Caleb Nartey understands what it means to be a Hammonton High School football player.
He grew up in the town, which is renowned for its devotion to the game.
Nartey played for the Hammonton Hawks of the Atlantic County Junior Football League. The senior running back and defensive back is a three-year starter for the Blue Devils.
“It’s in my blood,” he said. “I’ve been running the same offense since the second grade.”
Nartey and his teammates will come face to face with another school from a football loving town Friday. Hammonton (8-2) will host perennial Shore Conference power Middletown South (4-4) in a Central Jersey Group IV semifinal at 7 p.m.
Hammonton has won five sectional titles. Middletown South has won 10.
“Middletown South is known for a great tradition,” Hammonton coach Jim Raso said. “A lot of wins. A lot of sectional titles. We expressed to our kids that this is a great program. They’re going to be well-coached.”
The top-seeded Blue Devils are experiencing a football resurgence. They have clinched their first winning season since 2015. Hammonton reached the 2017 South Jersey Group IV final but finished that season with a losing record.
Hammonton is also on a seven-game winning streak that began with an 18-7 win over Holy Spirit on Sept. 27. The Blue Devils are ranked No. 9 in The Press Elite 11 and with each win during the streak, the buzz around town and in the school about the team has increased.
“I’ve seen the high school program at its top peak (growing up),” Nartey said. “My sophomore and junior year, we weren’t really where we’ve been (in the past). This offseason we were really hungry to put us back to where we’re supposed to be, and I feel like we’ve done that this year.”
Hammonton features one of the state’s top running backs in Jaiden Abrams, who has rushed for 1,504 yards. But teams just can’t focus on Abrams.
Senior quarterback Ryan Barts has thrown for six touchdowns and run for eight scores. Nartey has rushed 81 times for 459 yards.
“Last year it was just Jaiden,” Raso said. “That’s all we had at times. Now when teams focus on Jaiden, we have some other guys we’re able to go to and spread the ball around.”
Hammonton has also benefited from standout play on the offensive and defensive lines.
Juniors linemen Brock Beebe, Michael Dogostino and Johnny Scibilia all started as sophomores. That experience combined with being a year older and stronger has made a big difference this season.
“It starts upfront,” Raso said. “We’ve been able to control the line of scrimmage at times.”
The Hammonton players and coaches see a lot of themselves in fourth-seeded Middletown South.
The Eagles, like Hammonton, haven’t been swept up in the spread offense craze that has led to many high school teams throwing more than 20 passes per game.
Middletown South attempted just five passes in last week’s 24-7 quarterfinal win over fifth-seeded Hamilton West. Vinny Condito ran for 104 yards and two touchdowns, and two other Eagles rushed for at least 80 yards.
The Middletown South defense held Hamilton West standout running back Kevin Boswell to 31 yards on 13 carries. Boswell entered the game averaging 193 yards per contest.
“We tell our kids it’s how many times can we get off the field without giving up points,” Raso said.
“We have to be patient. They’re big. They’re physical. Don’t panic and don’t give up the big play.”
Middletown South also can’t be judged by its .500 record. The Eagles play in the Shore Conference’s toughest division.
“They like to run the ball. We like to run the ball,” Raso said. “It’s going to be a battle of attrition.”