Staff Writer

ABSECON — Last year, Holy Spirit had a home run hitter in running back Patrick “Cheeks” Smith. The current Vanderbilt University freshman racked up 1,700-plus yards in just eight games last fall and could score from any part of the field. He ripped off 80-yard runs seemingly at will.

And while he may be gone to the next level now, that doesn’t mean the Spartans don’t have anymore playmakers. It just may take a few games for fans to learn their names.

On Friday night it was Holy Spirit’s receivers who shined, as junior Sean Burns caught a first-quarter touchdown pass from veteran southpaw quarterback Trevor Cohen, and fellow junior Gavin Roman hauled in a pair of second-half touchdown passes and helped ice Spirit’s 35-24 win over rival St. Joseph Academy with a late interception while playing defense. The win came on the heels of Spirit’s season-opening, 28-7 loss to national powerhouse DeMatha Catholic of Maryland in last weekend’s Battle at the Beach in Ocean City.

“It’s not as easy to get them their opportunities, but you’ll see a lot more from Roman and Sean Burns,” said Holy Spirit running back and linebacker Michael Weaver. “They had a great game today, especially Gavin, and we love to see that out of him.”

“I always like the way our kids play with their effort. We made too many mistakes that we need to fix and that starts with us as a coaching staff, and we’ll take care of that,” said Holy Spirit head coach A.J. Russo. “But this type of game is what high school football is all about. Two local teams, it’s a great rivalry, and just come out here and play on a sloppy field and just play smash mouth football.”

Spirit (1-1) jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter on a 3-yard touchdown run by Cohen and then a 34-yard scoring strike from Cohen to Burns, but the Wildcats (1-1) came roaring back, taking a 17-14 lead on a 30-yard field goal by Trevin Del Gozzo and two huge plays by receiver/defensive back Jahmeer Cartagena. Late in the second quarter he hauled in a pass from Ja’son Prevard down the left sideline and took it to the house, cutting the deficit to 14-10. On Spirit’s next possession, Cartagena picked off a Cohen pass and raced 57 yards for a touchdown and a 17-14 St. Joe lead.

Glory Days photo/Sully

But this game was like a heavyweight fight, and the lead changes weren’t done. Spirit regained the lead with less than two minutes to go before halftime when Weaver capped off a drive with a 2-yard touchdown plunge, giving Holy Spirit a 21-17, but St. Joe responded on its second possession of the third quarter, taking a 24-21 lead when Kevin Mayfield bounced a run to the outside and scored from 13 yards out.

THE TURNING POINT: After St. Joseph took that 24-21 lead, it took less than two minutes for the Spartans to respond — and for little Gavin Roman, who weighs about 140 pounds, to take over the game. Spirit was faced with a 3rd-and-3 from its own 38-yard line when Roman burst through the middle and was off to the races. He ripped off a 62-yard touchdown run that put Spirit in front for good, 28-24.

ALL-OUT EFFORT: The Spartans knew they had to bring it on every play against one of the top teams in South Jersey, and a team that was riding the high of a season-opening win over Northeast (Philly) at last week’s Battle at the Beach. Spirit’s defense answered the call, limiting the Wildcats to just 36 rushing yards on 25 carries. Linebackers Weaver and Michael Francisco were a huge part of that, as were defensive linemen Luc Louis, Markus Lewis and Jashon Teller.

“They threw the ball more than we thought they would. In fact, we thought if we could get them to throw the ball we’d be in a little better shape, but it didn’t really work out that way. For four years in a row we were up 14-0 in the first quarter every time we played them here and they wound up beating us, so, yeah, when you get up on those guys you have to keep going. You can’t let your foot off the pedal at all. We didn’t do that, but we had some mistakes that let them back in the game, but we were resilient. Our kids bounced back and played great football,” Russo said. “They couldn’t really run the ball at all — they hit a couple draw plays near the end on second-and-long, third-and-long, and they got us there because we were in some pass prevent defense. But other than that, our guys up front shut down the run. Luc Louis and Teller played well, and they’re spilling stuff to Mike and Markus — we’ll take that.”

“We just had our game plan set and we knew what to expect, and we just came out and played our hardest. There were a couple mistakes, but we just continued to play our game and finished up strong,” Weaver said. “They are a well coached team and they play hard every single play. They know what to come in and do and expect, but we just came out and played just as hard. As long as we continue to do that, we’ll have no worries this season.”

Glory Days photo/Sully

STARS OF THE NIGHT: Cartagena had a big-time game for St. Joe, finishing with more than half of the Wildcats’ receiving yards, a receiving touchdown and a defensive touchdown. For Spirit, Roman finished with 104 rushing yards on 12 carries and Cohen was 11-of-21 for 219 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Defensively, Francisco spent a good portion of his night in the Wildcats’ backfield and was the best defensive player on the field for either side.

WHAT THE LOSS MEANS FOR ST. JOSEPH: This is still a really good football team, so basically it’s just an early season loss that shouldn’t slow the Wildcats down too much. But the Cats certainly have a lot they can clean up and they’ll need to in a hurry. There is no let-up on this schedule, as they take on Cherokee, St. Augustine Prep and Eastern to close out September.

WHAT THE WIN MEANS FOR HOLY SPIRIT: The Spartans really wanted to avoid going 0-2 to start the season and they accomplished that. They also found out what they probably already knew — that their run defense is top notch, and overall the defense shouldn’t be a problem going forward. And being able to count on more than just Elijah Steward in the pass game should give Cohen some confidence going forward.  

“We have a long way to go, but after the game against DeMatha — I knew our guys played as well as they could have against them — but you need to get that first win, you really do. We talked about that at practice, how if we go 0-2 it’s a tough stretch for us. Our schedule doesn’t get any easier, so the fact that we got this win under our belt I think will spring us forward,” Russo said.

“We hear everything all the time, everybody saying how we lost basically our best player, but as long as we continue to play our game, we’ll be straight. We can’t worry about anything else. We have to go hard every game,” Weaver added. “There are some big games coming up so we just have to stay focused. Our No. 1 challenge is just staying disciplined and working hard every week. We can’t let up and get excited about one win. We have to continue to come out here and play our game week by week.”

WHAT’S NEXT: Holy Spirit hosts Camden on Sept. 10 at 6 p.m. St. Joseph Academy travels to Cherokee on Sept. 10 at 6 p.m.

Contact Dave O’Sullivan:; on Twitter @GDsullysays