The St. Joseph and Bridgeton high school football teams meet Saturday in a pivotal game for both.
For St. Joe, it's almost as if the season is just beginning.
For Bridgeton, the season is coming to an end too soon.
Kickoff is noon at St. Joseph in Hammonton. The Wildcats can clinch the Cape-Atlantic League United Division with a win. Bridgeton can clinch at least a share of the division title with an upset.
St. Joe (5-1) is No. 6 in The Press' Elite 11 and Saturday is the first of what should be several big games in a row for the Wildcats. St. Joe hosts Group IV contender Egg Harbor Township (4-2) next Saturday.
Possible state Non-Public II playoff games against Holy Cross and St. Anthony of Jersey City loom later in November and then there's the annual Thanksgiving weekend game with neighborhood rival Hammonton.
"We'll see what kind of football team we have," Wildcats coach Paul Sacco said.
Meanwhile, Bridgeton (4-3) is dealing with adversity. The Bulldogs were contenders to reach the South Jersey Group II playoffs, but they have been banned from the postseason because they had four players ejected in last Friday's 42-14 win over Middle Township.
Any team in any sport that has three or more players or coaches ejected during the season cannot participate in the postseason, under New Jersey Interscholastic Athletic Association rules.
There were no punches thrown Friday night, according to Bridgeton coach Dave Ellen, who said there was a scuffle after a third-down tackle near the Bridgeton bench. Ellen said several players were walking onto the field because the Bulldogs were about to attempt a field goal. Ellen said officials ruled the players had left the bench and that's why they were ejected.
"Kids just kind of gathered around," Ellen said. "The play was blown dead. The ruckus occurred and officials ruled they were coming onto the field. It happened real quick."
There is no appeal process, according to NJSIAA rules. The Bulldogs' season will end next Friday when it hosts Mainland Regional. Bridgeton probably would have had to beat St. Joe to make the playoffs, but the ejection rule also means the Bulldogs won't play a consolation game.
"We're just the hard-luck loser," Ellen said.
St. Joe began the season with the slogan, "The best is yet to come." That saying is still true even though St. Joe has been one of southern New Jersey's most dominant teams, Sacco said. In their five wins, the Wildcats have outscored their opponents 214-10.
"I don't think we've played our best football yet," he said. "We told the kids they haven't put 48 minutes of football together yet."
For all its domination, St. Joseph hasn't received much media attention this season.
"We like to fly under the radar," St. Joe senior offensive lineman and nose guard Mike Mazzeo said.
Part of the reason St. Joe hasn't gotten that much hype is the Wildcats' only loss - a 35-0 defeat to Holy Spirit on Oct. 1. The game was one of the most hyped of the season.
St. Joe committed four turnovers, most of them deep in its own territory. Holy Spirit's five touchdown drives averaged 22 yards.
"We made a lot of mistakes, but we can't go back and change it," Mazzeo said. "Each day we try to get better and better."
As if the events of this season weren't enough to motivate both teams Saturday, St. Joe and Bridgeton can also look to last year's game between the two for inspiration. Bridgeton beat St. Joe 14-6 in the 2009 opener.
Ellen said: "I'm sure St. Joe had this one circled after last year."
Sacco said: "I think we have something to prove."
Ellen said the Bulldogs have done a good job this week of moving past the disappointment of being banned from the playoffs.
"Wednesday's practice was upbeat," he said, "and (Thursday) was upbeat. The kids realized it is what it is right now. It's another life lesson. I think the kids, especially the older ones, have realized that they've got two games left. They have to make the most of them."
And the St. Joe players realize that a strong finish would make their season memorable for something else besides the Holy Spirit game.
Contact Michael McGarry:
at St. Joseph (5-1)
When/Where: Noon Saturday at St. Joseph in Hammonton
Why this game is important: St. Joe can clinch the Cape-Atlantic League United Division with a win.
Radio: 1240 AM
St. Joseph: Eli Pogue, RB, 32 carries for 261 yards; Gordon Hill, RB/DB, 54 carries for 399 yards; Kaiwan Lewis, DE, 52 tackles, four sacks; Pat Casey, LB, 52 tackles; Josh Moore, LB, 54 tackles; Mike Mazzeo, NG, four sacks.
Bridgeton: Tamar Jackson, QB, six touchdown passes; Kevin Bunton, RB, 101 carries for 684 yards; Jae DeShields, WR/K, 11 catches for 277 yards and five touchdowns, four field goals.
Last five meetings:
2009: Bridgeton 14, St. Joe 6
2008: St. Joe 35, Bridgeton 0
2007: St. Joe 6, Bridgeton 0
2006: St. Joe 55, Bridgeton 0
2005: St. Joe 54, Bridgeton 0