The St. Joseph and Atlantic City high school football teams couldn't have picked a more opportune time for their first-ever meeting.
St. Joseph (5-0) has won 23 straight and is No. 1 in The Press Elite 11. Atlantic City (4-1) is No. 8 and features a dynamic group of speedy skill position players. Kickoff is 7 p.m. today at Atlantic City.
"It's a big game for the season. It's a big game for the school, having the No. 1 team come in," Vikings quarterback Jarren McBryde said.
Tonight might be Atlantic City's most anticipated regular-season game since an undefeated Vikings team played undefeated Mainland Regional on Oct. 22, 1999. Mainland won that contest 19-7, but Atlantic City won the South Jersey Group IV championship that season.
St. Joe, located in Hammonton, and Atlantic City are in the same county but they've never played because they've been in different leagues and Cape-Atlantic League conferences. They did scrimmage once in 1980.
This season, both are in the CAL American Conference because the league's new realignment placed the league's top teams the past two years in the same conference.
St. Joe comes into tonight's game off a bye week it sorely needed.
"I don't know how the kids felt, but I was ready for a bye after the EHT game (a 24-11 win on Sept. 29)," St. Joe coach Paul Sacco said. "We went back to basics last week (during the bye) - basic fundamentals."
The Wildcats will probably be without two starters tonight, according to Sacco. Wide receiver and defensive back Robert Thompson, who has verbally committed to Old Dominion, is out for the season with a shoulder injury. Tight end and defensive end Luke Ordille will probably miss tonight's game also with a shoulder injury.
St. Joe has a sophomore through senior class enrollment of 281, according to the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association. Nearly every other American Conference school has an enrollment of more than 1,000. St. Joe for the first time in school history is consistently playing schools with large enrollments.
A new schedule against bigger schools hasn't slowed the Wildcats. They haven't lost since a 35-0 defeat to Holy Spirit on Oct. 1, 2010.
Quarterback Anthony Giagunto is a big part of the Wildcats success. The senior is undefeated as a starter and has thrown just two interceptions in 160 career passes. His ability to elude Atlantic City defenders could be key tonight.
McBryde noted that St. Joe is famed for its discipline.
"St. Joe capitalizes on a lot of people's mistakes," McBryde said. "We have to go out there and play mistake free."
In Atlantic City, St. Joe will face a team with multiple players capable of scoring every time they touch the football no matter where they are on the field.
"We told our kids you better hustle and sprint on every play," Sacco said. "If jog or take a breath, it's going to be a home run."
Atlantic City wide receiver Dayshawn Reynolds averages 29.2 yards per catch. Sacco called Reynolds one of the best receivers he's seen in his 31 seasons of coaching.
McBryde has completed 61 percent of his passes. Domaneek Brown-Hurd is a strong inside runner. Wide receivers Demond Cottman and Tyshiek Wright also have made big plays for the Vikings this season.
"I can count on any of those guys," McBryde said, "and there's a couple of more I can count on that (people ) don't even know about."
Tonight's matchup is another in a series of games that has many fans saying the American Conference is the toughest in South Jersey.
Although St. Joe is on the road, the Wildcats relish playing Friday nights. Their home field doesn't have lights, so they play a lot of games on Saturday afternoons.
"I believe in my heart it's going to be a good game," Sacco said. "I wish I knew the outcome, but I don't."
It's been a season of new challenges for St. Joe. Tonight is the latest as these schools meet for the first time. It might also be the toughest.
Contact Michael McGarry:
St. Joseph (5-0)
at Atlantic City (4-1)
When: 7 p.m. today
Why this game is important: St. Joe has won 23 straight and is No. 1 in The Press Elite 11. Atlantic City is No. 8 in The Elite 11. Both teams are contenders for the Cape-Atlantic League American Conference.
Did you know: These teams have never met before tonight.
St. Joseph: Anthony Giagunto, QB, 30-of-53 for 401 yards and six touchdowns also 32 times for 151 yards and three touchdowns; Cody Sampson, RB, 67 carries for 483 yards; Miles Pease, RB, 286 rushing yards, two touchdown catches; Kevin Goldsmith, DL, 38 tackles; Charles Cade, LB, four sacks; Roy Lucas, OL/DL, 20 tackles.
Atlantic City: Dayshawn Reynolds, WR/DB, 17 catches for 496 yards and three touchdowns; Domaneek Brown-Hurd, RB, 71 carries for 385 yards; Jarren McBryde, QB, 43-of-70 for 857 yards and nine touchdowns; Jamil Whitted, LB.