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WOOLWICH TWP. New Hammonton High School football coach Jim Raso got a few calls before his debut Sept. 11 at Kingsway.

The 38-year-old picked up his phone time and time again to hear from former Blue Devils’ teammates.

“They were calling me and reminding me my last game as a senior was (the Group II South championship) against Kingsway in ’94 and (Dragons) coach (Tony) Barchuk was the coach then, too. It’s kinda ironic.”

Raso opened his head coaching career the same way he ended his playing days — a winner over Barchuk and No. 13 Kingsway. The No. 15 Blue Devils took a 16-13 win in a West Jersey Football League National Division battle in the season opener.

It stood as a great night for first-timers in Hammonton’s black and blue.

Malachi Winters had never taken snaps as quarterback in a game before Friday. The junior started at free safety last season.

Winters, with his 6-foot-1 frame, stood tall when Hammonton needed it most.

After running back Anthony Seas’ 4-yard run put the home team ahead late in the first quarter, Winters ended the period with a big-time gallop. With eight seconds left, Winters sprinted left and ran 33 yards down to Kingsway’s 13.

The play finally got the Blue Devils’ stagnant offense rolling. It also provided confidence.

Three consecutive Zachary Barnard carries finally cracked the goal line to make it 7-6. A missed extra point kept the advantage with the Dragons.

Izick Flores’ 6-yard run on Hammonton’s next drive — and the converted point after — put momentum firmly on Raso’s squad’s side.

But Kingsway climbed back. Seas bruised his way into the end zone from four yards out with 4:46 left in the third quarter. The touchdown came two plays after the Blue Devils surrendered their momentum on a failed fourth-down conversion at their 19-yard line. The Dragons evened the score and a missed extra point kept it knotted at 13-13.

Both teams touched it for a possession with no points. Then, Winters made good again with a huge play.

On third-and-6 from Kingsway’s 20, he took off left.

“It was a lead option,” Winters said. “I tucked it and I was running as hard as I could.”

He sprinted to the sideline and cut it up. The result was a 17-yard scamper. Jonathan Ryker nailed a 21-yard field goal three plays later.

“I think their quarterback played a big game and made some big runs,” Barchuk said. “That was like, big time there.”

In a game where yards were hard to come by, Winters gained 80 on 14 carries. But, his timing was impeccable.

Winters said he tries to make it look like he’s hitting the sideline to dupe opponents.

“I was thinking, ‘Just run as fast as you can,’ ” the quarterback said. “They might expect me to go out of bounds, but I’m looking for more yards.”

Two late Kingsway drives proved futile and the Blue Devils rallied around Raso.

“It feels so good,” said Barnard, who ran for 61 yards and a touchdown, of helping his coach win his debut. “It’s an honor. I’m glad to be a part of it. ... I love him.”

At the end of the handshake line, Raso paced around and spoke to his players, assistant coaches and anyone else he could greet. It was similar to his first warmup as a head coach when the former high school linebacker/left guard couldn’t stand still.

“Even when I was an assistant, I always got nervous,” he said. “This was obviously 10 times the nerves. I’m just glad we got that first one under the belt.”

The coach compared his two big wins over Kingsway, separated by 21 years.

“It’s a little different feeling obviously,” Raso said. “When you play, you feel like you have a little bit of control over what happens out there.”

Mark Trible; (856) 486-2424; mtrible@gannettnj.com

Hammonton 16

Kingsway 13

  • Play of the game: Hammonton QB Malachi Winters’ 17-yard run on third down put the Blue Devils in position for the game-winning field goal.
  • Player of the game: Winters, who had two big runs that led to points for Hammonton in his first game as quarterback.
  • Well said: “It’s an honor. I’m glad to be a part of it. … I love him.” RB Zachary Barnard on helping first-year head coach Jim Raso win his debut.

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