"We always seem to get the little guys," St. Joseph coach Paul Sacco said after his Wildcats followed Giagunto's inspiring lead to a 37-29 victory over Absegami on Saturday in an exhausting and entertaining Cape-Atlantic League American Division opener.
That's not exactly true. St. Joseph has been cranking out Division I players for years, and most of those guys were big-time athletes in every sense - like last year's twin defensive stars: 6-1 linebacker Kaiwan Lewis, who went to South Carolina, and 6-5 defensive end Max Valles, who went to Virginia.
But Sacco is 257-54-5 in 31 seasons because he has built a program that has blended those top athletes with scrappy, hard-nosed kids who best represent the 380-student school in the heart of Hammonton.
An army of 5-10 offensive linemen have lived in that weight room in that dingy garage behind the practice field, and an endless parade of fireplug-like fullbacks and squat and sturdy linebackers.
But nobody has symbolized St. Joseph football better than Giagunto.
"It's sad," Sacco said. "If he was 6-1 or 6-2, he could go anywhere he wanted [in college] because of his ability to play this game."
Giagunto might have played the best game of his career in leading St. Joseph to a comeback victory over an athletic Absegami team that was on the verge of sneaking out of Bill Bendig Field with an upset for most of the hot and humid afternoon.
Giagunto didn't let it happen. The senior was 12-for-16 passing for 165 yards and two touchdowns. He ran for one two-point conversion and passed for another. He made a touchdown-saving tackle that was worth four points, because it forced Absegami to settle for a field goal.
But the play that summed up Giagunto's game - and probably his career, too - was an extra-point attempt by Absegami with 1 minute, 32 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.
Remember, the weather was brutal, with players on both sides dropping with cramps for much of the second half. This was part football game and part war of attrition, with St. Joseph losing running back Miles Pease with a shoulder injury in the first quarter, and Absegami junior David Hood, who put on a scintillating show with three long touchdowns in the first half, missing most of the second half with cramps.
Giagunto had cramps, too. He was limping for much of the game. But he played every snap on offense and defense and returned punts, too. His "rest" periods were during kickoffs and St. Joseph punts.
"I never played in a game like this before," said Giagunto, who lives in Williamstown. "I'm exhausted."
With just 92 seconds left in the game, and with St. Joseph holding a 37-29 lead after an Absegami touchdown, Giagunto had to make one more play - on a largely meaningless extra-point attempt.
"I told [junior] Cody Sampson to go inside," Giagunto said. "I said, 'I'm blocking this.' "
That's just what he did, rushing from the right side, laying out, and snuffing the kick.
Sacco shook his head and smiled when asked about Giagunto's block.
"What does that say about him?" Sacco said. "It says he's one of the best football players in South Jersey."
Giagunto is the best player on the team that will be No. 1 in South Jersey in Monday's Inquirer rankings, that has won 19 in a row, that has its sights set on all those Group 5 and Group 4 foes in the newly realigned Cape American.
He's also 5-foot-8. Maybe.
At St. Joseph, that seems just right.
Absegami 7 13 0 9 – 29
St. Joseph 7 7 7 16 – 37
SJ: Miles Pease 11 pass from Anthony Giagunto (Jon Ryker kick)
A: David Hood 69 pass from Mike Dolan (Nick Della Vecchia kick)
SJ: Cody Sampson 12 run (Ryker kick)
A: Hood 62 run (Della Vecchia kick)
A: Hood 60 run (kick failed)
SJ: Luke Ordille 12 pass from Giagunto (Ryker kick)
A: FG Della Vecchia 34
SJ: Robert Thompson 80 kickoff return (Giagunto run)
SJ: Sampson 9 run (Ordille pass from Giagunto)
A: Dustin Miller 12 pass from Dolan (kick failed)
*To see this story as it appeared in the South Jersey edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer, click here .*
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