Holy Spirit back in state title game
ABSECON — The Holy Spirit football team is used to playing on the first Saturday in December — in state playoff games. Last year, the Spartans were cleaning out their lockers on Thanksgiving after a 32-10 loss to Atlantic City that left them with a 4-6 record.
Last December, the Spartans players and coaches vowed a sub-.500 record wasn't going to happen again. Not on their watch.
Holy Spirit finds itself back in the Non-Public B South state championship game after a gritty 23-6 win over Immaculata, and it was classic Spartans football — play great defense and run the ball down the throat of your opponent. Spirit will take on the winner of Saturday's game between St. Joseph and Mater Dei.
Immaculata (also called the Spartans) had Holy Spirit on its heels early, as Brandon Haley picked off a pass in the end zone to stop Spirit's first drive of the game. Immaculata also used its tempo offense to put together a pair of long drives in the first quarter, but Holy Spirit senior linebacker Dante Daniel came up with a play that completely changed the game.
Immaculata was forced to punt with less than two minutes remaining in the first quarter, and Daniel broke through the line, blocked the punt, scooped it up and ran about 35 yards into the end zone, giving Holy Spirit a 7-0 lead. Spirit extended its lead to 16-0 by halftime, putting together a long, time-consuming drive behind tailbacks Reggie Jean-Charles and Justin Figueroa. Spirit got a bit of luck, too, as Figueroa fumbled inside the 5-yard line, but wide receiver Danny Tarsitano alertly scooped up the ball at the goal line and went in for the score to make it 13-0. Cade Antonucci added a 29-yard field goal as time expired in the second quarter.
"It's something like a little kid would say, 'I wish I could do that in the NFL.' But it can happen in high school," Daniel said of the blocked punt. "It just took effort. If it wasn't for my man Jason Conrad next to me — if we didn't have any pressure from the left side, I would have never gotten there. So, I have to thank my man for helping me block that punt.
"This is a great experience. That was a great team, they gave us a great fight in the beginning, but we did what we had to do and handled business. We worked hard in practice all week to prepare for this moment."
Holy Spirit had all kinds of trouble slowing down Immaculata's dynamic offense, which was led by sophomore quarterback Nathan Barnett as well as senior running back R.J. Thornburg and senior wideout Sean Gaffney, a 6-foot-5, 215-pound threat on the outside. Spirit might have bent, but it didn't break, forcing three punts and a turnover on downs on Immaculata's four first-half possessions.
"This is incredible. It's amazing. We worked really, really hard. All the way back to last December, it's been nothing but hard work. I'm glad it finally paid off. This defense plays with passion, and that comes straight from (assistant coach Bill) Walsh. He's instilled that into us. We made some adjustments with our defensive coordinator, coach Mantz, and we came back onto the field and things started working out," said senior linebacker Gavin Liepe. "We have guys all over the field who are making plays, and that's what makes us special. Everyone is playing for each other. That's what makes our defense special. We knew we could do this. We knew what we were capable of from the start of weightlifting last winter. This is awesome. We had people come in and talk to us, alumni, and they said this place has a tradition and a fan base. I'm just at a loss for words right now."
In the second half, and holding a 16-0 lead, Spirit let its offensive line take control. Guys such as Sam Torres, Luke Bellucci, Dimitris Pali, Carson Caffrey, Anthony Lord and Isaiah Gerena began to open holes for Figueroa and Reggie Jean-Charles, who had another tremendous game. Jean-Charles sealed the win late in the fourth quarter by plowing his way for a 16-yard gain on fourth-and-6 from the 26-yard line. On the very next play, he ran around the right side for a 10-yard touchdown that pushed the lead to 23-6. Jean-Charles finished with 161 yards on 28 carries, while Figueroa added 107 yards on 11 carries.
"Definitely a shout-out to the offensive line. They finally gave them so notice, announcing their names during the game. They are the ones who set up the holes. If it wasn't for them, I wouldn't go anywhere," Jean-Charles said. "Our offense wasn't really doing much early on, but when Dante blocked that punt, that got our whole sideline motivated. That kept our confidence level high."
Daniel and Jean-Charles have been waiting for this moment for a long time. Two years ago, as sophomores, Jean-Charles was hurt and Daniel didn't see a whole lot of playing time. That was the last time Holy Spirit appeared in a championship game.
"This means a lot, especially since we had a perfect opportunity to win (a championship), but things happen. Things don't always go your way. I couldn't have done it by myself, it's been a team effort. We have a bunch of savages on this team," Daniel said. "We just focused on what our coaches were telling us, focused on the fundamentals and the technique. We didn't have to be bigger than them, we just had to be faster and smarter. That's how you make plays."
Added Jean-Charles, "Like I was telling my teammates, we didn't go through what we went through in the offseason to lose this game. We had the military guys come here and torture us (with workouts). We didn't go through that for no reason. And now it's paying off. Like I told the guys, we've worked so hard for this, and now we have to go farther."
Daniel is also a standout basketball player at Spirit. He said he doesn't mind being a little late to join the hoops team.
"I have no problem with that."
Contact Dave O'Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays