HAMMONTON – If the Eastern High School football team really wants to be among the top dogs in South Jersey, it had to prove they could win a dogfight.
That’s what the Vikings found themselves in the middle of Friday night when they traveled to Hammonton. They returned home with a scrappy 13-12 victory over the Blue Devils, extending their winning streak to six straight, its longest in five years.
While plenty of penalties, two turnovers and several shaky moments on kick and punt returns weren’t going to win the team any Best in Show medals, Eastern proved it can back up all of its bark.
“Ugly, but it’s a win,” senior linebacker Umar Davis said. “Our offense had a hard time, but our defense picked it up. That’s a team win, that’s how you do it. That’s our approach, one game at time, we’re looking ahead to the next game now.”
The Eastern High School football team defeated Hammonton on the road, 13-12, on Friday, October 19, 2018. Adam Monacelli, Cherry Hill Courier-Post
That will be a trip to Kingsway for the final regular-season game before the playoffs, a key showdown that will have huge implications in South Jersey Group 5 seeding for both teams. Kingsway defeated Hammonton 21-14 two weeks ago.
Over the previous five games of its winning streak, Eastern’s offense created plenty of magic, averaging 45 points over the stretch and led to a comfortable 36-point average margin of victory.
However, in a dogfight, it’s the play of a defense that often determines the victor. And Eastern's defense delivered.
“Our offense has been great and gets all the press, as well as they should, but the I felt we had a great defensive effort here,” Eastern coach John Doherty said. “The defense played aggressive, played physical and came up with the stops when we needed them. Stopping No. 25 isn’t easy, but I thought we did a good job there.”
Hammonton’s No. 25 is Jaiden Abrams, a sophomore standout that has been punishing opposing defenses this season. The Vikings held him to 70 yards rushing on 26 carries, marking just the second time he’s been held under 100 yards in a game and first since the opening loss to Long Branch (37 yards).
“He’s human, just like everyone else,” senior linebacker TJ Franden said. “That’s the way our defense can play. That’s playoff football. It’s going to get colder out, the ground’s going to get harder. That’s when you have to get tough. Our defense played tough football tonight.”
This Eastern bunch got its first taste of playoff football last season, but it left with plenty of bruises following a 57-9 rout to Rancocas Valley.
“We want to get back to the playoffs and get the job done,” said Eastern quarterback Andrew Heck, who completed 20-of-30 passes for 169 yards and a touchdown.
“We feel like we’re the big dogs and we knew we were going to be in for a dogfight (against Hammonton). It’s going to be that way every week now. We have to be ready. We will be.”
While it fell one point short against Eastern, Hammonton's effort, especially on the defensive side, showed it will be a tough out in the South Jersey Group 4 playoffs.
The Blue Devils fell behind 13-6 with 7:14 left in the fourth, but answered later in the quarter when Abrams scored his second touchdown of the game with 2:19 remaining in regulation.
Hammonton coach Jim Raso elected to attempt the extra-point instead of going for a go-ahead two-point conversion.
“We were going to play the percentages there,” Raso said. “We had a lot of time left and timeouts. We felt we made the right decision.”
Hammonton’s defense held Eastern to a season-low 13 points and allowed just one big scoring play, which came on a breakdown when Franden busted through the line and rumbled 63 yards for a score in the first quarter.
The Blue Devils delivered a clutch stop on a fourth-and-goal at their own 1 on Eastern's second possession, a 16-play drive that started on the Viking 10.
“The defense did an outstanding job, that was the best we’ve done on defense all year,” Raso said. “We just played behind the sticks all night.”
That's a sign of a true dogfight, something Eastern now knows it has the ability to win.
Tom McGurk; @McGurkSports; (856) 486-2420; firstname.lastname@example.org
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