By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
OCEAN CITY — Last year, with quarterback Sean Burns and record-setting wide receiver Gavin Roman, the Holy Spirit High football team threw the ball nearly 400 times in 11 games to the tune of 3,181 yards and 29 touchdowns.
This season, with those two stars having graduated, the offensive philosophy seems to be give the ball to No. 40 and get the hell out of the way.
Jahcere “Pops” Ward is a 5-foot-9, 225-pound junior running back and he wore down Conwell Egan Catholic (Pa.) to the tune of 111 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries. Behind Ward, Spirit wore down the Eagles in the second half and turned a precarious 9-7 second-quarter lead into a pretty convincing 24-7 victory at Carey Stadium on the final day of the popular Battle at the Beach showcase event at Ocean City High.
“That was the plan, to put them away (in the second half). We got two more scores and that was it,” Ward said, matter-of-factly, after hauling away the game MVP trophy.
Holy Spirit made its intentions clear from the start as it took the opening kickoff and drove 60-plus yards in a grueling 14-play drive that featured 13 running plays. That set up Matt Abbott’s 10-yard touchdown catch from new quarterback Ty Costabile, and Mason Forte’s extra point had the Spartans up 7-0. The drive took nearly 9 minutes off the clock and Ward, a Mays Landing resident, featured prominently in the attack.
Then, the Eagles had the ball for just three plays before Holy Spirit senior Nolan Bradley sacked Conwell Egan quarterback Tom Gontz for a safety and a 9-0 lead. The Spartans were stopped on their next possession but got a great punt by Forte, pinning the Eagles at their own 5-yard line.
But on the very next play, running back Sam Cooper broke free for a 95-yard touchdown run that brought Conwell Egan to within 9-7.
Spirit’s defense — which produced two sacks, a safety and a false start in the Eagles’ first eight plays from scrimmage — forced a fumble with less than two minutes to go before halftime. Conwell Egan tried a hook-and-lateral play inside its own 10-yard line, and the gimmick play backfired. That set the Spartans up with a 1st-and-goal at the 8-yard line, and Ward plowed over three Eagles defenders to get into the end zone to extend Spirit’s lead to 16-7.
“With a running back like that, it gives a lot of breathing room for the receivers,” said senior Tahmir Jones, another Mays Landing resident. “We know that he can run hard and get through those open gaps from the offensive line. He’s very valuable to this team and we’re happy to have him.”
“I wanted to come out here and show that I could run the ball a lot. A lot of people have been doubting me and said I couldn’t run the ball a lot, but I did that today, got into the end zone once. It’s great. I love getting the ball and getting contact. I’m so ready for this,” Ward said. “I did a lot of speed and agility training with (assistant coach) Jamal “Pacman” Roberts. He got me right in the offseason.”
Holy Spirit capped off the scoring with less than four minutes to go when Costabile — who was 6-of-9 for 47 yards and two touchdowns — found St. Joseph Academy transfer Ty Mercado on a swing pass on a fourth-and-goal play. Costabile then hooked up with Abbott again on the two-point conversion to make it 24-7 and put the game out of reach.
Conwell Egan rushed 23 times for 116 yards, but 95 of those yards came on one play, and the Eagles were limited to just 10 passing yards by a stout Holy Spirit defense led by Nick Medina, Bradley and Tommy Innocente.
“Our defense was excellent today,” Ward said. “They got a lot of stops, we flew to the ball every play and I loved seeing that.”
“They were mainly a triple option team so we spent all week working on that, watching film and watching out for all the fakes and all that stuff,” added Jones, who also plays defensive back. “Just coming out with the win is great. We’ve been hungry all summer long. It’s good to finally get out here and get a win. Some of our younger guys really stepped up today, and that proved all their hard work is paying off, and I’m proud to see them have success.”
WHAT’S NEXT: Holy Spirit travels to Egg Harbor Township on Friday at 6 p.m.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays