• Dan Russoman

Young Blue Devils ready for a new season


Hammonton quarterback Andrew Wehner (7) hands off to A.J. Ryker (4) early in the Blue Devils scrimmage against Sterling last week. (THG/Dan Russoman.To purchase photos in The Gazette, call (609) 704-1940.)

HAMMONTON—With almost all its starters lost to graduation, the 2021 season is shaping up as a rebuilding year for Hammonton High School’s football team.


The Blue Devils return just four starters from a year ago, and the team will feature many underclassmen with little or no varsity experience.


“The experience factor is an issue for us and the youth, for a lot of these guys it’s been their first varsity action. Some have only played JV, we have a couple of freshman and sophomores who are going to be out there,” Hammonton coach Jim Raso said.


Raso and the Blue Devils’ coaching staff have been in this position before. During the 2018 season, Hammonton featured a roster composed mostly of underclassmen.


“Yeah, we’ve been through this. I think we have a pretty good idea of where we are and what we need to do,” Raso said.


With so many younger players, Hammonton has spent much of the preseason getting back to basics.


“As a staff, we said, ‘hey, we have to start right from the beginning.’ We’re working on stuff we probably haven’t had to do in the past couple of years with the experience we had,” Raso said.


With two preseason scrimmages under their belts, Hammonton feels ready to play its season opener this week.


“We saw some good things and some bad [in the scrimmages]. I think at times our eyes were kind of big, but once we settled in, we played very well,” Raso said.


Raso and his staff are optimistic, although they acknowledge the Blue Devils may go through some growing pains.


“Our goal is to have ourselves at a starting point and see where we go. I’m sure it won’t be easy, but the kids are ready to work,” Raso said.


Among the new starters this season will be sophomore quarterback Andrew Wehner. Wehner started at linebacker as a freshman last season, but has not played quarterback since he was on his midget football team.


Wehner has had his share of ups and downs during the preseason, but Raso has confidence in his signal-caller.


“He [Wehner] started on defense as a freshman last year, so we know the moment isn’t too big for him. First time he’s played quarterback in a few years and the big thing was the timing, him getting his steps down. That’s a work in progress. He’s not afraid,” Raso said.


Hammonton’s offense is run-oriented, which will take some pressure off Wehner, who will hand the ball to some new faces in the Blue Devils backfield.


Senior A.J. Ryker started at running back a year ago and returns this season. A quick runner with good power for his size, Ryker should see his workload increase after enjoying limited carries last fall.


Lucas Goehringer, C.J. Rossiter and Berto Barber will also see action in the backfield, as will freshman Kenny Smith, who was impressive in preseason scrimmages.


“He [Smith] looks like he could be a special player,” Raso said of Smith, who has a solid combination of speed and elusiveness.


When Hammonton throws the football, Wehner has solid targets in wide receivers Jaron Hill and Dylan Testa. Hill, a standout basketball player, has good size and speed, while Testa played well in the preseason.


Senior tackle Luis Rodriguez anchors a young offensive line for Hammonton, which could see contributions from several players this season.


“The line is young and will have to step up quickly. Luis [Rodriguez] is a veteran and he’s the leader,” Raso said.


“Right now, we’re still trying to finalize the guys up front. We have a little bit of a rotation that is working out well, keeping these guys a little fresher. We’re lacking experience up front. These guys have to improve quick, and keep getting better. It’s a new group. We told the O-line our tradition is to get off the ball and we like to be mean and nasty up front. Now it’s their turn,” Raso said.


Among those fighting for starting spots up front are seniors Luciano Nistico and Rocco Leo, as well as a freshman, Christian Medina. Junior Elijah Church has the size and attitude to dominate.


“He [Church] has looked very good on both sides of the ball,” Raso said.


Many of those same linemen will handle duties on the defensive side, where Hammonton plans to rotate players on and off the field.


Senior linebacker Austin Hudak leads the defensive unit, coming off a strong 2020 campaign.


“Austin [Hudak] really kind of surprised us last year with how he took hold of the job and just got better every week. He’s gotten bigger and faster and he’s our captain on defense,” Raso said.


Ryker and Wehner will join Hudak at linebacker.


Hammonton’s secondary will lack experience, as sophomores Justin Doughty and Julian Valentin are expected to start alongside Rossiter, Hill and Testa.


Even with a young roster, Raso is reluctant to admit his team may be in a rebuild.


“Our goal is to get these guys playing experience and try to be playing our best football at the end of the year. The goal is still to make it into the postseason. You never know what can happen there. We want to compete for the division title. We have a long way to go because of the inexperience. It all comes down to how fast these kids can improve,” Raso said.


Hammonton opens the 2021 season on August 27 at Absegami at 6 p.m.