• Dan Russoman

Hammonton rallies past Notre Dame


Kye Pressley (2) puts pressure on Notre Dame quarterback A.J. Surace (1) early in last week’s game. Hammonton topped Notre Dame 20-14.(THG/Dan Russoman. To purchase photos in The Gazette, call (609) 704-1940.)

HAMMONTON—For much of the preseason, Hammonton High School football coach Jim Raso talked about how he hoped his team would build on the success it had at the end of last season.


The Blue Devils were a young team, one that struggled at times, but by the end of the year had learned a lot and figured out how to win games.


The hope this fall was that those players would take the next step in their development and become a contending team.


Last week, the Blue Devils gave a glimpse of their potential, overcoming a seven-point halftime deficit to rally for a 20-14 win against a talented Notre Dame squad.


“Last year, I’m not sure we win this game,” Raso said after his team had scored a pair of second-half touchdowns to pull out a hard-fought victory.


“Trailing like we did at the half, after they [Notre Dame] made two big plays for touchdowns, I wasn’t sure how we’d respond. But the kids dug in, came out and made some big plays and pulled it out,” Raso said.


Leading the comeback for Hammonton was junior Justin Doughty, who wasn’t even expected to play after straining a ligament in his knee in the Blue Devils scrimmage at Cherry Hill West less than a week before last Friday night’s season-opener.


“I hurt my knee, sprained my MCL, and was only cleared to play today. Coach said I wouldn’t get in much, but at halftime, my teammates kept saying they needed me out there, and we went to Coach Raso and told him I had to play,” Doughty said.


The junior, who saw limited action in the first half, came into the game under center at some key points in the second half and sparked Hammonton to the win.


“He’s a talented kid. We weren’t sure what we’d get from him tonight, because he hurt himself in our last scrimmage. But he was cleared to play and the kids were all begging us to put him in the game,” Raso said.


Taking snaps under center, Doughty helped Hammonton tie the game midway through the third quarter when he rolled to his right and crossed the goal line for a 1-yard touchdown run that, combined with Drew Field’s extra point, knotted the game at 14-14.


Prior to that, Notre Dame had all the momentum, having scored twice in the second quarter to grab a 14-7 halftime lead.


“I did what I had to do. I knew I would score there,” Doughty said.


After a scoreless first quarter, Hammonton took a 7-0 lead with a 12-play, 65-yard drive that featured some strong runs from Kenny Smith and Lucas Goehringer, along with two key pass completions, one from Billy Way to Smith for 8 yards and another to Nakeem Powell for 11 yards that set up Smith’s 1-yard touchdown run with 5:53 left in the half.


Notre Dame answered with a scoring drive of its own. Beginning on their own 24-yard line, the Irish quickly moved into Hammonton territory before Rasheen Young broke free for a 46-yard touchdown run that tied the game 7-7.


After a Hammonton drive stalled with less than a minute left in the half, Notre Dame struck again, as quarterback A.J. Surace hit John Liedtka with a short screen pass and the speedy receiver broke a tackle and raced in for a 50-yard touchdown catch that gave the Irish a 14-7 halftime lead.


A lightning delay halted the game just before halftime, and inside the locker room, the Blue Devils made the decision to give Doughty a chance.


“When we went into the locker room, they said, ‘We need you,’ and I knew I had to step up. I got into the game, did what I had to do. I think I had some nice runs and had a few nice tackles on defense. I think I had a good second half,” Doughty said.


Raso agreed.


“He was in for a few plays in the first half, but he went in and did a great job for us in the third quarter, had some big runs and helped us on the defensive side as well,” Raso said.


On Hammonton’s first drive of the second half, the Blue Devils took advantage of a short Notre Dame punt and an 11-yard run by Smith to move to the Irish 1-yard line. On second down, Doughty faked an inside handoff and raced around the right side for a score that tied the game 14-14.


Smith’s long return on another Notre Dame punt set Hammonton up at the Irish 30-yard line. Facing fourth-and-four at the Notre Dame 24, Raso put the ball back in Doughty’s hands and the junior broke a 13-yard run that set up Goehringer’s 2-yard touchdown, putting the Blue Devils ahead for good at 20-14.


“I know the coaches have faith in me and I have faith in myself. I knew I could do it,” Doughty said.


The fourth quarter belonged to Hammonton, as Smith and the Blue Devils were able to keep the ball on the ground and run out the clock on a Notre Dame comeback.


Smith finished the game with 112 yards rushing, many of them on tough runs between the tackles.


“It’s all about conditioning. We work hard to play four quarters. This is extremely satisfying because it says a lot about us as a team. We’re going to push through, get some tough yards,” Smith said.


Smith said Hammonton was confident it could rally in the second half.


“This team is very resilient. We went in at halftime and knew we just needed to make a couple of plays to come back. We were a little tired, but we pushed through it. Our offensive line was getting a good push and we got it done,” Smith said.


Like his star running back, Raso was impressed with how well the Blue Devils responded to a challenge.


“We don’t want to be in this position every week, but it was good for our kids to respond like the did. They didn’t lose their heads. They had that eye. It was just a matter of getting a couple of stops and giving our offense some chances,” Raso said.


Next week, Hammonton hosts Cherokee at 6 p.m. on September 2.


“That one’s going to be tough,” Raso said.