Holy Spirit Dominates in State Final, Downs St. Joe’s
Maybe it was the Holy Spirit players channeling inspiration from longtime assistant coach Bill Walsh, who passed away recently after a long battle with Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Maybe it was sensing that there was opportunity in the moment.
Maybe it was simply that the Spartans were sick of getting kicked around by Atlantic County rival St. Joseph of Hammonton, and it was high time Spirit did a little kicking back.
Whatever it was, Spirit completely overwhelmed St. Joseph, 38-0, on Sunday night at Rutgers University’s SHI Stadium to resoundingly win the Non-Public Group 2 state championship. Spirit was up, 2-0, after one quarter thanks to a safety by senior linebacker/safety Ahmad Brown, but once the second quarter kicked off this game was anything but close.
Holy Spirit scored 14 more points during the first half — a half in which the Spartans outgained the Wildcats 212-1 in total yardage —, then really turned on the jets in the third quarter behind the running of Patrick Smith and E’lijah Gray, some big plays in the passing game from sophomore quarterback Trevor Cohen, a special teams touchdown and some painfully hard hitting from the defensive unit.
St. Joseph came in off a semifinal victory in which it had scored more than 70 points, with star senior do-everything running back Jada Byers amassing 10 touchdowns to become South Jersey’s all-time leader in that category with 102. But Holy Spirit proved it was at Rutgers to make a point, as Cohen found sophomore Elijah Steward for a 24-yard gain on the game’s first play, and from there the Spartans had all the momentum.
Spirit’s first two possessions ended with a turnover on downs and a Byers interception, but the Spartans broke through early in the second quarter when Cohen found Steward — who had perhaps the best game of his young career with six catches for 127 yards — for a 16-yard touchdown and an 8-0 lead. Holy Spirit made it 16-0 with less than a minute to go before halftime when Patrick Smith scored from three yards out then added the two-point conversion.
“Today was all for coach Walsh, we’ve been stressing it all week. The first day I came in when I transferred, we knew this was a special group. Despite our record early in the season, we knew we were going to go all the way. Today was for coach Walsh,” said Smith, who began his career at St. Augustine Prep as a freshman then transferred to Holy Spirit prior to this season after spending a year at The Peddie School. “It was all about practice. We practiced hard all week. We were making sure we knew where we needed to be at the right time, and everything we did in practice was shown on this field, and it shows. Our defense struggled a little bit (early in the season), but through practice and getting to know how to get to the right places, I think we dominated. The last four games we’ve been dominating on defense, and the offense has just been rolling with it.”
“The journey has been crazy. We had a lot of ups and downs, but we came together as a team through hard times. We all stick together through the good times and the bad times. Coach (A.J.) Russo held us together. I love everyone on this team. This feels great,” Brown added. “It took a long time. This is only my second time beating them in four years, so I’m really excited that we got this win.”
The second half featured Spirit’s bread-and-butter: some punishing running from Smith and Gray, a senior captain and the heart and soul of this team. The duo finished with nearly 170 combined rushing yards and three touchdowns.
Luke Spotts blocked a punt that C.J. Egrie recovered in the end zone on St. Joseph’s first possession of the second half, giving Spirit a 24-0 lead, then Gray scored from 12 yards out with 4:17 left in the third to push the lead to 32-0, and Smith capped the scoring off with a 1-yard plunge with 11:18 remaining.
“It’s just amazing how we ended it like this. It’s a great feeling. I have no words,” Gray said. “Over there, they have a great guy in Jada Byers — he did his thing tonight, but I guess we did our thing tonight, too.”
Holy Spirit (8-4) exacted some revenge on St. Joseph (9-2), a team that had beaten the Spartans in last year’s championship game and again during the regular season this year. The Spartans racked up nearly 350 yards of total offense while holding one of South Jersey’s most explosive offenses to just — get this — 47 yards. Spirit also limited St. Joseph to just one third-down conversion in 11 attempts.
“This defense has come together a lot. We had numerous meetings this week, every day after school,” Brown said. “We have a group chat on SnapChat, and all 11 guys were watching film trying to prepare for this game, and this is the outcome.”