By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Hammonton is the kind of town where people don’t sit around complaining, they put on their hard hats and gloves and go to work. When you grow up in that town, hard work is in your DNA.
The Blue Devils’ football team, year-in and year-out, reflects that kind of workmanlike attitude, and the 2022 season will be no different. They aren’t the biggest team, they aren’t the fastest team, but if you want to beat them you’re going to have to earn it.
The coaches put a lot of effort and love into putting together a winning football team, but if a player is messing up, they are going to hear about it.
“That first year, there was a lot going on. Not that the game slows down, but you start learning the little ins and outs, things that work for your program and don’t work for your program,” said Hammonton head coach Jim Raso, who is entering his eighth year at the helm. “You have a better pulse of how to manage the offseason. That was a lot the first year. But I still try to bring the same intensity, the same fire.
“I always tell them we treat them like our own kids — if you’re doing something wrong, you’re going to hear from me, and if they are doing something right we’ll praise them for it.”
The Devils took a few lumps last year — they lost 24-0 to Ocean City and 50-0 to Millville in the regular season, then suffered a 34-15 setback to Shawnee in the state playoffs — but all those young guys are now older, stronger and faster. Hammonton went 5-6 a year ago, but coach Raso believes he has the talent to make marked improvement on that record.
“We’re looking to take that next step. We were very young last year; we started two freshmen, and at times seven sophomores. Now, all those guys are back in the mix, we’ve added some new pieces, we have a couple of seniors who are ready to step in and start for their first or second years,” he said. “The question is, with all that game experience they got (last year) are they ready to step in and take that next step? It all started in the offseason, in the weight room. We’re a little bit bigger and stronger this year, but, mentally, are we ready to take the next step? That’s going to be the biggest question.
“We have to stay healthy, and if we can do that, hopefully we’re playing meaningful games at the end of the season.”
“We have a couple new guys and we’re ready to work. We’re getting after it in practice. Everybody is working hard, we’re excited,” said Kye Pressley, a 6-foot-3, 220-pound senior defensive end who transferred in from Camden Catholic. “The defense is the centerpiece of our team. I feel like defensively we’re going to be strong this year.”
MR. DO-IT-ALL: One guy who gives Raso a bunch of confidence is sophomore running back Kenny Smith. A supreme athlete even as a second-year player, Smith showed some serious potential as a freshman, not only running the ball, but also as a receiver, kick returner and defensive player.
“There’s a kid who had to step in as a freshman and start on both sides of the ball, return punts and return kicks. That’s something we’ve never asked a freshman to do here — and he had success doing it,” Raso said. “This offseason he hit the weights hard, he had a great basketball season. He did an unbelievable job as the starting point guard for the basketball team as a freshman, so a lot has been put on his plate but he’s been rising to the occasion. We’re looking forward to seeing him in year two now.”
FINDING A WAY: Hammonton always has been a big-time running team, going back to the Wing-T days of former coach Pete Lancetta (now the head coach at St. Augustine Prep). But don’t be surprised to see the Blue Devils take to the air a little more this year with Billy Way under center. He got some time last year after sitting out following a transfer, but Raso said he likes what he’s seen from his signal caller.
“He has a strong arm and now he understands how we want things done here. He’s been doing a good job leading these guys this year,” Raso said.
UNDERRATED POSITION GROUP: The front seven. Pressley makes a huge impact here, as he becomes in instant difference maker on the edge.
“He makes a world of difference. Here’s a kid who came in and already had the work ethic, and our kids saw that right from Day One, even in the weight room,” Raso said. “They gravitate toward him as one of our leaders, and for him to step right in and establish himself as a leader says a lot about his own work ethic. We’re really looking forward to seeing what he can do on the field. We’re happy to take him in and we’ll see what that front seven looks like this year.”
The Blue Devils will have some serious beef up front to go along with Pressley, including John Smith (6-foot-3, 200 pounds), Elijah Church (6-4, 290) and Christian Medina (6-2, 235). They also have a solid senior at linebacker in Andrew Wehner.
“I’m really looking forward to what our defensive line can do this year. Compared to where we were at from last year, we’re a lot faster up front so we want to see what these guys can do. And the linebackers as well,” Raso said.
LEADING BY EXAMPLE: Guys such as Wehner, Pressley and Smith have really set the tone for this team in the offseason and preseason, Raso said, and he loves when he has talented players he can count on to bring the intensity every day in practice.
“They raise the level of play for everybody. They see those guys working hard and they want to step up their game. When I took over the program — coach Pete (Lancetta), all the life lessons he taught us, even when I was playing for him, I try to instill that in our guys — and one thing he always said was, ‘when you’re better players are your hardest working players, that’s going to help things out a lot,’” Raso said. “These kids show up to work every day. We’ll make our mistakes in practice and we’ll get on them, but the leaders are stepping up and this is just a fun group to be around. Hopefully that carries into the season.”
SCHEDULE BREAKDOWN: Hammonton hosts Notre Dame on Aug. 26 at 6 p.m. in what should be a very tough season opener, and right off the bat in Week 2 the Devils get an up-close look at maybe the best running back in South Jersey as Bam Boria and Cherokee come to town. They have some tough road games in September, at Mainland and then at Rancocas Valley to close out the month, then run the gauntlet of Timber Creek, Delsea and Ocean City to close out the regular season.
THE OUTLOOK: If everybody stays healthy, this is definitely a team that can make some noise and make a run at getting into the state playoffs.
“First and foremost, we have to stay healthy. If you’re able to stay healthy you’re going to give yourself a chance. Are we ready to take that next step? If we are, our goal is to win the season opener. You get one shot at that — and it won’t be easy because Notre Dame is a very good football team. Right now, that’s our main goal: can we be 1-0? Then we’ll take it game by game,” Raso said. “We have aspirations of competing for the division title and trying to compete in the South Jersey Group 4 playoffs. The end goal, obviously, is to be playing games in December.”
Right now, though, the Devils are focused on running out of the field house on the last Friday in August to kick off the 2022 season.
“For the first game, I can’t wait,” Pressley said. “As soon as I became a part of Hammonton, I automatically felt welcomed. Everybody made me feel comfortable, and I can’t wait for that first game.”
Added Wehner, “it’s great (to play here). The crowd gets loud and everybody on the sidelines gets into it.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays