Phil Anastasia: Sort of a farewell tour for Hammonton

The Hammonton football team takes a break during practice. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
The Hammonton football team takes a break during practice. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer) (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 08, 2013

When Hammonton football players climb into the buses on Friday afternoons this fall, they will know where they are going:

Down the White Horse Pike to Galloway to play Absegami.

Or down the Atlantic City Expressway to Exit 5, then south along Route 9 to visit Mainland in the Mustang Corral.

Or down the Black Horse Pike to Mays Landing for a game against Oakcrest.

Hammonton players, coaches, and fans have been making those trips for years and years. They know the routes, and they know the rivalries.

They will make another one of those familiar trips on Friday: Down the Atlantic City Expressway to Exit 5, then north on Route 9 into Absecon for a big game against Holy Spirit.

"Tough opener," Hammonton's veteran coach, Pete Lancetta, said the other day.

But every Hammonton regular-season game will be charged with a little extra meaning, since this campaign will mark the Blue Devils' final go-around in the Cape-Atlantic League.

Starting in 2014, Hammonton will be a member of the Tri-County Conference, which means the Blue Devils will be a member of the West Jersey Football League - another seismic shift in the landscape of the sport.

"Every week is going to be special," said Hammonton all-purpose senior standout Alex Padovani, a Villanova recruit. "This is the last time we're going to be playing these teams."

Hammonton's move will leave a mark both coming and going. The addition of the Blue Devils will deepen and strengthen the WJFL and create some rivalries that should pump fresh blood into the South Jersey scene.

As a Group 4 football program, Hammonton likely will be placed in the WJFL National or Constitution Division. The Blue Devils could be looking at new Route 206 rivalries with Shawnee and Seneca, a neighborly clash with Winslow Township - which would gain significance from the presence of all those Waterford Township students who now attend Hammonton - and trips northwest to face Gloucester County programs such as Clearview and Kingsway.

But as even Hammonton's arrival pushes the WJFL's reach southeast into Atlantic County, and adds one of South Jersey's most accomplished programs, the Blue Devils' departure takes a little luster away from the Cape-Atlantic League.

Hammonton has been one of the Cape's bedrock football programs, a five-time sectional champion and 15-time sectional finalist. The Blue Devils are one of the reasons the Cape American is the deepest division in South Jersey.

That division won't be the same in 2014 as Hammonton and Holy Spirit - which is dropping down to the Cape National - move out while St. Augustine Prep, Vineland, and Ocean City move in.

Which is another reason this season is so special to Hammonton. It's a farewell tour of sorts, a last dance with familiar old foes whose competitive fire has helped forge the Blue Devils into such a quality program.

"It's like every week we're playing a powerhouse," Padovani said.

Lancetta said he hopes that Hammonton will be able to maintain its 52-year-old series with St. Joseph, a crosstown clash that is one of South Jersey's richest rivalries. It would be a crime if that Thanksgiving weekend tradition went by the wayside.

The guess here is that the WJFL will give Hammonton an open date in its schedule for St. Joseph. So not all of the Blue Devils' history will be lost when they close the locker room for the last time in 2013.

But Friday afternoon likely will mark the last trip to Holy Spirit. And Oct. 25 will mark the last visit to Mainland (in the regular season, anyway). And Nov. 8 will mark the last home game against Millville.

"We want to go out strong," Padovani said. "We want to let those teams remember us."


Contact Phil Anastasia at panastasia@phillynews.com.

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