HAMMONTON — Two weeks, two back-and-forth battles.
Two tests of heart, will and determination.
For the St. Joseph High School football team, nothing is going to be easy in the revamped Cape-Atlantic League. Games that were decided at halftime in the past are gone, replaced by what are expected to be weekly 48-minute contests that will challenge its depth and competitive nature.
“It’s real tough, but at the same time I love it,” senior quarterback Anthony Giagunto said. “This is real exciting to me. This is why I play the sport.”
Giagunto was at his finest in the closing moments of Saturday’s American Conference showdown against rival Holy Spirit. The top-ranked Wildcats needed something from their leader and the undefeated starter made it happen.
In what had been a defensive slugfest for better than 47 minutes, Giagunto connected with Miles Pease on a 22-yard touchdown pass with 15.5 seconds to play. Jonathan Ryker tacked on the extra point and the Wildcats held on for the 7-0 victory.
“Our kids are usually good character kids,” St. Joseph coach Paul Sacco said. “Two weeks in a row, they’ve shown that going up in this big division. You’re going to play a full game.
“We just have to get better. We’re 2-0 and I almost feel like we’re 0-2.”
Although it remains the smallest school in the Cape-Atlantic, St. Joseph (2-0) is in the American this fall as the league realigned to create more competitive balance. The Wildcats extended their winning streak to 20 games, with Giagunto improving to 19-0 as a starter.
St. Joe’s last loss was a 35-0 defeat against Holy Spirit on Oct. 1, 2010.
“This means everything,” said Pease, who rushed for 65 yards on 15 carries and had two catches for 42 yards. “This is the last time we’ll play Holy Spirit. It was something special.”
The game-winning touchdown capped a 10-play, 69-yard drive. Cody Sampson carried the ball four times for 16 yards, while Giagunto picked up a key first down early in the drive. The Wildcats also benefitted from two facemask penalties.
On the decisive play, Giagunto rolled left and looked to the back side. Although he had connected on just 1 of 13 passes to that point, he delivered a perfect ball.
“I was hoping the ball would be up in the air so I could go get it,” Pease said. “I was in the right place, went up and got it.”
Said Holy Spirit coach John Iannucci: “It took a great pass and a great catch. The (defender) was right there.”
In fact, defense dominated on this sun-splashed afternoon. Both teams did a terrific job of protecting their turf, coming up with key stands and creating timely turnovers.
Jeff Steeb had an interception on the goal line to thwart a potential St. Joe touchdown midway through the second quarter, while Ray Ellis put plenty of pressure on Giagunto all day. T.J. Anderson had a fumble recovery to end a St. Joe drive in the first quarter.
For the Wildcats, Luke Ordille split two sacks, Laquay Brown had a sack, Sampson collected a fumble recovery and Pease sealed the outcome with an interception on the game’s final play.
Robert Thompson blocked a field-goal attempt late in the first quarter.
“It was a real tight battle,” Giagunto said. “Defense pulled through. It kept us in the game.”
Despite a second straight heartbreaking defeat, Iannucci was proud of his team’s effort. The Spartans start just two seniors on offense and none on defense.
“We battled to the end,” said the first-year coach, whose team lost to No. 4 Hammonton in overtime last week. “We’re as good as any team in South Jersey. We just need to grow up.”