Dayquan Murray understood what all the outside noise was about.
He wasn't going to let any of that come on the field in Hammonton.
Some people questioned how the Blue Devils had even qualified for the South Jersey Group 4 football playoffs with a 3-6 record at the start of the tournament.
Some people noted that the Blue Devils had lost six of seven after a 2-0 start and had suffered those setbacks by an average of 28 points.
Murray and the rest of the Hammonton players didn't care. They stunned third-seeded Central Regional in the first round of the playoffs then took on a hot Highland team in the semifinals.
That's when Murray, a senior running back, took command. He led the Blue Devils to a 27-21 overtime win against Highland on Nov. 17 with three touchdowns to send Hammonton to the South Jersey Group 4 final. His third score was a one-yard touchdown that ended the game and brought his teammates onto the field to pile on top of him.
"For everything they've been through, I can't stress it enough," Hammonton coach Jim Raso said after the victory over Highland. "These kids, they've had people talking down on them, but they never hung their heads.
"They were battling, and we were overmatched in some of our schedule. We were definitely overmatched. We said we were never going to be Group 5 champions, but I felt that if we made it to the playoffs we would have a shot in Group 4, and that's all we could ever ask for.
"We were given a shot, and these kids are riding it all the way to Rowan right now."
Murray's three touchdowns and some strong second-half work by Hammonton's defense propelled the Blue Devils into the South Jersey Group 4 title game against Shawnee. The final is scheduled for 6 p.m. Sunday at Rowan.
Shawnee beat Hammonton, 38-6, in the Blue Devils' regular-season finale on Nov. 3. But Murray and Co. believe it's a different team that will take the field for the championship game, with momentum after two consecutive playoff victories.
Murray had lost a fumble in the fourth quarter against Highland but redeemed himself in a big way in overtime.
He capped a 128-yard night with his third touchdown after Highland was unable to score on its first possession of overtime. His dream as a kid of getting a game-winning touchdown came true.
"It feels amazing," Murray said. "I would have never in a million years thought about this."
Murray, who has had a roller coaster of a year on the field, was given the opportunity from Raso to take control of the game, and he didn't let that chance go to waste.
"All year he's been one of those kind of guys that's been up and down, up and down," Raso said. "He put the ball on the ground in a key situation, and we had confidence in him. We told him he'd get another chance. Hold the ball with two hands, and he took it right down the field for us."
Knowing of all the talk surrounding the team, Raso dedicated the win for not only the team members but for the town of Hammonton.
"This win wasn't just for this team in particular. This win was for the program," Raso said. "The program was down, and it was hard walking around town. I'm from town. I hear the comments. We blocked it out. This win was huge for the program, and these guys ensured that if you stick together the program can last when given the opportunity."
As the team celebrated and music surrounded the field after the Highland game, Murray was finally met by his family, who had been his motivation for such a performance.
"I love all of them. Every time I looked at the sideline, they pushed me harder," Murray said. "It's the reason I did it."