"It's very frustrating," St. Joseph senior running back Eli Pogue said after another half-day of work in a 32-3 victory over Hammonton in the 50th game between the crosstown rivals. "It's a compliment, yes. But as seniors, we want to be out there. We worked so hard for this season."
Saturday's victory on an unseasonably warm afternoon was typical for St. Joseph (9-0), the No. 1 team in The Inquirer Top 10. Pogue ran for three touchdowns behind a powerful offensive line, and the Wildcats defense held Hammonton to one first down - which came on the Blue Devils' first play.
Hammonton (9-2), the No. 7 team in the rankings, gained 61 yards on a pass from Christian Mortellite to Bobby Barbieri on the first play from scrimmage. That led to an Alex Padovani field goal and a 3-0 lead.
The rest of the game was all St. Joseph. The Wildcats held the Blue Devils to minus-one yard the rest of the first half, while Pogue scored on runs of 3, 61, and 2 yards and tight end Kaiwan Lewis took a screen pass 35 yards for another score.
It was 26-3 at halftime, and Hammonton coach Pete Lancetta decided to sit his starters in the second half in a nod to the importance of next week's South Jersey Group 3 championship game against Timber Creek.
"We have bigger fish to fry," Lancetta said of the sectional title game. "That [St. Joseph] is an excellent football team. . . . This game means nothing in the grand scheme of things."
Lancetta's decision didn't sit well with some people associated with the St. Joseph program. But the real problem is that it created another meaningless second half for the Wildcats.
This team's toughest game probably was against Holy Spirit in an Oct. 1 battle of the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the rankings. That one ended with St. Joseph in front by 34-7.
That game, and Saturday's game, were the only two times this season that St. Joseph did not play with a running clock in the second half because the Wildcats had a 35-point lead. Coach Paul Sacco's team has outscored opponents by a combined 423-19.
"I just feel like our kids have been shortchanged," Sacco said.
Sacco said he "respected" Lancetta's decision to pull his starters. He hoped others would respect his choice to let his regulars play through the third quarter - although the Wildcats clearly lost their enthusiasm when they saw all those clean uniforms take the field for Hammonton at the start of the second half.
It's been that way for St. Joseph all season, with a 70-0 win over Lower Cape May and a 48-0 win over Bridgeton and a 37-0 win over Egg Harbor Township, and so on.
But the state tournament is supposed to be different. That's when great teams are supposed to be challenged. That's when champions are supposed to dig deep.
We knew Muhammad Ali was great because Joe Frazier brought it out of him. And vice versa.
We knew those Boston Celtics teams were great because the Los Angeles Lakers brought it out of them. And vice versa.
No team has forced St. Joseph to reach its full potential. It's tough to say, for sure, how this team compares to other terrific teams in recent South Jersey history because the Wildcats have been victims of their own success - with their top players spending almost as much time on the sideline as the field.
"I'm not sure how good we are," Sacco said. "I think we're pretty good."
If the NJSIAA had just two Non-Public groups in football - like there are in basketball, baseball, and soccer - we might find out.
If St. Joseph was in, say, Non-Public B along with Holy Spirit and Holy Cross and Bishop Eustace and Camden Catholic, then the Wildcats would have played two tournament games in November, instead of sitting idly for 22 days before Saturday's clash with their longtime rivals.
So then St. Joseph would be 11-0. And Camden Catholic would be 11-0, too.
And the state championship game would be something special.
Instead, St. Joseph will play St. Mary of Rutherford in Saturday's Non-Public 1 title game at the College of New Jersey. The Wildcats will be crowned champions of a group in which three teams qualified for the playoffs.
Last year, St. Joseph beat St. Mary, 40-0, in the state final. This year, Sacco said he was going to let his seniors play for a long time in their last game.
"We're going to turn it loose," Sacco said.
It will be 40-0 again or 60-0 this time - that's really up to Sacco.
But what the coach really would like to see is his great team in a great game - or at least in a 48-minute one.
Hammonton 3 0 0 0 – 3
St. Joseph 7 19 0 6 – 32
H: FG Padovani 28
SJ: Pogue 3 run (Ordille kick)
SJ: Lewis 35 pass from Giagunto (Ordille kick)
SJ: Pogue 61 run (kick failed)
SJ: Pogue 2 run (kick failed)
SJ: Smith 7 run (kick failed)
Contact staff writer Phil Anastasia at 856-779-3223, email@example.com, or @PhilAnastasia on Twitter. Read his blog, "Jersey Side Sports," at www.philly.com/jerseysidesports