By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
SWEDESBORO — During the preseason, when asked to describe his team, first-year Holy Spirit head coach Andrew DiPasquale said this about the Spartans: “When you’ve played here and gone to school here, you understand the philosophy — it’s a bunch of hard-nosed kids who play tough, and you want to win a state championship. The philosophy doesn’t change, that’s what it is here. It’s a bunch of undersized kids who play really hard. That’s what we do here.”
Holy Spirit traveled all the way from the shore to the shadows of Philadelphia, and halfway through the second quarter of Friday night’s Bunting Family Pharmacy Game of the Week, the boys with the gold helmets were up against it — staring at a 27-6 deficit as the wheels were coming off in a hurry.
But one play — a Kingsway field goal attempt that was blocked by Robert McDevitt and returned to the Dragons’ 22-yard line by Nick Medina — turned this game on a dime. Holy Spirit went in and scored on a 13-yard pass from quarterback Sean Burns to senior wideout Jayden Llanos, and that sparked a miraculous comeback.
Spirit scored 25 unanswered points to shock the Dragons, 31-27, and capture the West Jersey Football League Continental Division championship. Burns and Llanos were simply amazing, connecting 12 times for 140 yards and four touchdowns, including the eventual game-winner with 44 seconds left.
“We were on the sidelines preparing for Mason Forte to kick another game-winner, like he did against Cherokee, but then Sean found Jayden in the middle of the end zone and we erupted,” McDevitt said.
After the teams traded touchdowns in the first quarter to the tune of a 6-6 tie, everything seemed to go right for the host Dragons in the second quarter. Luke Van Brill hauled in a 59-yard touchdown pass from Nate Maiers, then Van Brill picked off Burns and returned it 50 yards for a touchdown. Then Roman Kuzmick stepped in front of a Burns pass and that set up a 22-yard scoring strike from Maiers to Van Brill.
A 27-6 lead. Three touchdowns in the first eight minutes of the second quarter.
Then everything changed with that blocked field goal.
Burns to Llanos made it 27-13, and after a Kingsway 3-and-out, Spirit went on the march again. The Spartans went into halftime down just 27-19 after Burns hooked up with Llanos again on a fade in the left corner of the end zone with 18 ticks left before the break.
“That blocked field goal by Robert. That gave us a huge momentum boost to try to score once or twice before halftime. That really just swung the momentum our way,” Llanos said. “We might give up touchdowns here and there, but this defense — when it’s on, we’re on. And it’s the same thing with the offense.”
“Back-to-back interceptions, that sucked, but once we blocked that field goal I was like, ‘this is when it’s going to switch. This is our time now. We’re in the red zone now and we’re going to score.’ And that’s exactly what happened,” Burns said. “It’s a surreal feeling. It’s unreal. Once their offense started slowing down, I knew our offense was going to start picking it up. I had faith in all of our receivers, our offensive linemen, and especially our defense to get stops when we needed stops.”
“Down 27-6, we needed a big momentum changer, and that field goal block changed the whole game. That got us going,” DiPasquale said. “And that’s what we do, we compete. We found that out in the Cherokee game. We didn’t know a lot about ourselves (going into that Cherokee game) but we’ve found out a lot about ourselves. This is a team that is going to compete and play to the final whistle, and there’s no better proof of that than this game.”
Holy Spirit (7-1, 4-0 West Jersey Football League Continental) cut the deficit to 27-25 with 8:22 remaining in the fourth quarter on a 1-yard quarterback sneak by Burns, but the two-point conversion failed. Kingsway (5-3, 3-1 WJFL Continental) was able to run the clock all the way down to 2:48 on its next possession, but Spirit came up with a big fourth-down stop at its own 39. That set the stage for more Llanos heroics. He picked up a key first-down conversion on the ensuing drive and then caught a pass from Burns at about the 5-yard line before bullying his way into the end zone between several Dragons defenders to put the Spartans up, 31-27, in the final minute.
“I just want to go out there and play. This is the game I love. I’ve been playing this game since I was about 6 years old,” Llanos said. “I never thought I’d be doing this. Maybe one, two touchdowns — I scored two touchdowns earlier in the year, but I never could have imagined four.”
“I think there are multiple colleges missing out by not looking at him. He’s an athlete. He goes up for the ball and more often than not he comes down with it. It’s awesome to have him as a quarterback,” Burns said of Llanos. “Everyone on our team is a winner. We don’t have anybody on our team who is like, oh, we’re down 27-6, this game is over. Everyone knew we were still in the game. And that starts with Jayden, he always has a lot of energy. I was feeling down after throwing that pick-6 but then I heard (Llanos) cheering and I was like, ‘alright, now I’m back.’ It’s awesome to have him as a teammate.”
“He’s a kid that you love to have. His motor doesn’t stop,” DiPasquale said. “The past couple of years he’s been in the shadow of Elijah Steward, so it was tough to really show what he’s got. But he’s really stepped up. His diving catch on the last drive of the game was unbelievable. He’s made a million great plays for us.”
McDevitt said the Spartans just had to weather the storm and stay relatively within striking distance by halftime to have a chance.
“Our line just kept blocking and Sean seemed to just keep finding Jayden or Gavin down the field. What keeps our offense moving every week is those two guys and Sean. They continue to push our offense and make us who we are,” he said. “We really had to rally as a team. We looked at it at about eight minutes left in the second quarter — me and Gavin Roman — we just looked at it like there’s nothing to lose. It started with the blocked field goal, Medina brought it down to about their 30 and we got rolling from there. We understood that there’s always a chance to win the game, and when we play Holy Spirit football, nobody is beating us. When you have the heart and you’re willing to push your teammates, that’s what gets you through games.”
Llanos’ performance was even more important because Holy Spirit was playing without standout running back Jahcere Ward, a 210-pound sophomore bruiser. Llanos said the Spartans just had to do what they always do — step up and get the job done when your number is called.
“The loss of Pops really hurt us, but we have Sean at quarterback, we have Gavin who can play running back. We have so many different pieces to this team that can help us win,” Llanos said. “It’s all heart, honestly. I say this team has the most heart out of any team in South Jersey, and I will say that confidently. We can go down 35-0 and we’ll still find a way to come back and win. Down 27-6? You don’t really see anything like that. The only person (who comes back from that) is Tom Brady, that’s the only thing I can compare it to. It feels amazing.”
What’s next: Both teams will be involved in the NJSIAA state playoffs, dates, times, opponents and locations TBD.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays