Haddonfield football finishes No. 1 in final rankings
The Bulldawgs, who went 13-0, are the first Group 2 program to land at the No. 1 spot in the final rankings since Moorestown in 2000.
Maybe it was the heat.
Maybe it was the humidity.
Or maybe the coach just sensed that something special was happening on that little practice field behind Haddonfield High School on that afternoon in the middle of August.
"When you came out to preview us, I said, 'We have a shot,'" Bulldawgs football coach Frank DeLano said. "I never say that."
A shot to win every game?
A shot to become the first 13-0 team in the history of a program that played its first game in the 19th century?
A shot to finish as the No. 1 team in South Jersey?
A vision that might have seemed a little fuzzy on that sweaty, sticky summer day in Haddonfield became crystal clear on a cold December night in East Rutherford.
Haddonfield beat previously undefeated Hillside, 17-7, in the Group 2 South/Central Bowl Game in MetLife Stadium, putting the finishing touch on the best football season in school history.
The victory in the NJSIAA's new super-sectionals secured the Bulldawgs' grip on the top spot in the Inquirer's Final South Jersey Top 25.
"It means a lot," DeLano said of becoming the program's first 13-0 team.
Haddonfield and South Jersey Group 1 champion Penns Grove, which captured its bowl game on Nov. 24, are the first teams in South Jersey history to win 13 games in a season.
Haddonfield also is the first Group 2 team to finish No. 1 in the Inquirer Top 25 since Moorestown in 2000.
"It means a great deal," DeLano said. "It's the culmination of a lot of people's work. Not just this class but 17 years of it.
"And all the kids who were in the stands tonight supporting us who had something to do with this, maybe when we weren't so good.
"We're not going to lie: The last 10 years we've been pretty darn good. As good as anybody."
This season, Haddonfield won its fifth South Jersey Group 2 title since 2000.
After the team's 23-12 victory over Camden in the sectional final on Nov. 16, DeLano told the players gathered around him in the postgame huddle: "Five in nine years. Not even Alabama has done that."
But this season was special. Haddonfield played perhaps its most demanding schedule in recent history, facing a playoff qualifier in every game.
The Bulldawgs' signature win was a 22-15 victory over then-No. 1 St. Joseph on the Wildcats' field on the afternoon of Nov. 29.
Or maybe it was the victory over Camden, which at the time was undefeated against South Jersey opponents.
Or maybe it was the victory over Hillside, which rolled to the Central Jersey Group title and entered play with an 11-0 mark.
"Our kids didn't flinch," DeLano said. "You know us. The biggest game is always the next game. When you sit there and build up games and make them bigger than they are, what happens when that doesn't go well?
"Hey Week 1 was big. Pleasantville, they have all these Division I kids. Week 2, Sterling, they beat us huge Week 8 last year,
"Oh, you're playing St. Joe? They're too big, too fast, too strong. You can't beat them.
"Our kids love the challenge. Let's go. For us, it's not about proving people wrong. It's about proving us right. Proving us right that we felt we had a really special football team."
Williamstown (12-1), which won the South Jersey Group 5 title and came within a whisker of finishing 13-0 — losing its Bowl Game on a fumble in the end zone in punt formation in the final 40 seconds vs. Central 5 champion Sayreville — finishes in the No. 2 spot.
St. Joseph (10-2) rallied from some midseason struggles to capture its ninth state title in 10 years and landed at No. 3, with St. Augustine (7-4), Camden (10-2), Penns Grove (13-0) and South Jersey Group 3 champion Woodrow Wilson (9-4) rounding out the top seven.
Haddonfield was a balanced, experienced, accomplished team. The Bulldawgs' seniors finished their careers by winning their final 17 games.
Senior quarterback Jay Foley passed for 1,591 yards and 23 touchdowns. He also ran for 323 yards and six scores.
Senior Chris Brown was the top rusher with 797 yards and six touchdowns. He also returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown in the sectional final vs. Camden.
Seniors such as John Foley, Jay's twin, as well as Davis Smith and Drew Gavranich were top receivers. Foley caught seven touchdown passes while Gavranich caught six and Smith five.
Smith was a top defensive back with five interceptions. He also excelled on special teams, returning a punt for touchdown in the win over Hillside.
Senior Gabe Klaus made 88 tackles with 10 sacks. Senior Lewis Evans made 114 tackles.
DeLano said the key to the team's success was the chemistry, especially among the seniors. He noted that Gavranich wore Brown's No. 22 jersey in the Thanksgiving Day game after Brown broke his foot in the victory over Camden and pointed to the team's reaction to the heroics of unsung senior Jimmy Kane in the Bowl Game.
"I said, 'Watch us practice and watch when somebody else scores a touchdown and that will define who we are going to be,'" DeLano said. "And it was pretty awesome watching everybody jump on Jimmy Kane, a defensive tackle who made two big plays.
"They didn't care who made it. We did it."