• Dan Russoman

A unique year for local sports


St. Joseph’s Jordan Stafford (right) dribbles past Wildwood Catholic’s Jahlil White (left) during the Wildcats win against the top-ranked Crusaders last February. (THG/Dan Russoman.To purchase photos in The Gazette, call (609) 704-1940.)

HAMMONTON—The last 12 months were unlike any year in history for sports in Hammonton, as a global pandemic wrought havoc on the sports world.


While there was plenty of disappointment and uncertainty during the year, there was also plenty to celebrate and enjoy for local athletes, coaches and fans.


January


The year began with some strong play at the local high schools. Hammonton’s wrestling team won the Overbrook Tournament, continuing its success at the annual holiday-week event.


Nat Karl set a new HHS record in the indoor shot put, while the Blue Devils’ boys basketball team placed second at Woodstown’s holiday tournament.


That victory continued a string of success for the local basketball teams, as Hammonton’s girls started their season strong, as did the St. Joseph boys basketball squad.


The Wildcats carried their early success to a 6-0 start, setting up what would be a memorable season.


Early in the month, St. Joseph delivered head coach Paul Rodio the 100th win of his career.


Hammonton’s wrestlers also did well, taking second place at the Hammonton duals, while the boys indoor track team, led by Karl, Caleb Nartey and Connor Wright, continued to set records.


Late in the month, the West Jersey Football League announced its schedule which included a season-opening game between longtime rivals Hammonton and St. Joseph. It would be the first time the teams had met since 2014.


February


In early February, Hammonton senior basketball player Jada Thompson passed the 1,000-point mark for her career, helping lead the Blue Devils past Gloucester County Institute of Technology.


Karl broke his own record in the shot put, continuing what would be a stellar season for him and the Blue Devils in 2020. Karl and Thompson’s milestones were part of many strong individual performances that would mark a strong month of high school sports.


Hammonton’s girls track team saw many records fall at the Varsity Classic in Staten Island, as Sydirah Walden, Emma Amilcare and Emily Dustman each set new school records in the triple jump and 200-meter dash, respectively.


Midway through the month, Karl, Nartey and Jane Azuonwu earned berths in the state indoor track championships. Karl and Azuonwu competed in shot put, while Nartey earned a trip in the 100-meter dash after winning the South Jersey Group 3 championship.


Maybe the biggest win of the month came when St. Joe’s boys basketball team topped rival Wildwood Catholic 66-58 for its first win against the Crusaders in more than a decade. The victory snapped a 23-game losing streak to the Crusaders.


Later in the month, seven local wrestlers advanced to the Region 8 championships with top-three finishes at District 32.


Hammonton’s Lloyd Kawei won at 220 pounds, while Ryan Figueroa, Max Elton, Santino Pontarelli and St. Joseph’s Alex Giordano and Bryan Butkus each finished second in their weight classes. Hammonton’s Phil Mahran advanced with a third-place finish.


March


Competing at Region 8, Figueroa and Giordano each earned trips to Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City for the state championships, as Giordano placed third in the region, while Figueroa was fourth.


Both wrestlers competed well at the state championships but fell short of the medal stand.


St. Joseph’s boys basketball team posted its first-ever win in the Cape Atlantic League tournament, defeating Atlantic City, but the Wildcats lost to Wildwood Catholic in the league semifinals.


The Wildcats would go on to beat Ranney Prep in the state playoffs before being ousted in the quarterfinals by Holy Cross.


Hammonton’s girls basketball team closed out its regular season with seven-straight wins, but the Blue Devils fell to Washington Twp. in the opening round of the South Jersey playoffs.


Midway through March, the pandemic forced the suspension of all sports activities, leaving the remainder of the season in doubt until a decision to cancel play was made in May.


April


In addition to high school sports being suspended, many youth organizations also opted to postpone the state of their seasons or cancel them entirely. For the first time since 1946, there were no Little League games at Hammonton Lake Park.


On April 17, the town and the local sports community was stunned when the Diocese of Camden announced that it was closing St. Joseph High School at the end of the school year. The news meant that St. Joe’s student athletes would possibly have to find new places to finish their athletic careers and was met with anger and resentment from many alumni. The announcement also sparked an effort to save the school and keep it open independently, something that would happen later in the year.


May


With little happening in the sports world due to the ongoing pandemic, spring teams continued to wait for a final decision on their season from the NJSIAA. The decision many had hoped would never arrive did midway through the month when the organization opted to cancel the spring season, costing many athletes their final chance to play high school sports.


The decision also marked the end of Hammonton High Schools tenure as a member of the Tri-County Conference, as the school rejoined the Cape Atlantic League beginning in the fall of 2020. For six years, the Blue Devils competed against some of the best teams in the state week in and week out against tough Tri-County competition.


Also in May, the Atlantic County Baseball League (ACBL), which has been in operation for more than a century, began to explore its options for the 2020 season which had been slated to open in May but was also a casualty of the pandemic.


On a more positive note, late in May, Hammonton High School’s football team received its championship rings for winning the Central Jersey Group 4 title in the fall of 2019.


June


Pandemic restrictions began to relax a little in June, as youth leagues began to plan shortened seasons and high school athletes conducted virtual workouts with their coaches.


The NJSIAA began planning a way to conduct a fall season and remained optimistic that there would be action beginning in September when the new school year began.


Late in June, Little League teams began outdoor workouts and it was announced that the local league would host a season later in the summer.


July


With outdoor sports cleared to play, many travel organizations began to compete around the state and country. The Hammonton Stars brought home three championships as they began a successful summer season of baseball.


The Hammonton Stingrays swim program announced that it would open with clinics for its young swimmers several times a week.


The ACBL opened its season and the Hammonton Hot Shots, led by a strong group of young players new to the roster, quickly established themselves as one of the top teams in the league.


The Hot Shots hosted one of the more memorable events of the year in July, taking on a team of Hammonton High School seniors who had lost their final season with the Blue Devils. The game was well-played and brought a large crowd to Hammonton Lake Park for an evening of activities that included fireworks after the game.


August


The final weeks of summer saw the Stingrays host a mini-meet where its swimmers were able to compete against each other and win medals and ribbons, capping a fun summer at the Swim Club.


The Hot Shots earned the top seed in the ACBL playoffs, but were eliminated in the semifinals by eventual league champion Absecon.


While the NJSIAA continued to work on a plan for the fall season, high school teams were beginning workouts under new social-distancing rules that limited the number of participants and how practices could be conducted.


On the field, Kiwanis won the championship of the Hammonton Little League, which enjoyed a strong, if shortened, season with fewer teams than usual.


The Hammonton Stars also played well as the summer came to an end, winning more titles.

Near the end of the month, the Hammonton Hawks first decided not to play in the Atlantic County Junior Football League in 2020, but quickly reversed that decision and began their own workouts at Hammonton Lake Park.


September


Early in September, the NJSIAA announced that fans would be allowed at outdoor games once they began in early October. Football, soccer, field hockey and cross country were set to begin practices later in the month, while the girls volleyball season was postponed until March.


High school teams were shut down for two weeks to open the month as the NJSIAA sought a “reset” for teams to address any COVID-19 issues.


Local Little League All-Star teams competed in District 16 and Section 4 tournaments, but none brought home titles.


Local golfer Olivia Strigh capped a strong summer season by being named the Philadelphia PGA Junior Tour’s Player of the Year for the Girls 16-18 division. She won eight tournaments on the tour, which includes players from southern New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and parts of Maryland.


Also in September, St. Joseph Academy announced it would open as an independent school, meaning the Wildcats would be back on the field competing again for championships.


October


With a little more than two weeks to prepare, fall sports teams at Hammonton and St. Joseph began regular season play. St. Joe’s football team lost its season opener to rival Holy Spirit, but bounced back with three wins to close the month.


At Hammonton, the Blue Devils were also off to a strong start before the team was shut down for two weeks after a few players and staff tested positive for COVID-19.


The virus also impacted other teams, as several soccer and field hockey games were canceled due to teams having positive tests. Hammonton’s boys soccer team started well, as did the field hockey squad which was one of the best in the Cape Atlantic League.


At St. Joe, the boys and girls soccer teams struggled as they played with short-handed, inexperienced rosters. The Wildcats’ field hockey team started slowly, but put together a stretch of four wins in five games.


The Hammonton Hawks also began their season, as teams at each level enjoyed mixed success.


November


Issues with COVID-19 continued to impact the season, as Hammonton’s field hockey team was shut down because it had played a team with positive test results. The NJSIAA came up with a plan for postseason games, and the Blue Devils reached the semifinals of their bracket before losing to Egg Harbor Twp. Despite the loss, Hammonton’s field hockey team turned its best record in five seasons.


On the soccer field, Hammonton’s boys advanced to the semifinals without playing a game when opponents were forced out due to the virus. The Devils lost to Cherry Hill West in their lone postseason game. Hammonton’s girls were ousted early in the tournament by Mainland, but also enjoyed a strong, if short, season.


At St. Joe, the field hockey team made the playoffs, but lost its opening-round game.


There were no playoffs in football, as the WJFL opted to go with a few four-team “pods.”

Hammonton bounced back from its two-week layoff to beat Cedar Creek, then took a tough one-point loss at Williamstown.


St. Joseph opened its “pod” with a loss at Ocean City, snapping a five-game winning streak.


Those two losses set up a renewal of the rivalry, as St. Joe played at Hammonton in the teams’ first meeting since 2014. St. Joseph controlled much of the game, posting a 13-0 win in a game that drew interest from around the region and created pressure on both the schools and the league to schedule the teams to play again next season.


St. Joseph would end its season with a win at Burlington Twp., while Hammonton ended its year by beating Shawnee.


December


With a successful fall season completed, the NJSIAA moved on to the winter sports schedule. A decision by Governor Phil Murphy to suspend indoor sports until January 2 forced the NJSIAA to move back the start of the winter season, with basketball and bowling slated to begin play on January 26, while indoor track will start in mid-February. Wrestling was moved even more, and will begin workouts on March 1.


With no one playing or practicing, the focus shifted to off-the-field news, as several local athletes were named as Cape Atlantic League All-Stars for their strong play during the season.


In addition, several athletes announced their college decisions, accepting scholarships to continue their playing careers at the next level.


Also in December, Hammonton native Joe Gatto signed a contract with the Texas Rangers, continuing his professional baseball career.


The last 12 months were far from what many expected when the year began, but despite unseen challenges, local athletes delivered many historic and spectacular moments that will be remembered for a long time.