Few high school football teams in the state can match St. Joseph's tradition of excellence.
The Wildcats have won 12 championships since the state Non-Public tournament started in 1993.
St. Joseph-Hammonton played for titles at Kean University, the College of New Jersey and various high schools, including Neptune and Paul VI.
But the Wildcats have never played at a major venue until tonight.
Third-seeded St. Joe (9-1) meets fourth-seeded St. Mary's of Rutherford (7-3) for the state Non-Public II championship at Rutgers Stadium. Kickoff is 5 p.m.
"That's something that's never happened at St. Joe before," Wildcats junior defensive end Kaiwan Lewis said of playing at Rutgers. "We get to go play at a big university. We're going to try to do something else special - repeat and get another state championship ring."
St. Joe is the defending champion. Wildcats coach Paul Sacco, who was hospitalized last month for bleeding on the brain, will coach the game.
Each year some state and sectional title games are played at Rutgers and the Meadowlands.
"We've been very fortunate to get to this (championship) game a number of times," Sacco said, "and it seems like we've always ended up on every college complex around or at a high school field."
Sacco said he always wanted to play at Rutgers in part because former St. Joe standout running back Jack Corcoran played at Rutgers from 2006-09.
"We have the opportunity now," Sacco said. "I hope our kids go out there and give us one great last effort."
This year's Wildcats might be the best St. Joe team since Corcoran led the 2005 team to an undefeated season and the state Non-Public II title.
The Wildcats have won seven straight games this season. They have outscored the opposition 225-32 in those victories.
Gordon Hill, a 6-foot, 211-pound fullback, leads a dominant St. Joe running game with 133 carries for 979 yards and 17 touchdowns. Hill has rushed for 580 yards and nine touchdowns in the last four games.
"I told him with about four or five games left in the season that you're going to carry the football a lot more," Sacco said.
Linebackers Pat Casey (84 tackles) and Josh Moore (77 tackles) spark a stingy St. Joe defense.
In St. Mary's, St. Joe meets a team that balances youth and experience. The Gaels feature 19 seniors and 19 sophomores.
St. Mary's lost in the 2008-09 state Non-Public I final to the now-closed Paterson Catholic. The Non-Public I bracket no longer exists because there aren't enough small private schools playing football in the state.
The Gaels advanced to this year's final by beating top-seeded Holy Cross 32-22 in the semifinals on Nov. 19. St. Mary's relies on one of the state's best running backs in Quadree Hubbard.
The 5-foot-11, 212-pound Hubbard has carried 178 times for 1,383 yards. He's scored 16 touchdowns.
Hubbard has been at his best in the playoffs. He rushed for 301 yards in a 56-34 quarterfinal win over fifth-seeded Montclair Kimberly. He gained 175 yards on 40 carries and scored three touchdowns against Holy Cross.
St. Joe just can't focus on Hubbard, however. Kyree Tyson-Jones (88 carries for 664 yards and seven touchdowns) complements him the backfield.
St. Joe players know the opportunity they have tonight.
"We've been grinding since (last) December, lifting weights," Lewis said. "It's finally starting to pay off."
St. Joe teams are measured against not only by that season's opponents but also against past Wildcats teams.
A win tonight would cap one of the most dominant seasons in St. Joe history.
Contact Michael McGarry:
Who: Third-seeded St. Joseph-Hammonton (9-1) vs. fourth-seeded St. Mary’s of Rutherford (7-3)
When/where: 5 p.m. today at Rutgers Stadium, Piscataway
Tickets: $9 for adults and $3 for students and senior citizens, includes admission to Holy Spirit game at 8 p.m.
Playoff histories: St. Joe has 33 playoff appearances. The Wildcats won 12 state championships since the Non-Public state tournament began in 1993. They won eight straight from 1999-2006. St. Mary’s has 22 playoff appearances. The Gaels’ last title came in 2006.
Key players: St. Joseph: Anthony Giagunto, QB, 13-of-29 for 154 yards and three touchdowns; Gordon Hill, FB, 133 carries for 979 yards and 17 touchdowns; Pat Casey, LB, 84 tackles; Josh Moore, LB, 77 tackles; Mike Mazzeo, OL/DL, five sacks; Max Valles, WR/DE, 10 sacks; Phillip Paulhill, DB, four INTs.
St. Mary’s: Tom McPherson, QB, 15-of-28 for 346 yards; Quadree Hubbard, RB, 178 carries for 1,383 yards and 16 touchdowns; Kyree Tyson-Jones, RB, 88 carries for 664 yards; Michael Amaro, DE, three sacks; Anthony Schoener, CB, three INTs.
Keys to victory: There will be nothing fancy about this contest. Both teams like to run. The team that controls the line of scrimmage will win.
Did you know: St. Joe is 5-0 against St. Mary’s in the playoffs. Here’s the past matchups.
2002: Non-Public I final : St. Joe 24, St. Mary’s 6
2000: Non-Public I final: St. Joe 47, St. Mary’s 7
1998: Parochial I semifinal: St. Joe 21, St. Mary’s 14
1997: Parochial I final: St. Joe 20, St. Mary’s 3
1996: Parochial I semifinal: St. Joe 27, St. Mary’s 0