Senior lineman Johnny Scibilia grew up around the Hammonton High School football program.
His uncles, cousins and brothers played for the team. He was a ball boy growing up.
On Friday night, Scibilia will play in a game that used to serve as a tribute to the town of Hammonton’s love of football.
The Blue Devils will host neighborhood rival St. Joseph Academy for the first time since 2013. Kickoff is at 6 p.m.
“I’ve always wanted to play St. Joe,” Scibilia said.
St. Joseph vs. Hammonton used to be one of the biggest games in all of South Jersey football. The contest was usually played the Saturday morning after Thanksgiving. The teams share not only a town but an impressive football tradition.
Hammonton, with 36 playoff appearances and six sectional titles, is a perennial power. So is St. Joseph with 20 state championships since the state non-public playoffs began in 1993. Hammonton leads the series 28-23-1.
The rivalry began in 1962. At that point, most of St. Joe’s students lived in Hammonton. The games sometimes matched brother against brother. Players on both teams often grew up as teammates on the Hammonton Hawks, the town’s Atlantic County Junior Football league team.
The tenor of the rivalry changed in the 1990s as St. Joe began to draw more students from outside of Hammonton.
But then tenor of the games remained the same. They were always hard-hitting and often low-scoring. There was the 0-0 tie in 1990 and St. Joe’s 6-2 win in 2003.
The rivalry had it all and was always at the center of the energetic debate over competition between public and non-public schools.
The series was filled with great moments that defined players’ high school careers.
James Hargrave is one of the best players in St. Joe history and few will forget him zig-zagging the length of the field while returning an interception 77 yards in St. Joe’s 8-7 win over Hammonton in 2001.
In 2000, Hammonton pulled off one of the most memorable plays in school history when it won 14-7 on a double-reverse touchdown pass with 42 seconds left.
The rivalry ended after the 2013 game when Hammonton left the Cape-Atlantic League for the Tri-County Conference and the West Jersey Football League. But in 2016, St. Joe and the rest of the CAL merged with the WJFL.
Hammonton and St. Joe could have renewed their rivalry but chose not to.
The game was at an awkward spot in the schedule. It came right in the middle of the playoffs. Hammonton and the Wildcats were often involved in playoff title games either the days before their contest or the week after. A hard-hitting, emotional contest at that point benefitted neither school.
But truth be told, both sides got too close to the rivalry’s fire and when that happens, it’s easy to get burned.
It became too easy for both schools to focus on the stress and hard feelings an intense rivalry can foster.
Meanwhile, those who looked at the games from afar saw the rivalry revealing everything that was good about two of the state’s premier programs.
Hammonton and St. Joe are playing Friday almost by accident. They both lost WJFL pod games last week. The opponents they would have played had to pull out because of COVID-19. With nobody to play, the WJFL matched the two schools against each other.
This is the perfect year for the schools to meet again. In a season with no true playoffs, Friday night will give players on both teams memories to last a lifetime.
Here’s hoping that Friday isn’t just a one-time thing but the renewal of rivalry.
St. Joe vs. Hammonton is the perfect way to end the 2020 season. A season-opening matchup before a packed stands would be a great way to begin the 2021 season.
Michael McGarry’s Must Win column appears Fridays in The Press.
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