(Our Shore Ortho Senior of the Month, sponsored by Shore Orthopaedic University Associates, highlights a senior student-athlete who exemplifies excellence both on and off the field. We consider things like athletic ability, academic achievement, leadership qualities and the athlete’s impact on the sports teams they play for and their school as a whole. Holy Spirit 2023 graduate Sean Burns is our choice for the month of August.)
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Before the 2022 high school football season began, you’d be hard-pressed to find anybody in a six-county radius who knew who the heck Sean Burns was.
Coming into his senior season Burns had all of 32 career completions as a quarterback and was used more by Holy Spirit as a receiver and special teams player. So there was no way to predict that the 6-foot-2, 180-pounder was about to nearly lead the state in passing. (He fell a few yards short of Millville junior Josh Zamot).
“Sean’s been around Holy Spirit football since he was born. His dad’s been coaching there forever, so he was around the team when I was playing there. I’ve seen the kid grow up. He played quarterback his whole life growing up and when he got to Spirit, all he wanted to do was get on the field. He knew there were some kids in front of him at quarterback who were better than him at the time, so he did whatever we asked him to do. He played receiver for us, he played safety, and once it was his time as a senior to play quarterback, he turned it on,” said head coach Andrew DiPasquale, who took over last year from A.J. Russo. “He’s got something about him that you can’t really explain. You just know when he’s in the game that good things are going to happen and there are very, very few kids you can say that about. He’s just one of those kids who makes things happen, and you trust him. He was just awesome for us.”
South Jersey Glory Days’ Shore Ortho Senior of the Month for August certainly left his mark at Holy Spirit, putting together a season for the ages. He completed 251-of-384 passing attempts (a ridiculous 32 attempts per game!) for 3,125 yards and 29 touchdowns. He had more than 100 yards passing in every game he played as a senior, topped 200 yards three times, had four games in which he eclipsed 300 yards, and in the final game of his career — a 63-34 win over rival Atlantic City on Thanksgiving — Burns torched the Vikings for 447 yards and five touchdowns. There wasn’t a single game in which he didn’t throw a touchdown pass, and despite all those attempts he only was picked off 14 times.
“My junior year I got a little bit of experience at quarterback. Randomly throughout the season, not a lot, but just a little bit. I also had experience playing wide receiver. Honestly, every position they threw me at my junior year helped me get kind of used to the intensity of high school football. I trained in the offseason with my wide receivers, especially Gavin Roman — we live right down the street from each other. So we would go to the football field almost every night and throw, just get our chemistry down, stuff like that,” Burns said. “In our first scrimmage, against Oakcrest, I played horrendously bad. It was horrible and I was like, ‘oh, my God, this is going to be a long season!’ But then I did a lot of like film sessions with coach (Charlie) Roman and by the time we scrimmaged Mainland, we blew them out pretty well and then we played Cherokee and I felt comfortable. I knew our team had some special going, even though people didn’t believe that yet.”
Holy Spirit, which went 9-2 last year and made it to the sectional semifinals before losing to Red Bank Catholic, opened the season with a thrilling 34-31 win over Cherokee at the Battle at the Beach in Ocean City. The Spartans trailed early, 10-6, before Burns threw three touchdowns passes in the second and third quarters, giving Holy Spirit a 31-24 lead. He ended up throwing for 376 yards and four touchdowns in his first start as the true replacement for four-year starter Trevor Cohen, who is now a baseball standout at Rutgers University.
“That’s the position that I love and wanted to play. So when I knew that I was going to be the quarterback (senior year) I put more effort into it because I knew it was my chance to show that I can show up and be the guy. Going into it, I was definitely a little bit nervous. It helped having my receivers, who were friends of mine. We would lift at the school and go to the field and throw. So it was nice getting that chemistry down before the season. That gave me more confidence and then the coaches believing in me gave me all the confidence I needed,” Burns said. “Before every game we had a different game plan. So every week you’re learning more stuff. We were constantly drawing stuff up. That’s why we had a lot of big plays coming out of halftime, like that 73-yard touchdown against Cherokee the first play out of the half, because I saw something on the field.”
“We really had no idea (how successful he would be). I mean, it’s funny, when Sean came in as a freshman, we had no idea if he would ever play for us in the four years he was there. And then all of a sudden something just clicked and he just he turned into a great football player. Did we know what we had going into last summer? We really didn’t. We knew we had young running backs at the time that really had no experience, but we knew we could trust Sean. He just evolved throughout the summer and throughout the year, and it just continued to grow and get better. We didn’t know how good he was going to be in the summer, but we found out pretty quickly,” DiPasquale said. “You saw a little bit of it in the scrimmages where you could tell he had a feel for what we wanted to do offensively and knew what play call was come coming before we even called it. Then, in the Cherokee game, he just took over. He made some throws in some clutch moments. We had a 4th-and-7 in our own territory on the last drive of the game and we asked him to throw a slant that we haven’t thrown all game — and he did it with no problem; just looked to the sideline and was ready for the next play. And when he did that, I was like, ‘oh, we’ve got something here.’
“We didn’t have a lot of depth at running back last year. Jahcere Ward ended up having a great year but also was a kid who had no varsity experience. So we had a senior at quarterback and a sophomore at running back and neither of them really had varsity experience in those positions. Sean just kind of took over that leadership spot.”
It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that Burns became a leader during his time in Absecon. He’s the son of longtime Spirit assistant coach Kevin Burns and has been around the game his whole life. But his success didn’t come easily. It took three years for Sean to not only mature from the once goofy middle school kid, but also to get his body to the point where he could handle varsity football and the type of schedule that Holy Spirit plays.
“I actually was Sean’s teacher in eighth grade, so before he ever got to Spirit, at that point in his life, Sean was just an absolute goofball,” DiPasquale said. “The way he turned into that kid in eighth grade to senior year being a leader of not just the football team, but he was a leader amongst the school. Everybody looked up to him and to see that growth over those years was awesome. I’ve been coaching for nine years and Sean is up there as one of the most awesome kids and football players I’ve had the pleasure of coaching.”
Burns, who’s currently attending the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, R.I., with the plan of attending the Coast Guard Academy in 2024, said he never dreamed he’d have the kind of senior year where he was mentioned among the best quarterbacks in the entire state.
“I was not expecting that going into that year. I expected to half the typical season of a Holy Spirit quarterback where you hand the ball off and throw when you need to,” he said. “But Coach Roman had a lot of faith in me and trust in me to switch the offense completely around.”
As he focuses on his future in the military, Burns won’t leave all those Holy Spirit memories far behind. He loved attending the school and just being part of the atmosphere, both on and off the field, he said.
“At Holy Spirit, everybody knows everybody. You walk the halls, you’re talking to everybody that you know, football players, non-players. We’re all a big family. So that’s awesome,” Burns said. “Picking kids up when they needed it and stuff like that was always a great experience for me. It was a great family experience, a great family environment there. I just got a letter from one of our teachers — it’s kind of crazy, like, a high school teacher just sent me a letter. That’s how close you were with everyone.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays