St. Joseph football Cody Sampson

Cody Sampson leans forward to get some extra yardage for the top-ranked Wildcats during a season-opening win over Absegami on Saturday afternoon in Hammonton.

Press photo by David Griffin

HAMMONTON — Quarterback Anthony Giagunto of the St. Joseph High School football team said he had never played a game like Saturday afternoon’s contest against Absegami.

There was the steamy, humid weather.

There were plenty of momentum-swinging big plays by both teams.

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And — most importantly — there was the predicament St. Joe found itself in at halftime. The Wildcats trailed by six points. It was the first time St. Joe had been behind after two quarters in nearly two years.

St. Joe stayed calm and the 5-foot-9, 180-pound Giagunto sparked the Wildcats as they rallied in the second half to beat the Braves 37-29 in the season opener for both Cape-Atlantic League American Conference teams. St. Joe, No. 1 in The Press Elite 11, has won 19 straight.

“It was tough,” Giagunto, a senior, said. “They’re a great team. We were going back and forth, back and forth.”

Giagunto hardly ever came off the field. He completed 12-of-16 passes for 165 yards and two touchdowns. He made touchdown-saving tackles at safety and even made a diving block of the extra point after Absegami’s final touchdown.

“My team was tired a little bit, and I had to make sure we kept the intensity up,” Giagunto said. “It was all willpower and adrenaline.”

St. Joe overcame a tremendous effort by Braves running back David Hood, who scored three touchdowns and produced 237 yards of offense despite not playing nearly all of the second half because of the heat. All three of Hood’s touchdowns came in the first half and all three covered at least 60 yards. His final one — a 60-yard run with 32 seconds left in the second quarter — gave Absegami a 20-14 halftime lead and stunned the home St. Joe crowd.

Why was it a big deal that Absegami led at halftime?

First, St. Joe allowed 19 points all of last season when it finished 10-0 and won the state Non-Public I title.

And second St. Joe hadn’t trailed at the half since its last defeat — a 35-0 loss to Holy Spirit on Oct. 1, 2010.

“It was weird,” Giagunto said of being down at halftime, “but we came into the second half thinking the game was restarting. Our seniors stepped up. We kept telling the team ‘calm down, calm down.’ ”

St. Joe controlled the second half behind the passing of Giagunto and the running of Cody Sampson (17 carries for 97 yards and two touchdowns).

Hood barely played in the second half because of cramps from the heat.

“We didn’t know if he had heat exhaustion, and we didn’t want to take the chance,” Absegami coach Dennis Scuderi Jr. said. “A kid’s health always take precedent over the game.”

Still, the Braves never faded.

Nick Della Vecchia kicked a 34-yard field goal on the first play of the fourth quarter to put Absegami ahead 23-20. The lead could have been even more. Three plays before the field goal Absegami running back Tyler Bing broke into the clear for a 59-yard run. He appeared headed for the end zone but Giagunto chased him down and tackled him at the St. Joe 15-yard line.

One play after the field goal, St. Joe regained the lead for good.

St. Joe wide receiver Robert Thompson fielded the kickoff and ran 80 yards up the sideline for a touchdown. Giagunto’s two-point conversion run gave the Wildcats a 29-23 lead.

Despite the loss, Absegami showed it has the talent to contend in both the conference and South Jersey Group V. The Braves played without quarterback and defensive back Rashad Kinlaw, who has verbally committed to Notre Dame but is recovering from a broken leg. Scuderi said Kinlaw could return in two weeks.

“We have to find a way to win these games,” Scuderi said. “We can’t keep coming within a touchdown of some of the better teams. We have to find a way to get over the hump.”

As for St. Joe, the Wildcats can expect more games like this now that they’re playing in the American Conference against the area schools with the largest enrollments.

Despite the hot weather, Giagunto look cool after the game. He left the field with a smile and ice bags taped around his throwing shoulder and calves.

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