By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
The Holy Spirit football team went 5-6 last year. Every high school football team goes through some tough years. But in Absecon, a non-winning season sticks in the Spartans’ craw long after the Christmas holiday.
The Spartans have come into the 2022 preseason in a salty mood, itching to get back to their normal winning ways. New head coach Andrew DiPasquale — a longtime assistant under A.J. Russo, who now moves into an assistant coaching role with special teams — is a former Spartan and is not shy about spelling out exactly what the expectations will be under his leadership.
“The only way we define a season successful is if we won a state championship,” he said, bluntly, during preseason camp this week. “You can obviously have things to grow on — there were things we learned about kids last year and things like that, but at the end of the day, if we didn’t win a state championship, we didn’t do what we were supposed to do. That’s what we want to do here. We want to play in December at Rutgers or MetLife Stadium — that’s our goal.”
The Spartans will have a very different look this year, as DiPasquale is charged with replacing nearly his entire defense, and most of his offense, including four-year starting quarterback Trevor Cohen, a Rutgers University baseball recruit who threw for more than 1,600 yards, ran for another 600 and accounted for 22 touchdowns in 11 games.
And while the names will certainly change this year, DiPasquale said not much else about the program will. The Spartans will still march onto the field every Friday night to the sound of bagpipes, they’ll wear those traditional Navy jerseys and gold helmets, and they’ll do what they do best — compete, no matter the odds or circumstances.
“It’s not really that much of a difference, it’s just a title change,” DiPasquale said about taking over the lead role in the program. “Everything is pretty much the same. Everybody knows their roles as a coach, so the transition has been pretty good. 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.”
And while Spirit may have a relatively inexperienced roster, the Spartans do have some very talented seniors. Sean Burns, who has played multiple positions the last few years, takes over for Cohen and Gavin Roman — son of offensive coordinator Charlie Roman — may be small but he’s a huge playmaker. Jayden Llanos had a tremendous basketball season last winter, made his rounds at the college prospect camps this summer and figures to play a big part in the passing game.
“We have a new head coach, but the coaching staff is all the same so things should be the same as last year, with hopefully a better record,” Burns said. “I’m super excited. I’ve known these guys for four years, so it’s going to be super fun to play with these guys this year. Especially Gavin, I’ve played with him since about second grade. We have a lot of young running backs on this team, and obviously we’ll try to get the running game going, but we’ll have to throw some passing in there to keep people off balanced.”
“You just have to step up and fill those big players’ roles. A lot of new guys, a lot of young guys are going to have to do big things this year. We lost about nine guys on defense and seven on offense, so we’re going to need a lot of young guys to step up and just do their jobs. If you do your job, we’ll be fine,” Gavin Roman added. “I just have to know what’s expected of me and that I have to be one of the bigger players on this team if we’re going to be good, and it’s the same thing with Sean. We’re going to have to play our best games every game.”
BIGGEST QUESTION MARKS: The running game. Gone are the days of E’lijah Gray and Patrick “Cheeks” Smith. There is no back on the roster with a ton of experience aside from Roman (121 carries, 509 yards), and while the Spartans would love to use him in a variety of roles in the passing game, necessity might force them to put him in the backfield again. No returning player had more than 50 yards total last year aside from Roman.
But DiPasquale said he likes what he’s been seeing from some young running backs who will be looking to make a name for themselves.
“Last year, we had a lot of injuries so we had a lot of freshmen and sophomores step in who we really didn’t think were necessarily ready to play at the varsity level, but that gave them great experience going into this year,” he said. “We have some younger guys. We have kind of a running back-by-committee group with Jahcere Ward, and we have two freshman running backs in Christian Surles and Emir Hicks who we’re trying to get into the mix and get ready. Tahmir Jones has stepped up and had a great summer.”
Another big question will be how Burns handles taking over at quarterback, but he did a great job filling in late in the season when Cohen was banged up. He threw for nearly 300 yards in 47 attempts and had four touchdowns and only two picks.
“He’s not necessarily a new quarterback. Sean has been in the program running quarterback reps since he was a freshman,” DiPasquale explained. “He’s been on the field since he was a sophomore, playing different positions, so he has experience — not so much as the quarterback, but he has a lot of experience being on the field. The seniors we have are guys who were playing when they were freshmen and sophomores, so it’s good to have all that experience.”
UNDERRATED POSITION GROUP: DiPasquale points to the offensive line as a group that could turn some heads this year. DiPasquale is counting on guys like Luc Louis and Jayson Lewis to lead the way for what will be an inexperienced group. What will help them out early on is that Burns is a very mobile quarterback and can move the pocket if need be, or take off if the pass protection breaks down. Look for a lot of short, quick routes and throws to keep the chains moving and take some pressure off the offensive line. Spirit certainly has some playmakers who can do some damage in space if Burns can get them the ball.
SCHEDULE BREAKDOWN: vs. Cherokee at Ocean City; vs. EHT; at St. Joe; vs. Washington Township; at St. Augustine Prep; vs. Clearview; at Vineland; at Kingsway; at Atlantic City.
This is a brutal schedule, especially early on, but Holy Spirit never shies away from tough competition. We’ll know exactly what this team is all about before October even hits, as the Spartans play five times in September.
ENERGY, EXPECTATIONS: There has been a really good vibe in camp this year and DiPasquale said he likes what he’s seeing from his senior leaders. It’s a whole new group that is coming up wanting to carry on the Holy Spirit tradition.
“We have really good leaders. Sean is a good leader, Gavin’s a good leader, Jayden is a good leader, so we have good leadership, which is big when you’re dealing with a lot of inexperienced kids,” DiPasquale said. “They have done a good job leading this team. The weight room was great in the offseason, the summer practices, it’s been good. It’s been high energy, and they know the expectations. When you’re here, you’re not a freshman, sophomore, junior or senior, you’re a football player and we expect a lot from you. The expectations are high and we’re hoping we can get them to the point where we meet those expectations.”
“We both grew up watching Holy Spirit football games. We’ve known we were going to come here pretty much since we were born,” Burns said, referring to Gavin Roman.
“The expectation is always to win a championship. To get back to that level we’re just going to have to work hard. We have some talent on this team, but at the end of the day you have to come to practice, work hard and be tougher than every team you play,” Gavin Roman added. “(The Spirit tradition) means a lot. You’re filling in big players’ shoes. A lot of (Holy Spirit) players went to big Division I schools, the NFL like Joe Callahan, and this program has won a bunch of state championships. Every year you’re just trying to live up to Holy Spirit’s expectations.”
So, what will coach DiPasquale say before Holy Spirit kicks off its season at 2 p.m. Aug. 28 against Cherokee at the Battle By The Beach in Ocean City?
“I’ve had a lot of people ask me that specific question and I haven’t put a lot of thought into it,” he said. “I think it’s more of just I’ll think about it five minutes before it happens and it will be whatever I’m feeling. I don’t want to put too much thought into that. We have to get them ready first before I worry about a pregame speech, but I’ll think of something. I’m sure my emotions will be running high that day.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays