• Dan Russoman

Blue Devils cruise past Wildcats


Hammonton’s Ava Divello (right) shoots over St. Joseph defender Cassidy Perri during last week’s game. (THG/Dan Russoman.To purchase photos in The Gazette, call (609) 704-1940.)

HAMMONTON—A day filled with nervous jitters ended on a positive note for first-year Hammonton girls basketball coach Mike Velardi last week, as the Blue Devils topped rival St. Joseph 35-13 in their season-opener on January 29.


“I was nervous all day, just a wreck. But the butterflies are gone now and this [the win] feels really nice,” Velardi said.


Hammonton was sluggish at the start of the game, but quickly found its rhythm on offense and build a 12-5 first-quarter lead behind four baskets from sophomore Emma Peretti.


Velardi blamed a lack of practice time for his team’s slow start.


“We came out sloppy. But that’s to be expected because we only had one week of practice and no scrimmage. We also have one player out with an illness. It was hard to even scrimmage against each other with just nine players,” he said.


Neither team was able to manage much offense in the second period, as Hammonton hit a few shots and St. Joseph was held scoreless. The strong defensive effort by the Blue Devils carried into the second half, as the Wildcats were unable to put any points on the board for almost 16 minutes of playing time.


“I thought our defensive intensity was good. We limited what they were able to do,” Velardi said.


St. Joseph coach Matt O’Keefe also gave credit to Hammonton’s defense.


“They forced us into a lot of mistakes and we didn’t protect the ball enough. It’s something we have to get better at, making the right decisions,” O’Keefe said.


O’Keefe had questioned his team’s intensity in its opening-night loss at Millville earlier last week, but was pleased with the energy the Wildcats showed against Hammonton.


“I think we picked it up more tonight. Defensively, we only allowed 35 points, which is good. Now we need to get better offensively,” he said.


St. Joe had come chances to score, but a few shots rolled out and others were just slightly off the mark.


“It was the same way the other night [against Millville]. We had some shots go in-and-out. If those fall, maybe it’s a different game,” O’Keefe said.


Hammonton also shot poorly in the game, missing some open looks and a few easy layups.

“Again, I think that’s more a product of not having a lot of practice. We’ll get better,” Velardi said.


“We have things to work on, handling the ball, making better passes. We need to limit the turnovers,” Velardi said.


Both teams feature young lineups, and the inexperience showed as each was tentative in their offensive sets and both had some defensive breakdowns.


“We did some good things but we have a lot to work on,” Velardi said.


Hammonton’s coach also admitted he has room for improvement.


“We won the game. We didn’t play as well as we wanted to play, but for our first game we did a really nice job. And it was new for me, so after one game, I know what I have to work on, too,” Velardi said.


Velardi also felt his team may have looked past St. Joe, a team coming off a 1-21 season.


“We watched some of their game against Millville the other night and I think we may have come out a little complacent tonight, thinking this would be easy. But give Coach [O’Keefe] credit, he had his team ready to play and they were tough,” Velardi said.


Despite the less than perfect performance, Velardi was pleased to earn a win, the first of his career at Hammonton High School.


“I feel a lot better now. I’m happy it was nerves the whole day. I had jitters. I’m proud of the girls it’s a great group to coach,” Velardi said.