• Dan Russoman

Late touchdown lifts HHS past Highland


A.J. Ryker (10) stretches the ball across the goal line as Highland’s Devon Frazier (24) tries to make the tackle during last week’s game. (THG/Dan Russoman.To purchase photos in The Gazette, call (609) 704-1940.)

HAMMONTON—With its fading South Jersey playoff hopes on the line, Hammonton High School’s football team awarded its large homecoming crowd with a 21-17 victory, giving the Blue Devils their first winning streak of the season.


A.J. Ryker’s 18-yard touchdown run with 39 seconds left in the game capped a thrilling comeback for Hammonton, which trailed twice in the second half.


“This is huge because it gives us a chance to make the playoffs and it’s great to win on homecoming and our last home game as a senior,” Ryker said.


Hammonton trailed 17-14 with 4:18 left in the game after Highland’s Justin Carter hit a 28-yard field goal.


Taking over at their own 34-yard line, the Blue Devils drove for the winning score in 10 plays, capped by Ryker’s second touchdown run of the night.


Two pass completions, one to Ryker and another from quarterback Billy Way to Austin Hudak, helped Hammonton quickly move the ball into Highland territory. A 16-yard pass from Way to Kenny Smith put the ball inside the Tartan’s 30-yard line. Three plays later, Hammonton faced a fourth-and-two at the Highland 18-yard line.


With the game on the line, Hammonton put the ball in Ryker’s hands and the senior running back sprinted around the right side, broke a tackle and rumbled into the end zone for the go-ahead score.


“I just saw one kid, put my shoulder down and ran through him,” Ryker said.


Trailing late in the game, Ryker said the Blue Devils were confident they would come back and win.


“We knew we could run behind our line and give me and Kenny [Smith] a shot to drive down the field,” he said.


As for getting the call on the game-winning play, Ryker was sure he’d find the end zone.


“That’s what I’m here for, I’m a last chance kind of guy,” Ryker said.


The game was a special one for Ryker, who was playing for just the second time since suffering a broken leg in Hammonton’s third game of the season.


“Having a guy like Ryker, what a difference-maker he is. I’m just happy he was able to come back and enjoy some success in his senior year because there’s a kid that deserves it,” Hammonton coach Jim Raso said.


All the scoring in last week’s game came in the second half as neither team was able to move the ball well for the first two quarters.


Highland’s first two drives were thwarted by turnovers, as Ryker and Jaron Hill each had first-quarter interceptions.


Hammonton also turned the ball over early in the second quarter, and the Blue Devils never advanced past the Tartans’ 25-yard line before halftime.


Following the homecoming festivities at the break, the Blue Devils opening drive of the third quarter stalled at the Highland 29-yard line, setting up the first score of the game.


Highland grabbed a 7-0 lead when Angelo Rodriguez broke a tackle and sprinted 51-yards for a touchdown with 8:25 remaining in the quarter.


The Blue Devils answered back on their next possession, as Way hit Ryker for a 10-yard completion before Lucas Goehringer’s 12-yard run put the ball near midfield. Way then connected with Smith for a 57-yard gain that set Hammonton up at the Highland 8-yard line. Two plays later, Ryker stretched the ball across the goal line to put the Blue Devils on the scoreboard.


The extra point attempt was blocked by Highland, allowing the Tartans to hold a slim 7-6 lead, which they extended on their next drive.


A 61-yard kickoff return from Brendon Kehler set up a seven-play drive that ended when Connor Leary found Omar Smith in the back of the end zone for a 15-yard touchdown pass that gave Highland a 14-6 lead.


The play was not without controversy, however, as Hammonton argued that Highland had 12 players on the field. After a brief conference, the officials allowed the play and Hammonton trailed with 2:34 left in the third quarter.


Once again, the Blue Devils rallied, this time marching 80 yards in six plays, the biggest a 31-yard run from Goehringer that moved the ball inside the Highland 40-yard line. Later in the drive, Goehringer broke free for a 17-yard touchdown run that cut Hammonton’s deficit to 14-12.


The Blue Devils went for the two-point conversion and Ryker hit Hudak on an option pass to tie the game 14-14.


Hammonton forced a Highland punt to start the fourth quarter, but the ball hit off a Blue Devil, allowing the Tartans to maintain possession deep in Hammonton territory. The Devils’ defense held, and the Tartans settled for Carter’s field goal and a 17-14 lead with 4:18 remaining.


That led to Hammonton’s eventual game-winning drive, which ended with Ryker’s 18-yard run.


Highland had one final possession, but it ended with Hill’s second interception of the game.


The win marked the first time this season Hammonton had won two-straight games.


“This group needed something like that. It’s been a roller coaster ride and we’ve been able to kind of get back on track [the last two weeks]. We were kind of off the rails but we got back on track last week and we wanted to see if we could play our best football. We did leave a few plays out there tonight, but overall this was probably our best effort this year,” Raso said.


Hammonton’s coach was pleased with his team’s resiliency in the game.


“To not panic at the end and have guys step up and make big plays. Kenny [Smith] had some nice runs and the quarterback [Way] did some nice things tonight and the line I thought overall, we were able to get our feet under us and do some things in the second half. We ran some different formations and we were outflanking them a little bit. It was a good team effort and the defense stepped up all night.


In the past, we may have mentally gone in the tank but tonight we just kept fighting and fighting. That’s the thing I’m most proud about, that they kept fighting the whole game. The seniors did a great job in showing the younger guys how to win a game like this and hopefully, that proves big down the road,” Raso said.


This week, Hammonton wraps up the regular season at Triton on October 29 at 6 p.m.