Hammonton quarterback Andrew Wehner (7) hands over to AJ Ryker (4) at the start of the Blue Devils’ scrum against Sterling last week. (THG / Dan Russoman. To purchase photos in The Gazette, call (609) 704-1940.)
HAMMONTON — With nearly all of its starters lost to graduation, the 2021 season is shaping up to be a year of rebuilding for the Hammonton High School football team.
The Blue Devils have only returned four starters in a year, and the squad will include many underclassmen with little to no college experience.
“The experience factor is a problem for us and the youngsters, for a lot of these guys it was their first varsity move. Some have only played JV, we have a few freshmen and sophomores who are going to be there, ”said Hammonton coach Jim Raso.
Raso and the Blue Devils coaching staff have previously held this position. During the 2018 season, Hammonton presented a roster consisting mostly of subclasses.
“Yes, we’ve been through it. I think we have a pretty good idea of where we are at and what we need to do, ”said Raso.
With so many young players, Hammonton has spent much of the preseason getting back to basics.
“As a staff, we said, ‘hey, we have to start from the start. “We’re working on things that we probably haven’t had to do in the last couple of years with the experience we had,” Raso said.
With two pre-season scrimmages under his belt, Hammonton feels ready to play his first game this week.
“We have seen good things and bad [in the scrimmages]. I think sometimes our eyes were a little big, but once we settled in we played really well, ”said Raso.
Raso and his team are optimistic, although they recognize that the Blue Devils could face growth challenges.
“Our goal is to get to a starting point and see where we’re going. I’m sure it won’t be easy, but the kids are ready to work, ”said Raso.
Among the new starters this season is sophomore quarterback Andrew Wehner. Wehner started linebacker as a rookie last season, but hasn’t played quarterback since joining his midget football team.
Wehner has had his share of ups and downs during the preseason, but Raso has confidence in his signalman.
“He [Wehner] started defending as a rookie last year, so we know the timing isn’t too big for him. The first time he played quarterback in a few years and most important was timing, he was walking down the stairs. It is a work in progress. He’s not afraid, ”Raso said.
Hammonton’s offense is race-focused, which will take some pressure off Wehner, who will hand the ball to new faces in the Blue Devils backfield.
Senior AJ Ryker started racing a year ago and is returning this season. A fast runner with good power for his size, Ryker should see his workload increase after enjoying limited ranges last fall.
Lucas Goehringer, CJ Rossiter and Berto Barber will also be in action in the backfield, as will rookie Kenny Smith, who has been impressive in preseason scrums.
“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 ball, Wehner has solid targets in wide receivers Jaron Hill and Dylan Testa. Hill, an outstanding basketball player, has good height and speed, while Testa has performed well in the preseason.
Senior tackle Luis Rodriguez anchors a young offensive line for Hammonton, who could see the contribution of several players this season.
“The line is young and will need to gain momentum quickly. Louis [Rodriguez] is a veteran and he is the leader, ”said Raso.
“Right now we’re still trying to finalize the guys up front. We have a little rotation that works well, keeping these guys a little cooler. We lack upstream experience. These guys need to improve quickly and keep improving. It’s a new group. We said at the O line that our tradition is to get off the ball and we like to be mean and mean up front. Now it’s their turn, ”said Raso.
Among those fighting for the starting places at the 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] looked very good on both sides of the ball, ”said Raso.
Many of those same linemen will take care of the tasks on the defensive side, where Hammonton plans to spin players on and off the pitch.
Senior linebacker Austin Hudak leads the defensive unit, after a strong 2020 campaign.
“Austin [Hudak] really surprised us last year with how he took the job and got better every week. He’s got bigger and faster and he’s our captain in defense, ”said Raso.
Ryker and Wehner will join Hudak as linebacker.
Hammonton high school will lack experience, as sophomores Justin Doughty and Julian Valentin are expected to start alongside Rossiter, Hill and Testa.
Even with a young squad, Raso is reluctant to admit that his squad may be in the process of rebuilding.
“Our goal is to get playing experience for these guys and try to play our best football at the end of the year. The goal is still to qualify for the playoffs. You never know what can happen there. We want to compete for the division title. We have a long way to go because of inexperience. It all depends on how quickly these kids can improve, ”said Raso.
Hammonton opens the 2021 season on August 27 in Absegami at 6 p.m.