ABSECON — Late in the first quarter of the Non-Public Group 2 quarterfinals, Holy Spirit senior running back E’lijah Gray got the ball on 1st-and-goal from the St. Mary 6-yard line. He tried to will himself into the end zone, carrying several Gaels defenders down to the 2. He didn’t get in, but the Holy Spirit coaching staff was just going to keep feeding him the ball until he did. On the next play, Gray barreled his way into the end zone and collapsed to his knees.

He was wearing jersey No. 16 instead of his normal No. 24, in honor of former head coach and longtime assistant Bill Walsh, who passed away Friday morning at the age of 52 after a nearly three-year battle with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Walsh is survived by his wife, Cindy, and daughter Kelly, who is a senior at Holy Spirit and member of the field hockey and softball teams. Kelly attended the game and led the Spartans out onto the field, along with Gray, at the start.

On Holy Spirit’s next possession, after St. Mary answered with a touchdown and two-point conversion, senior wide receiver Ahmad Brown caught a pass from quarterback Trevor Cohen at the Gaels’ 10-yard line and literally dragged a defender the rest of the way into the end zone for a 26-8 lead. Nothing was going to stop Brown from breaking that goal line; he had to do it to honor coach Walsh.

That’s the kind of night it was here, as the Spartans came up with a slew of big plays in the first half — and in a fashion Walsh would have been proud of, playing hard-hitting defense as well — to roll past St. Mary of Rutherford, 54-16, and into the sectional semifinal.

“At 10 a.m., I was in lunch and coach (A.J. Russo) came in and said we needed to talk, so we all went into the chapel and he broke the news to us. I didn’t go to class all day, I was just so upset. But to come out here and overcome adversity, that’s what coach Walsh would have wanted. We did what we had to do,” said senior offensive lineman Kurt Driscoll. “We just worried about the game, coach Walsh, and Kelly, obviously. We tried to focus on the game, knowing that he was up there watching. We overcame adversity, and that’s what coach Russo said in the (post-game) huddle. I’m at a loss for words when it comes to coach Walsh. I love that guy and I would do anything to just have one more conversation with him.”

“They had a rough day. We gathered them together in the chapel and they were together most of the day. But to have the ability to come out here and play a game and kind of put that aside for a couple of hours, I think that meant a lot to these guys,” said Spirit coach A.J. Russo, who took over the program in 2015 and immediately brought on Walsh — the former head coach from 2003-2007 — as a trusted assistant. “They took care of business. That’s the way he was and that’s the way these guys are, and I know they are going to play like that the rest of this season.”

This game was all Holy Spirit from the start, as the Spartans forced St. Mary to punt on the game’s opening possession, and a bad snap had Spirit set up at the Gaels’ 14-yard line. Cohen hooked up with receiver Elijah Steward for a 7-yard touchdown pass and a quick 7-0 lead, and touchdown runs from Patrick “Cheeks” Smith and Gray pushed the lead to 20-0. St. Mary cut the lead to 20-8, but after Brown’s touchdown, and another scoring pass from Cohen to Steward, the Spartans led 32-8 early in the second quarter.

Spirit’s defense came to play as well, as the Spartans had a couple of interceptions. One by C.J. Egrie helped set up a 45-yard touchdown run from Smith, and after a two-point conversion hook up from Cohen to Brown, the Spartans led 40-8. Gavin Roman got in on the action later in the first half with a couple of big runs that helped set up his own 5-yard touchdown run, and he added a 48-yard scoring scamper early in the second half to push the lead to 54-8.

Gray, who was hampered by an ankle injury but refused to opt out of a starting role, was overcome with emotion when he scored in the first quarter.

“This means a lot. This man taught me a lot of things, how to be a better man, and made me into the man I am today. I’m happy he doesn’t have to suffer anymore,” he said. “It’s an honor to get into the end zone for him, especially wearing his number, and especially on this field. He’s the one who made this thing happen for everybody. Everything just hit me — like, ‘wow, I just scored wearing his number.’ But really it was the whole team behind me. I just thank God every day. It was an emotional day. After we heard the news, school work was done. Everybody in school was devastated. He had a big impact on this school, and this whole community.”

“Coach Walsh was like another father to me. He was a great coach to me, a great friend to me — he’s everything you would want in a coach all in one. He always preached to us to be warriors on the field and gentlemen in the classroom. I’ve tried to uphold that the whole four years I’ve known him, and I’m going to continue to do that,” Brown added. “He was a fighter. I would talk to him every day. He would literally text me, take time out of his day with all the stuff he was going through, to text me, ‘play 46, 47 and 48, Ahmad, if you were a seven shade, you would have made this play.’ Or, ‘Ahmad, if you were in a nine technique you would have made this play.’ He was such a selfless guy and I respect him so much.”

Following the victory, the seniors didn’t care much to talk about what happened in the game, all the conversation was about coach Walsh, a man who made an impact on generations of Spartan players and fans.

“Toughness, hitting hard and playing for your team — those are the things he taught us. That’s how we like to play,” Gray said.

“People always say you can be this, or you can be that, but to see someone take the interest and time out of their day, despite what they are going through, to let you know they care about you — it makes you feel like you actually belong somewhere and you have someone in your corner. Even when you don’t feel like that, you knew coach Walsh was in your corner,” Brown added. “We’re looking at the bigger picture. We have to continue to build and humble ourselves. Coach Walsh always wanted us to be humble, so we have to keep humbling ourselves and keep fighting day in and day out, just like he did.”

What’s next: No. 2 Holy Spirit hosts either No. 3 Hudson Catholic or No. 6 Immaculata in the Non-Public Group 2 semifinals on Nov. 22.

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