South Jersey Football: Experienced Spartans Look to Make Deep Run
Holy Spirit was down early to St. Joseph in the state championship game last fall at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, then came storming back in the second half and had the Wildcats on the ropes until senior quarterback Ryan Yost got hurt.
That injury essentially ended the Spartans’ dreams of an upset and a championship ring, but it also fueled the hunger of an experienced group of seniors that has been to two state title games in their careers and are eager to prove they can get back there again — and win it this time.
To count Holy Spirit among the state title contenders in Non-Public Group 2 is by no means a stretch, as the Spartans have some of the best playmakers in all of South Jersey. The offense is spearheaded by senior running back E’lijah Gray, who averaged more than 125 yards per game last year and finished with nearly 1,200 yards and 13 touchdowns. That performance came off a sophomore year in which he put up nearly 1,500 yards and 21 TDs.
“He’s unbelievable. He’s like a man among boys,” Brown said of Gerena. “We call him ‘Gronk’ because he’s hard to bring down. He’s a really good athlete.”But the Spartans will be much more than just the E’lijah Gray show. Ahmad Brown is a senior wide receiver who really came on strong in the second half of last year and Spirit has maybe the best pass catching tight end in South Jersey in Isaiah Gerena — an absolute monster at 6-foot-4, 240 pounds.
“We have some new additions this year with Patrick Smith, and Trevor Cohen gives us a new RPO look (at quarterback). We’re going to look good this year,” Gray said. “I feel great. It’s not that much of a load (for me) because we have playmakers all over the field. The offensive line is looking great, they all have experience now. We have Ahmad on the outside and Isaiah in the middle.”
Sophomore lefty Trevor Cohen — who started in center field for the baseball team as a freshman — takes over for Yost at quarterback and gives Spirit another running option, and guys like Smith, formerly of St. Augustine Prep, and Devin Lee will get plenty of carries to spell Gray and keep him fresh for the postseason. Defensively, Holy Spirit has six starters back and it will be tough to throw the ball against the Spartans with the speed they have in the secondary.
“We’re feeling good, I feel like we all gel together great. Our defense flies around and makes plays, and on offense, with our quarterback, we’re really coming together well,” Brown said. “I think we’re going to be really good this year. We’re looking forward to competing against everybody we play.”
What coach A.J. Russo likes most about this team is not only are the players motivated, but they are experienced as well. This is a team that expects to win each and every season, and this year will be no different.
Spirit certainly will get tested. The Spartans open the season Aug. 30 at 5 p.m. at home against Maryland juggernaut Mount St. Joseph, and also face Eastern, Camden Catholic and Hammonton before the calendar even rolls over to October. They’ll also take on tough parochial schools such as St. Augustine Prep and St. Joseph-Hammonton. The Spartans will have plenty of motivation, though, as former assistant Bill Walsh is fighting ALS and Russo is battling colorectal cancer.“The seniors came back this year very hungry and they are motivating the younger guys to compete at the level they want to compete at, and that’s pulling the rest of the team up and that’s a good thing for us. With our offseason program, these seniors have been in it for four years so they know the routine. We have more than 30 returning lettermen who have been a part of this program and they are on top of things. They are very self motivated,” Russo said. “You still have to worry about the little stuff, and we’ve changed some things with Trevor at quarterback. We’ve modified some of the things we’ve done in the past. Last year, Ryan was a pocket passer, so we’re back to where we were a couple years ago and coach (Charlie) Roman has done a great job with this offensive scheme. The kids are comfortable with it, and having kids who are senior leaders who have accepted change and handled it well has helped a lot.”
“That’s what is important about having senior leaders like we do, one game doesn’t make a season. You can have a setback, but you have to be able to recover,” Russo said. “You’re always going to have setbacks in life, and these guys know that — we’re living lessons of that — but you have to be able to bounce back. We tell them that and it’s important that they understand that. But these kids get it.”
However the season plays out, Gray and Brown said they will enjoy every moment of it at a school that has meant so much to them in terms of developing from boys into young men.
“It’s a blessing to go into my senior year. It’s a great experience, and Holy Spirit has really done me right. It’s a great experience, a family environment,” Gray said.
Added Brown, “Holy Spirit has been like a second home for me; everyone in the school, from the principal down to the maintenance people, everyone is great people. I’m thankful that I was able to have the opportunity to come to this school. Coach Walsh, it all started with him. I like all the hype we have, all the younger teams that come out (on game day). I like to have them look up to me and I like to be a good role model for the kids.”
HOLY SPIRIT SCHEDULE
(all games at 7 p.m. unless otherwise noted)
Aug. 30 vs. Mount St. Joseph (Md.), 5 pm
Sept. 6 BYE
Sept. 13 vs. Eastern
Sept. 20 vs. Camden Catholic
Sept. 27 at Hammonton
Oct. 4 BYE
Oct. 11 at Washington Township
Oct. 18 vs. St. Augustine Prep
Oct. 25 vs. Kingsway
Nov. 2 at St. Joseph, noon
Nov. 28 at Atlantic City, 10 am