• Dan Russoman

Strong teams, individual success highlighted 2020


St. Joseph’s Cohl Mercado (3) lunges for the end zone as Hammonton’s Brock Weissman (21) pursues during last November’s game. (THG/Dan Russoman.To purchase photos in The Gazette, call (609) 704-1940.)

HAMMONTON—While 2020 will mostly be looked at as a year many may want to forget, there were several stories on the local level that will be looked back at as significant in the history of sports in Hammonton.


Here are the top sports stories of 2020.


10—Youth sports thrive. Hammonton sported the first Little League outside of Pennsylvania in 1947, and since then, the town has seen success in many youth sports. The COVID-19 pandemic impacted youth organizations in 2020, but not until after the Hammonton Bulldogs had enjoyed a strong winter season on the basketball court.


The Little League was forced to shorten its season and play later in the summer, but there were still plenty of fun nights at Hammonton Lake Park. The Hammonton Stingrays did a great job of hosting events for their swimmers, and in the fall the Hammonton Hawks were back playing at William T. Capella Field, where they also had a solid year.


The Hammonton Youth Soccer Association, as well as the many travel teams around town also had to adjust their schedules but were able to provide play for their athletes this year.


9—Hot Shots continue to be one of the top teams in the ACBL. The pandemic helped create a new-look roster for Hammonton’s entry in the Atlantic County Baseball League this summer, and while the season was short, the Hot Shots remained one of the best squads on the circuit. Hammonton was at the top of the standings for most of the season, but fell short of a title with a loss in the semifinals.


8—Paul Rodio earns his 100th win. St. Joseph’s boys basketball coach has enjoyed much success since taking over the program in 2014, and last winter the Wildcats gave their coach his 100th win, taking down Buena Regional in a packed gym at St. Joe. Rodio has seen his St. Joseph teams increase their win totals in each of his six seasons, and last season he led the Wildcats to their first-ever win in the Cape Atlantic League tournament.


7—Jada Thompson and Marcus Pierce top 1,000 points. Thompson, a senior guard for Hammonton’s girls basketball team, helped lead the Blue Devils to a hard-fought win at Gloucester County Institute of Technology in mid-January, hitting a free throw to give her 1,000 points for her stellar career. Pierce, a junior who transferred to St. Joseph last year, notched the milestone point in the Wildcats’ playoff win against Ranney Prep, converting a reverse layup early in the game.


6—Fall season shortened. Faced with concerns and issues surrounding COVID-19, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) decided to play a shortened fall season that began in early October and finished at Thanksgiving weekend. Teams in most sports were able to play between 10 and 12 games, and the NJSIAA hosted abbreviated postseason tournaments in every sport but football. It was far from an ideal situation, but in the end accomplished its goal of providing a meaningful season for high school athletes.


5—Hot Shots host Hammonton seniors. In what was one of the most fun and emotional nights of the year, the Hammonton Hot Shots took on Hammonton High School’s senior baseball players in an exhibition game at Hammonton Lake Park. The idea came from Hot Shots manager Sam Rodio Jr., himself a Hammonton alumus who felt bad that the seniors never had a chance to play together as their spring baseball season was canceled.


Fans lined the fences at Hammonton Lake Park as the seniors were announced to the crowd and played well in a loss to the Hot Shots that was about far more than winning and losing.


4—St. Joseph boys basketball beats Wildwood Catholic. For more than a decade and 23-straight games, St. Joseph’s boys basketball team had lost to its Cape Atlantic League rival. But that all changed on February 11, when the Wildcats stunned a Crusaders team that was ranked as one of the best in the state.


The 66-58 win came in front of a packed gym at St. Joseph, and sent a loud message to the rest of the state that the Wildcats were a team to watch. Pierce scored 25 points as the Wildcats controlled the tempo of the game and outhustled their rivals for one of the biggest wins in the history of the program.


3—St. Joe closes, then reopens. Sad news came in April when the Diocese of Camden announced it was closing St. Joseph High School at the end of the school year in June. That decision sparked speculation as to whether or not St. Joe could survive and led many to believe the school’s athletes would scatter around the region to other schools.


Instead of packing up, St. Joseph rallied and spent the summer working to develop an independent school. Funds were raised and the community rallied behind the effort, resulting in the new St. Joseph Academy, which opened its doors in September. Many student athletes weathered the storm and stuck with St. Joe, allowing the school to field several teams last fall.


2—Global pandemic wreaks havoc on sports world. The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) forced the cancelation of the spring sports season, caused a late start for summer and fall sports, which each had shortened seasons, and it has already shifted the start of many winter seasons.


Dealing with the virus became not just a day-to-day issue for teams and leagues, but almost a hour-by-hour crisis as decisions were made almost every day on whether or not to play games.


The up-and-down nature caused frustration and uncertainty, but leaders at all levels were able to adapt as the year progressed and came up with creative and successful ways to host sporting events.


1—The Hammonton-St. Joe game returns. It didn’t happen as planned, but the rivals met on the football field for the first time since 2014. With no postseason for high school football, an opening was created that allowed Hammonton to host St. Joseph a week before Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, both teams had to suffer losses for the game to happen, but when they did the West Jersey Football League quickly assigned the game. Pandemic concerns limited attendance, but hundreds watched the game online as St. Joseph posted a 13-0 victory.