For the past couple of years, the Holy Spirit football team has been the hunter, trying to dethrone schools like St. Joseph and Mater Dei atop Non-Public Group 2. Now, the Spartans are going to find out what it’s like to be the hunted.

Spirit thumped St. Joseph, 38-0, in last year’s state championship game, and they���ll get the Wildcats right out of the gate in this pandemic-shortened, six-game season, as the teams square off at Buena Regional High School on Friday night (Listen on 97.3 ESPN and the free mobile app). St. Joseph nearly closed last spring, but gathered up enough funding to stay open as St. Joseph Academy, but the Wildcats won’t have a home field this year, which is why the game is being held at Buena.

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Holy Spirit has been working hard for months now in preparation for a season that is finally about to arrive. The Covid-19 pandemic threw a monkey wrench into the preseason and what would have been a full slate of games in September.

“When we first started practicing everything seemed weird, but now everything is getting back to normal and it feels good to be out here. We can’t take anything for granted. We have to come out here and play like we lost last year’s state championship,” said senior two-way lineman Andrew Constantino. “Not too many people (on defense) are known, but we have playmakers. We just all come together and we’ll make things happen. We have some new defensive linemen and we’re making sure they are getting their work in. We just want to play hard, win and have fun. We’re just going at it. We still have the same mentality.”

“With all the different phases we had to go through, our athletic director, Steve Normane, did a great job keeping us up to speed on everything that was going on, and that took a burden off our coaches, and all the fall sports coaches,” said coach A.J. Russo. “As far as getting the team together, we were going forward as if we were going to have a season. You can’t worry about all those other things. Stay within the guidelines the NJSIAA offered us, continue to practice and continue to work hard. For the most part, these kids have taken care of business and done that.”

Holy Spirit will rely on some veteran skill position players on both sides of the ball, particularly Colorado State recruit Patrick “Cheeks” Smith, one of the top running backs in the state. The Spartans also have junior quarterback Trevor Cohen back for his second year as a varsity starter, and expect guys like Devin Lee and Elijah Steward to get plenty of touches. On defense, Michael Weaver and Michael Francisco are back at linebacker and still are only juniors, and C.J. Egrie returns after having a breakout year at cornerback in 2019. They’ll have to replace E’lijah Gray, their top running back the past four years, but with Smith and Lee in the backfield there likely won’t be any drop off.

“My focus is bringing us closer. This pandemic has people distant from each other, but we want to get closer, welcome in the upcoming freshmen. I want to be the type of leader the coaching staff is expecting me to be. Everything starts in the weight room and in practice, and every time we step onto the field we’re playing like it’s our last game. You never know, we can get that text anytime that we can’t have anymore practices or games, so we’re giving it our all every practice,” Smith said. “Having a short season just makes you even more hungry. We only have six games and we want to make our senior year the best it can be, so we have to go out as hard as we can and leave our mark. That’s my mentality.”

Smith is a guy who doesn’t mind the spotlight, and he’ll get plenty of attention as every team on Spirit’s schedule will be out to shut down No. 4 in Navy and gold. Most notably the St. Joe Wildcats in the season opener.

“Anytime we play those guys, it’s a battle. What happened last year, with us winning the state championship in the way that we did, I know this game means everything to them. It sure as heck means a lot to us as well. It’s something I know both teams are looking forward to. They have a loaded team coming back, but we have some pretty good players coming back, too,” Russo said. “With having kids back and having them have confidence in the offense, and running a lot of the same stuff we did last year — we lost three seniors off the offensive line, we have young guys stepping into those positions but they don’t really have any game experience, so we’re going to feel our way through it. But having guys with experience at the skill positions will help us.”

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