By MARK TRIBLE
Glory Days Football Writer
RUNNEMEDE — If there’s one thing the Hammonton High School football team hasn’t minded in the past, it’s poor weather. The run-heavy Blue Devils have won some enormous games through the years in less-than-ideal conditions.
While Friday’s tilt at Triton wasn’t as highly touted as some of those past classics, it certainly met the requisites for memorable affairs due to Mother Nature.
In a downpour that got heavier throughout the evening, Hammonton rode A.J. Ryker’s big effort and rolled to a 43-0 win in the TurnersvilleJeep.com Game of the Week.
“Our kids take a lot of pride playing in a game like this, historically,” coach Jim Raso said. “…Our program has taken pride in these kinds of conditions.
“We challenged the offensive and defensive lines up front. For a while there, we were kind of getting it during the season and it was, ‘let’s challenge ourselves tonight and be the ones giving it out.’”
After a Mustangs’ punt, the Blue Devils (5-5) got to work on their first possession.
Namely, Ryker got to work.
He capped an eight-play drive with a 5-yard touchdown run with 4 minutes, 6 seconds left in the first stanza. The Mustangs (6-4) fumbled on their second snap after Ryker’s score. Hammonton hopped on it.
Ryker made an incredible play on the next set of downs when the slippery pigskin came out of his grasp. He caught the ball in midair and continued to rumble for a 16-yard gain.
Two snaps later, he punched in another score to make it 14-0 with 40 ticks left in the frame.
“Our game plan tonight was that coach Raso came up to us and told us there’s a question mark and that the question needed to be answered — who was going to dominate the line of scrimmage?” Ryker said. “I was talking to Luis Rodriguez before the game and he told me, ‘Ryker, I promise you I’m going to get you in the end zone at least twice.’
“He gave me that promise.”
Ryker finished with 146 yards on 14 carries, per NJ.com reporter Kevin Minnick. Justin Doughty added 12 for 92 yards and a 9-yard score to make it 21-0 by intermission.
An Andy Wehner blocked punt for safety in the third pushed the edge to 23-0. Kenny Smith, a talented freshman, tacked on a 35-yard sprint for six later in the quarter.
“Ryker, man, coming into the season I was looking up to him,” Smith, who finished with 72 yards, said. “Now, being in the backfield with him is amazing.”
In a 24-0 loss to Ocean City in Week 2, Ryker felt a pop on a play when he got tackled. The next game against Mainland — a 14-13 loss — that pop proved to be much worse.
A broken fibula sidelined the three-year starter. The young Blue Devils struggled in his absence.
Ryker’s doctor predicted a 6-to-8-week recovery timeframe. The upperclassmen sat in a hyperbaric chamber for 90 minutes per day for three weeks. He feverishly rehabbed.
In his return last week, Ryker ran for 42 yards and two scores in a 21-17 triumph against another Black Horse Pike District school, Highland.
The Blue Devils now have Ryker and a three-game winning streak as they head into the Group 4 playoffs as an underdog.
“We definitely have a shot to turn some heads,” Ryker said.
Raso gave his assessment of his senior leader.
“I’ll say it once, I’ll say it a million times,” Raso said. “Pound-for-pound, one of the toughest players we’ve ever had come through the program.
“He goes 100 miles per hour on every single play and I’ll take that any day of the week. I’ll take him any day of the week.”
Especially the rainy ones.
Mark Trible covers high school football for Glory Days Magazine. Check out his weekly Facebook Live show every Wednesday at 7 p.m. The South Jersey Football Frenzy Show can be seen at facebook.com/acglorydays. You can also take in Mark’s “Hat’s Off” podcast every Sunday at 9 a.m. at our Facebook page.