Two years ago, Holy Spirit thumped rival St. Joseph of Hammonton to win the state championship, and last year — even though there were not traditional state playoffs because of the Covid-19 pandemic — the Spartans still finished as the consensus No. 1 team in South Jersey after beating Lenape in the top postseason “pod.” Winning championships is something that isn’t aspired to at Holy Spirit, it’s expected.

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And while there is no bell cow running back this year, the Spartans believe they have the talent in place to contend once again for a state championship. E’lijah Gray, the bruising tailback who spent the better part of three seasons racking up rushing yards in the blue and gold, is no longer around, and neither is speed burner Patrick “Cheeks” Smith, who now is a freshman at Vanderbilt University. Spirit won’t have that home run hitter in the backfield this season, but what the Spartans will have is a fourth-year starter at quarterback in senior Trevor Cohen. Cohen is a baseball commit to Rutgers University, so he’s relishing in his one last chance to be a high school football star this fall.

“I’m just trying to take this all in. It’s my last year playing football, my last year putting on these pads and playing for Holy Spirit, so I’m going to take it all in every Friday night and do the best I can for my team,” said the southpaw who threw for nearly 700 yards and seven touchdowns in eight games last year. “It really hasn’t hit me yet. It will probably hit me midseason that this is my last year ever of playing football.”

Expect to see a little more of that short passing game this year from Cohen, who has become very adept at completing passes to the sidelines and over the middle to keep the chains moving. He’ll have some targets to throw to as well, as Gavin Roman is a quick slot receiver who can also run the ball out of the backfield, and senior Elijah Steward has come into his own as one of the top deep threats in South Jersey on the outside. Roman had 272 yards and three touchdowns a year ago and Steward led the team with 24 catches for 293 yards and four scores.

“It’s the same thing every year — we just compete. We come out here every day, work hard and don’t take anything for granted. As a team, we’re still fast and we work hard. We know (offensively) somebody is going to step up. We just have to put our faith in our defense and our front line. We’re going to make plays,” Steward said. “I get a lot of attention my way, but I love it because that means I’m getting the best competition. I just want to play and have the best opportunity. I took sophomore year for granted and I didn’t work as hard as I should have, so last year, when Covid hit, I took all that off time and went to the gym and started working a lot harder in the weight room. Once I started taking (my offseason program) more seriously, I could see a lot of results coming in.”

Defensively is where the Spartans will lean, particularly early in the season. Spirit has a brutal schedule right out of the gate, as it takes on national power DeMatha Catholic (Md.) on Aug. 28 as the Saturday night featured game at Ocean City’s Battle at the Beach showcase. After that, Spirit has to deal with St. Joseph and Camden, and the Spartans have a stretch in October when they’ll face St. Augustine Prep, Woodrow Wilson and Winslow Township.

“The coaches really lead the whole thing on defense and I’m with them all the way,” said senior Michael Francisco, who led Spirit with 30 tackles last year. “We always talk about being physical and we need to have that sense of urgency. It’s the same thing every year, we have to just work hard. We lost some cornerbacks and some seniors, so the younger guys have to work hard (to fill those spots).”

Spirit lost two very good cornerbacks in C.J. Egrie and Devin Lee, and stalwart linebacker A’Johnnie Rembert, but return a host of defensive players, including Francisco, Michael Weaver, Eric Roman and Jahmir Smith. If the Spartans can stop some of the high-powered offenses they’ll face they certainly have the potential to go a long way this year.

“We have to go out with a bang, and that’s what we’re planning on doing,” Steward said. “This program has done a lot for me. The program speaks for itself, we’re a winning program, and the thing I like about it is we’re a smaller school but we win games. We’re all competing, we work hard and we have a great coaching staff, and that’s why we win so many games.”

“We want to win another championship. We’re hungry,” Cohen added. “We have guys who are going to step up, and if have to throw the ball more, we’ll throw it. We have guys who are capable of making plays and we’re going to trust in those guys. The offense will look pretty similar, although there might be more passing than running this year. Gavin Roman and Elijah Steward are going to make plays, they always do. We’re really focused on the red zone, we need to be able to score when we’re in situations to score. We can’t have those advantages in those situations and not score in the red zone.

“We’re hungry every year. We want to win games, and we do that every year. We know what we have to do and how to get it done.”

Holy Spirit 2021 Schedule (Home games in BOLD)

August 28 vs. DeMatha Catholic at Ocean City, 8

Sept. 3 vs. St. Joseph, 6

Sept. 10 vs. Camden, TBD

Sept. 17 BYE

Sept. 24 at Pleasantville, TBD

October 1 vs. Cedar Creek, TBD

October 8 vs. St. Augustine Prep, TBD

October 16 at Woodrow Wilson, TBD

October 22 at Winslow Township, TBD

Nov. 25 at Atlantic City, TBD

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