiving-Hammonton, Sanchez 2-87, Barbieri 1-15. Absegami, Martin 3-53, Gilbert 1-10, Chance 1 (-5).
Records-Hammonton 6-2, Absegami 4-4.