By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
ABSECON — This wacky, wild, unpredictable COVID-19 football season came down to a winner-takes-all matchup between Holy Spirit and Lenape for the unofficial South Jersey championship on Friday night just off Route 9. The West Jersey Football League put together four playoff pods in lieu of traditional sectional tournaments, and Lenape and Spirit both took care of business in last week’s semifinals, against Cherokee and Winslow, respectively.
So, once the final horn sounded tonight, there would be no more argument about who the best team in South Jersey is. It’s Holy Spirit, and the host Spartans made sure everybody knew it with another eye-popping performance from senior running back Patrick “Cheeks” Smith, and yet another bone-crunching effort from a no-name defense that has embraced the underdog mentality all year.
Spirit took a 14-0 lead in the first half of the Bunting Family Pharmacy Game of the Week on a pair of touchdown runs from Smith — one an 80-yard scamper up the middle and the next a bulldozing run around the right side from 10 yards out — and got another impressive TD run from senior Devin Lee to score a 21-7 win over the Indians, who were coming off the emotional high of beating Cherokee in overtime on Sunday in the pod semifinals.
“I love the energy. I love it. This is something that not a lot of people can say they did in their life or their high school career, so I loved to be able to do this and accomplish this, and be undefeated. We knew we still had more to prove to everybody. We didn’t speak to things that were said during the week (on social media), but we we noticed that we still didn’t have the respect that we felt as though we had earned, so we had to go out and earn it tonight. That’s what we did,” said senior linebacker AiJohnnie Rembert, who led a Spirit defense that limited Lenape to just 26 yards of total offense in the first half. “They have a lot of big kids, and those big kids are really good. I can’t say that enough. This was just a very fun, active and intense game. They definitely do have some athletes and we were talking back and forth on the field, you know, football love.”
The first quarter was like a pinball machine as the teams traded short possessions that ended in either punts or turnovers, but with less than a minute to go in the game’s opening frame Smith — who had been bottled up by a very good Lenape defense to that point — ripped off an 80-yard touchdown run for the game’s first score. Then, with 3:57 left before halftime, Smith — who recently decommitted from Colorado State and is fielding new college scholarship offers — showed his power by capping off a 57-yard drive with a tough 10-yard run around the right side. He got some good blocking on the outside from receiver Elijah Steward, then plowed through a couple Lenape defenders and into the end zone to give the Spartans at 14-0 lead.
Lenape (5-1) had all kinds of trouble moving the football in the third quarter and that was due in large part to Spirit’s defense, which has allowed just one team all season to score more than one touchdown. Jahmir Smith played outstanding football and finished with a couple of sacks to go with a handful of tackles.
“Nobody really knows about me, but I come out here every game and play my hardest. I hit the weight room as much as I can. That shift from basketball to football is really hard, but I make it work,” said Smith, Spirit’s starting point guard on the basketball team. “People have been sleeping on us, and that’s what happens. We’re disciplined. The coaches drill us well in practice, we watch a lot of film, and we make sure we’re disciplined, that’s what it is.”
Lenape made a game of it early in the fourth quarter when Brady Long hooked up with Tyler Davis, who made a juggling catch and then raced down the left sideline to complete a 65-yard touchdown that brought the Indians within 14-7 with 11:14 to play. But on Lenape’s next possession, following a Spirit punt, senior Spartans cornerback C.J. Egrie picked off a pass. Lee’s scoring run around the right side came with about five minutes remaining, then he sealed the Indians’ fate moments later with an interception on defense.
Patrick Smith, who has been a workhorse back all season and actually has an outside shot at 2,000 rushing yards this season in just eight games if Spirit plays Atlantic City on Thanksgiving, racked up 179 yards in the first half and finished with 232 on 34 carries. Lee added another 79 yards on 11 carries as Holy Spirit (7-0) produced 427 yards of total offense. The defense was just as impressive, as it limited Lenape to minus-28 rushing yards and just 126 total yards by the Indians.
“This definitely is a great feeling. I don’t know if I’m going to end my football career here or not, that’s something I’ll have to talk to my mom and coaches about,” said Rembert, who is unsure if he wants to play college football or pursue a career as an electrician after high school. “But this feels great because we don’t have as many Division I athletes. Other schools have a lot of them, but we have dogs. We have ballers. We have guys who are going to come out here every time and play their hearts out.
Added Jahmir Smith, “This was crazy. Everybody thought we were going to lose, but to come out here and play our hardest against probably the best competition we’ve ever played, it’s amazing. It was a good atmosphere. It was fun.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays