By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Dante Lovett is 6-foot-1 and about 190 pounds. On most high school football teams, that’s a pretty good size for a defensive end. At DeMatha Catholic out of Hyattsville, Md. — a nationally ranked program that has produced the likes of former Eagles stars DeSean Jackson and Brian Westbrook — Lovett is a cornerback.
When Holy Spirit coach A.J. Russo saw the size of the Stags’ front line on Saturday night in the featured game of the Battle at the Beach showcase at Ocean City’s Carey Stadium, put on by the West Jersey Football League Coaches Association, he knew trying to run the ball wasn’t a realistic option. Instead, he relied on senior lefty quarterback Trevor Cohen to keep the Spartans in the game.
Cohen came through with a valiant effort, completing 22-of-40 passes for 177 yards and rushing for a touchdown, but it wasn’t nearly enough as the Stags overpowered Holy Spirit 28-7 — and that was even after DeMatha’s starting quarterback, senior Blake Kendall Jr., went down in the first quarter with an injury and did not return. Freshman Denzel Gardner was outstanding as Kendall Jr.’s replacement, engineering three scoring drives, including two late in the second quarter that gave the Stags a 14-0 lead.
DeMatha scored again early in the third quarter when a big run by Brendan Wyatt set up Jaden Bacon’s 18-yard touchdown run that pushed the lead to 21-0. Spirit got on the board with 5:18 left in the third when Cohen capped off a long drive with a three-yard touchdown run on third-and-goal. But that’s all Spirit could muster against one of the best teams on the East Coast.
“Cohen threw the ball very well. We knew coming in we weren’t going to be able to run the football against these guys. Our flares and our little screen passes, that was our run game today,” Russo said. “But we’ll get back to what we do and be more of a 50-50 type of offense. We know we have good kids who can catch the ball and I think a game like this build’s Trevor’s confidence. Not that he lacks that, but this builds it up even more knowing that we’ll be able to throw the ball this year.”
“It was crazy. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen. They were huge up front and I was running for my life,” said Cohen, a senior who has committed to Rutgers University to play baseball. “I had fun though. We all had fun.”
THE TURNING POINT: Early in the second quarter, Holy Spirit was driving into DeMatha territory, picking up a first down at the 27-yard line. But that’s when Mizaah Dean, a 6-foot-3, 230-pound defensive end, stepped in front of a Cohen screen and picked it off, rumbling down to the Spirit 24-yard line before Cohen caught him from behind.
A few plays later, Wyatt scored the first of his two touchdowns and Daniel Holbrook’s extra point gave the Stags a 7-0 lead, one they wouldn’t relinquish.
“Even though we did make that mistake, our kids came back and we had an opportunity to get it to within seven, but things just didn’t work out. That hurt, but it’s just a play in a football game, you have to continue to play and that’s what our kids did. We didn’t get going again until the second half. Their quarterback getting injured helped us a little bit, although the kid who came in played pretty darn well, too. That first half, our kids played unbelievably, and they came out in the second half and did the same thing,” Russo said.
A PASSING RUNNING GAME: Normally, Holy Spirit loves to run the ball. Last year, Patrick Smith rushed for more than 1,700 yards in eight games and the entire offensive line returned intact this year. But it just wasn’t feasible against DeMatha’s huge front line.
“We had to get the ball out on the perimeter,” Cohen said. “We couldn’t really run the ball inside because they are big, so we used those short bubbles and flares for our run game. And then the deep balls, we’d take some shots on second and third down.”
“Their defensive line was like NFL size, like grown men,” Russo said. “Teams around here might have two guys like that, but they had six or seven. That’s something we don’t normally see. Their D-backs looked like linebackers. But you have to chalk it up to experience. Our guys took it on and didn’t back down. We could have folded in the second half but we didn’t.”
WHAT THE LOSS MEANS FOR HOLY SPIRIT: Not a whole lot, in the grand scheme of things. It means the Spartans won’t repeat an undefeated season, but in the long run it might actually help Spirit. The Spartans certainly won’t see anybody that good on their schedule again this year.
Going toe-to-toe with the Stags should also build the confidence of some of the younger players, too.
“I’m really proud of how we played. We kept them to 28 and we scored, and at halftime we were in the game. I’m really proud of how we played with those guys being a national powerhouse,” Cohen said. “This helps us a lot. We’re going to be ready for anything now and we’re going to expect to play like this against everyone. We’re ready for anyone now.”
Added Russo, “We’re going to continue to play hard, put this one behind us and chalk it up as an experience for our kids. There’s nothing to be fearful of when playing football. Our kids wanted to play these guys and I think we showed we belong.”
WHAT’S NEXT: Holy Spirit hosts St. Joseph Academy on Friday at 6 p.m.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays