By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
ABSECON — Holy Spirit High football has a storied tradition that stretches back for a century. Today’s players know just what it means to don that golden helmet, the history is all around them when they step into Ed Byrnes Stadium.
This year’s Spartans are out to make their own history — and they’re playing solid, hard-nosed, grind-it-out football just like their predecessors.
On Friday night, they took a huge counter-punch from visiting Kingsway in the form of 14 points by the Dragons in the second quarter that tied the game, but answered back with an inspired second half that saw Holy Spirit rally for a 24-14 victory in the Bunting Family Pharmacy Game of the Week. The win was the seventh of the year in eight games for Sparty, and allowed Holy Spirit to beat out Washington Township for the West Jersey Football League’s Continental Division title.
Holy Spirit took the lead for good early in the fourth quarter when junior Mason Forte drilled a 32-yard field goal, and after a Tommy Innocente interception on Kingsway’s next drive, the Spartans went on a grueling drive that chewed up about seven minutes of the fourth quarter. The drive ended with a fumble deep in Kingsway territory, but there was only about two minutes left on the clock and in desperation mode, Spirit’s Tahmir Jones picked off a pass and returned it 48 yards for a touchdown and the eventual 24-14 margin.
During that seven minute drive, Spirit (7-1, 4-0 West Jersey Football League Continental) leaned on a pair of sophomore running backs — Christian Surles and Emir Hicks — who are starting to come of age right before the eyes of Spartans fans.
“Tonight was the first night where we really got Amir and Christian out in open space and they are a different breed when you get them out in open space — they can move a little bit. We’ve had a little bit of trouble getting them in open space, but Amir and Christian, I can’t talk enough about them, they ran hard tonight,” said Spartans coach Andrew DiPasquale. “The message we sent before the game, and even at halftime, was to just break the game down, one drive at a time. Just keep stacking first downs and that last drive — I don’t know how long it was, but we had the ball for the majority of the fourth quarter. It was just our backs understanding down and distance. We had a couple of short yardage situations where they knew what they had to get, and they just put their head down and got it.”
“Definitely getting the reps and experience (has helped them) and we’re coming together as a team,” said junior guard/linebacker Nick Medina. “The chemistry is there now. Our main goal this week was to get a big push up front and let the running backs do their jobs, and that’s what happened.”
The game featured a slew of turnovers and was a see-saw battle until Spirit finally took the lead for good in the first minute of the fourth quarter. Early on, it looked as though the Spartans were about the blow the game open. Surles capped the Spartans’ first drive with a 41-yard touchdown run down the left sideline, and early in the second quarter Holy Spirit scored on a 54-yard halfback option pass from Frank Hudak to Ty Mercado — just one play after Jones picked off a Kingsway pass as the Dragons attempted that same trickery.
That made it 14-0, but Kingsway (5-4, 2-2 WJFL Continental) responded on its very next drive as sophomore quarterback David Oravetz found senior tight end Kyle Kupsey on a touchdown throw back across the field after rolling to his right. With less than a minute to go in the first half, the Dragons tied the game at 14 when Oravetz rolled to his right again and found senior wideout Benny Liles III, who broke a tackle at the 1-yard line and stepped into the end zone.
“At first, we were locked in, but in the second quarter we came off our keys and were scrambling a little bit. They came off the ball fast, and they got us,” Medina admitted. “But we went into halftime thinking it was 0-0 again and that we had to get back into it and play our hearts out.”
“That’s a very good team. The receiver they have (Liles III) is the real deal and their quarterback did a nice job,” DiPasquale said. “He’s a good player and they are a great team that is well coached. But our defense stepped up. They had our number a little bit toward the end of the first half, but we went in at halftime and made some adjustments defensively and we were able to fix it. We didn’t let up any points in the second half, so that’s big.”
Facing a long fourth-down early in the fourth quarter, DiPasquale said there was no hesitation in sending Forte out to attempt a field goal, even on a muddy field.
“Mason is unbelievable. He drilled that field goal,” the coach said. “He’s been great all year. He’s been perfect on extra points — and I hope I didn’t just jinx that — it was a tie game and we knew with third-and-goal from the 15, we were just trying to put ourselves in good position to kick the ball because we know we have a kid who can do it.”
Once Spirit got the lead it leaned on guys like Nolan Bradley, Matt Abbott, Ubrig Kurtz and, of course, Medina — who’s been playing for several weeks with a broken right hand.
“In the game he broke his hand, I didn’t even know he did it. It was never a question about whether he was going to play or not the next week. He said, ‘I can club it, right?’ That’s just the type of kid he is. He’s going to find a way to play,” DiPasquale said. “When he came in as a freshman he thought he was a running back, but he found out he might not be and now he’s starting at guard and linebacker for us, and this team doesn’t go without him.”
Holy Spirit — ranked No. 8 in the South Jersey Glory Days/South Jersey Football Frenzy Show Best 11 — now prepares for the state playoffs and will go in with a full head of steam having won three games in a row after its only loss of the season.
“If we lost, it would have been bad going into the state playoffs off a loss, but we won and we’re in good spirits. We’re ready. We know we can compete now,” Medina said. “Our minds our set on winning a state championship, and this was just another step toward that.”
Added DiPasquale, “this is big, especially going into playoffs because we might not play again for two weeks based on how the seeding goes. It’s much better to go into a two-week layoff off a win rather than a loss. Kingsway is a very good team, so that’s a big win for us.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays