By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
HAMMONTON — At around 9:30 p.m. on Friday night, Hammonton High football coach Jim Raso had the look of a man who had just gotten word from his mechanic that it was just a burnt valve, and not the blown transmission he was expecting.
That’s the kind of relief a coach feels when his team dodges a huge bullet and lives to fight on another week in the state playoffs. Postseason football is not for the fainthearted.
Hammonton trailed the entire fourth quarter until the final 26 seconds, when star junior running back Kenny Smith punched it in from the 2-yard line to tie the Central Jersey Group 4 opening round matchup against Ocean City, 22-22. Gavin Kovacs drilled the extra point and the Blue Devils escaped with a 23-22 win in a thrilling game from start to finish.
The win came on the heels of last week, when Ocean City beat Hammonton 24-21 to close out the regular season.
“We have a lot of respect for their staff and program. They did an excellent job,” Raso said. “I told our guys that Ocean City was in a similar boat in terms of the schedule and how they got beat up a little bit, we got beat up a little bit, and it was all about coming out here and seeing who was going to have the resilience. Not too many times in life do you get a do-over. That was the message this week: now you have a chance to have a do-over. (We told our players) ‘if you didn’t like the way the game ended last week, you have another opportunity — change the ending. You’re writing the story now. Don’t let them write the story, you write the story.’”
After Duke Guenther took a swing pass down the left sideline for a 28-yard touchdown that put Ocean City up, 14-13, early in the third quarter, Hammonton answered with a Kovacs 28-yard field goal in the waning seconds of the third to go up 16-14. But on the ensuing kickoff, Ocean City closed out the third quarter with a 92-yard kickoff return for a touchdown from Jon Moyer. The Red Raiders went for two and got it as Walker Bailey hooked up with Joey Berardis to put the Raiders up, 22-16.
Fifth-seeded Ocean City (3-6, 1-3 West Jersey Football League Independence) was driving in Hammonton territory with less than four minutes to go and another first down would have all but iced the game, but Blue Devils defensive back Justin Doughty broke up a pass intended for Moyer on fourth down. That gave the ball back to Hammonton with 3:33 to go and 70 yards of turf in front of the Devils.
They ate up a big chunk of that yardage on consecutive passing plays to tight end Joe Gillen, who got No. 4 Hammonton (5-5, 3-1 WJFL Memorial) all the way down to the Ocean City 20-yard line. Another pass play from Drew Craig to Deandre Clemons set the Blue Devils up at the 2-yard line, and two plays later Smith followed Clemons and Cam Broadnax into the end zone for the game-winner.
“That’s something we’ve been working on and the coaches saw from the alignment upstairs, they were saying, ‘it’s there, it’s there,’” Raso said of the two big passing plays from Craig to Gillen. “Gregg Silvesti is our offensive coordinator and I said, ‘let’s go, run it!’ We were running out of time. They made some adjustments in the second half in stopping the run so we knew we were going to have to throw the ball, mix it in. I thought Drew did an outstanding job tonight. He made some really good reads and some really good throws. We’re proud of him.
“In the end, you want to give it to the guy. (Smith) didn’t even need to call for the ball at that point, we were going to give it to him. I commend Clemens because he went in there and did a great job on their linebacker, which allowed Kenny to get that little big extra umph to get in there and get the score.”
“I wanted the ball. You have to find a way to win games this time of year, and that’s what we did today. I was just trying to show some leadership. We have a lot of seniors on this team so people have to step up, and I just tried to take accountability tonight,” said Smith, an all-state running back a year ago and one of the rushing leaders in South Jersey again this year. “(The offensive linemen) mean the world to me. They work hard, day in and day out. That’s why we do all those workouts and lifting, so we can win games like this.
“Drew has been working hard all season and having him building up his confidence each game, he’s getting better as the season is going on,” Smith added. “We’re trusting in him to take us as far as we can go. I love this group, so anything I can do to keep this going, I’m going to do it.”
Ocean City — a team that suffered a four-game losing streak early in the season and was blown out by Millville two weeks ago — came to play on Friday night, and showed that early on as the Red Raiders marched down the field and scored on their opening drive. Bailey hooked up with Moyer on a huge crossing route and that set up a 3-yard touchdown run from Guenther, who finished with 59 yards on 20 carries. Hammonton answered right away, though, as Smith — who had 130 yards and three touchdowns — punched it in from four yards out. Hammonton averted disaster on the point after when an equipment issue forced long snapper Ethan Peterson off the field, but sophomore Cooper Del Gozzo came in and hitched a perfect snap back to Craig, who held for Kovacs to drill the extra point and tie the game, 7-7.
Hammonton took a 13-7 lead into halftime thanks to a 36-yard touchdown run by Smith early in the second quarter. Ocean City scored 15 points in the third quarter, but in the end it was one big defensive play by Hammonton and the running ability of Kenny Smith that won the game for the Blue Devils.
“They were well coached and drew up a great game plan, and they executed it well,” Smith said. “All season we struggled with finishing games and we knew the things that happened in the past couldn’t keep reoccurring, so we just had to buckle down if we wanted to win.”
“We needed to get that stop (late in the fourth quarter),” Raso said. “The defense came through when we needed them to tonight, and that was big. The kickoff return came at the worst possible moment because we finally took the lead, but the defense stepped up when we needed it and made a play, and we were able to go down the field and answer.”
“We were panicked a little bit, but we know we have a great group of kids and great coaches. The whole time it looked like we were scrambling around, but we knew what we were doing. We’re so confident when Kenny gets the ball. He’s amazing,” said senior linebacker Andrew Wehner. “Our defense, when it’s tough times we come together. The coaches were making great calls and we just got it done. All props to Ocean City, they are a good team. But we just came together and found a way to win. The pregame speech was about how this could be our last game as seniors if we let it, but we didn’t let it be our last game.”
Hammonton’s seniors will get to play at least one more week, as they’ll face the winner of tonight’s game between No. 1 Winslow and No. 8 Pennsauken. The other side of the bracket features No. 6 Long Branch, an upset winner over No. 3 Jackson Memorial, taking on No. 2 Brick Memorial, which took down No. 7 Moorestown, 41-7, on Friday night.
“They are pretty close from top to bottom,” Raso said of his players. “We always tell the younger guys, ‘you don’t ever know if you’re going to be in this situation, and you would want the younger guys playing their hearts out if you were a senior.’ That’s how you have to approach it. You have to play for the seniors.”
WHAT’S NEXT: Hammonton will either travel to Winslow or host Pennsauken next weekend in the Central Jersey Group 4 semifinals. Ocean City’s season is complete.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays