• Dan Russoman

St. Joseph rolls to win


St. Joseph’s Jahmeer Cartagena (1) leaps to catch a touchdown pass in last week’s game.  Washington Twp.’s Yashahya Brown (28) defends. (THG/Dan Russoman.To purchase photos in The Gazette, call (609) 704-1940.)

HAMMONTON—Growing up in Atlantic City, Jahmeer Cartagena’s friends often called him “Clumsy” for his awkwardness.


Few would use that word to describe the St. Joseph Academy wide receiver today, as Cartagena hauled in two touchdown passes, including the one that sealed the Wildcats 31-21 victory against Washington Twp. last weekend. That victory, the 350th of head coach Paul Sacco’s career, gave St. Joseph the West Jersey Football League Continental Division title in a much-anticipated homecoming matchup at William T. Capella Field.


Cartagena had touchdown catches of 55 and 35 yards in the Wildcats win, finishing the game with five receptions for 179 yards.


The senior transferred from Atlantic City last summer and has made an immediate impact in his first season at St. Joe.


“That’s why I came here, to make big plays,” Cartagena said.


“All summer long, we’ve been working. I knew I was going to come in this season and go crazy,” he said.


Cartagena grew up with St. Joseph quarterback Ja’son Prevard, and the pair’s familiarity has paid huge dividends for the Wildcats this season.


“We’re a very dangerous combination. At practice, I always preach to him [Cartagena] that I’m going to put air under the ball, and he just has to go get it. Our chemistry is really there. We’re best friends,” Prevard said.


“The chemistry is really there and it’s really nice being back together. We’re best friends. We talk about making plays. We talk about winning. We want to win state title. That’s the main goal,” Prevard said.


Last week’s game marked St. Joe’s first “home” contest in Hammonton since the end of the 2019 season. The Wildcats returned to Capella Field, their home for decades prior to 1996, for the first time since defeating Bishop Eustace Prep in the 2003 state championship game.


“We have a lot of history here and it was nice to be back. We’re very thankful to everyone who helped make this happen,” Sacco said.


With the victory, St. Joe clinched the division title.


“That’s always been our first goal, to win our division. I don’t think too many people thought we would this year. We beat a lot of very talented teams,” Sacco said.


The win was also the 350th of Sacco’s career.


“It’s a big number, one I never imagined I would get close to. I never thought I’d be around this long. This year has been tough, maybe the toughest I’ve ever had. But records are meant to be broken. I’m sure when I leave, someone else will break that number,” Sacco said.


Playing in front of a large homecoming crowd, St. Joe appeared on the brink of posting its fifth-straight lopsided win, as the Wildcats jumped out to a quick 14-0 first-quarter lead.


On its first possession of the game, St. Joseph drove 75-yards in seven plays, capped by the first of four touchdown passes from Prevard, this one a 26-yard connection to Cohl Mercado.


The Wildcats continued to roll following a Washington Twp. punt, marching 69 yards for another touchdown. Mercado’s 24-yard option pass to Cartagena helped set up Prevard’s 7-yard touchdown pass to Jahqir Haley that put the Wildcats up 14-0.


Once again, St. Joe’s defense forced a punt, and on its third possession of the game, the Wildcats struck quickly as Prevard hit Cartagena for a 55-yard touchdown.


“They are outstanding and do a great job together,” Sacco said of Prevard and Cartagena, who have connected for 11 touchdown passes this season.


Following that score, St. Joe appeared in control of the game, but Washington Twp. fought back, scoring twice in a span of 14 seconds.


Trailing 21-0, the Minutemen put their first points on the board with 8:43 remaining in the half as Jo’Nathan Silver broke free for a 68-yard touchdown run that cut St. Joe’s lead to 21-7.


On the ensuing kickoff, Township stripped the ball from St. Joseph returner Nasir Mahmoud and Giuliano Scavetta ran it 32-yards for another touchdown, pulling the Minutemen to within a touchdown.


“That’s something that we’ve struggled with all year, just too many mistakes and missed tackles. It looked like we had them down and then, bang, they’re back in the game,” Sacco said.


Still holding a 21-14 lead midway through the third quarter, St. Joseph drove to the Washington Twp. 11-yard line, but a sack pushed the ball back to the 20, where the Wildcats settled for a 36-yard field goal from Trevin DelGozzo.


Early in the fourth quarter, Cartagena helped St. Joe pull further away when he leaped near the sideline to catch a pass from Prevard for a 35-yard touchdown that gave the Wildcats a 31-14 advantage.


That score proved important, as Washington Twp. continued to claw back into the game. Late in the fourth quarter, the Minutemen drove for a score, this one coming when Haley jumped to intercept a Jared Dzierzgowski pass and tipped into the hands of Michael Lotsey, who raced 48 yards for a touchdown, making the final score 31-21.


The win improved St. Joseph to 7-2 this season. The Wildcats are idle this week and will await their seeding and opening opponent in the Non-Public B playoffs when those are announced on October 31.


For Sacco, the win upped his career record to 350-70-5. He is the winningest active coach in New Jersey and under his guidance, the Wildcats have won 20 state and seven sectional championships.