The St. Joseph High School football team lifted weights and practiced the past 21 days.

When they were done, the Wildcats lifted more weights and practiced even more.

St. Joe will play for the first time since Nov. 4 when it hosts neighborhood rival Hammonton in a highly anticipated contest at noon today.

St. Joe (8-0) is No. 1 in The Press Elite 11. Hammonton (9-1) is No. 7.

St. Joe is in the midst of one of the most dominant seasons ever by a local team. The Wildcats have outscored their opponents 391-16. Now, the question is has the three-week layoff caused them to lose their edge?

"I wish I could answer that," St. Joe coach Paul Sacco said. "I wish I knew. I wish I could know that after not playing for 21 days we're going to come out there and be crisp and everything we'll be fine. You never know because they're kids."

Today's game is the 50th between Hammonton and St. Joe. Hammonton leads the series 26-22-1. To celebrate the 50th meeting, past coaches from both schools will attend today's game, as will members of the 1962 Hammonton and St. Joe teams that played in the first contest between the schools.

The schools, located a few miles from each other, boast programs that are among the state's best. Today's game is a matchup of champions. Hammonton is the Cape-Atlantic League National Division champion, while St. Joe won the CAL United Division.

Both teams will play for titles next Saturday. Hammonton will meet Timber Creek for the South Jersey Group III title at 4 p.m. at Rowan University, while St. Joe will face St. Mary Rutherford for the state Non-Public I title at 1 p.m. at The College of New Jersey in Ewing Township (Mercer County).

"It's big game anytime you get to meet up with a cross-town rival," St. Joe defensive Kaiwan Lewis said of today's game. "This is our chance to show people we can play with big schools."

St. Joe has been off since it beat Egg Harbor Township 37-0 on Nov. 4 because only three teams qualified for the playoffs in state Non-Public I. Schools must have a .500 or better mark to make the postseason and only three teams in the 10-team group achieved that mark. The Wildcats - as the top seed - got a bye right to the Dec. 3 final.

"We would have loved to have had two playoff games," Sacco said. "We thought we'd get at least one playoff game. We can't worry about that now."

St. Joe treated the break like the preseason. The Wildcats began this past Sunday to prepare for Hammonton. "We got back to the basics," Lewis said. "It (the break) was good for getting guys healthy, but then it kind of wore off. Everybody's ready to play."

Meanwhile, Hammonton is in the mode of playing big games. The Blue Devils beat Kingsway Regional 24-10 in the South Jersey Group III quarterfinals on Nov. 11 and then beat Moorestown 33-21 in the Nov. 18 semifinals.

"They're in that rhythm," Sacco said of Hammonton. "Once you get in that, it becomes second habit. You're ready to play. But you're not going to hear me come in there and say we didn't tackle because we didn't play in three weeks. Whatever is going to be is going to be."

Nearly every team that reaches a state or South Jersey final plays 12 games. St. Joe will play just 10 games this season. That makes every contest even more special for the Wildcats.

"There's no margin for error," Sacco said. "This is it. I always tell kids you never know when it's your last play or last game. When it's time to play, you can't come off the field and say we didn't play well. We don't have that many opportunities."

Contact Michael McGarry:

609-272-7185