BUENA VISTA TOWNSHIP — West Jersey Football League fans are well aware of Holy Spirit senior running back Patrick Smith, a Colorado State recruit, as well as junior quarterback Trevor Cohen, who has committed to Rutgers to play baseball. They also know about Elijah Steward, who broke out as a game-breaking wide receiver last year in his first year on the varsity level.

St. Joseph Academy knew all about those guys, too, from last year’s Non-Public Group 2 state championship game, a matchup that saw Spirit dominate the Wildcats to the tune of 38-0. But who ever heard of JaShon Teller? Or Dazzy Iannuzzio? Or Ai’Johnnie Rembert?

Teller, an offensive tackle who lined up at tight end and caught a key fourth-quarter touchdown pass from Cohen — the quarterback’s third of the game — helped seal a season-opening 18-6 Spirit win over St. Joe on Friday night at Buena Regional High School. And guys like Iannuzzio and Rembert spearheaded a defense that was able to corral the likes of Jayden Shertel, Ahmad Ross, Cohl Mercado and Keyshon Griffin. Cohen threw for three scores, including a 90-yarder to sophomore Gavin Roman in the first half, and finished 7-of-12 for 213 yards.

“We wanted to play, obviously, and this is a game we had to play. This rivalry is just going to keep going on and on, and even after what happened last year we’re still hungry and ready to play them, no matter what,” Cohen said. “The big difference is maturity, just growing with the offense and just trying to be comfortable around our receivers and with our offense, that’s the biggest part.”

Cohen fumbled inside the 10-yard line on Holy Spirit’s opening drive, but he made up for that miscue on the Spartans’ next possession, as some big runs by Smith helped set up Cohen’s 17-yard strike over the middle to Steward on fourth down, giving Spirit a 6-0 lead late in the first quarter. Spirit struck again late in the second quarter after Michael Weaver recovered a fumble inside the 10-yard line. Two plays later Cohen hooked up with Roman — the son of Spirit offensive coordinator Charlie Roman — down the left sideline for a 90-yard score that pushed the lead to 12-0.

But St. Joe came back strong in the second half, and pounded Spirit’s defense with Ross and Shertel throughout the third quarter. The momentum swung early in the third when Ross pushed his way in from the 2-yard line to slice the lead in half, 12-6. But with 3:05 remaining, after Spirit’s defense held up on several Wildcats drives, Cohen found a wide-open Teller, and Teller did the rest, breaking a couple tackles on his way to a 60-yard touchdown catch-and-run. It was the first pass the junior caught since his youth football days.

“Through that second half, we didn’t have any doubts. We wanted to win, we were going to win. We knew that play was going to be open because it was open before on a two-point conversion, we tried it again and it worked out. The first half we threw the ball a lot and they adjusted to our offense, so we thought the run would open up our offense and we started pounding the ball. And that one throw just opened up everything,” Cohen said. “My eyes blew up and I just tossed it to him. I gave him the easiest pass to catch and let him do his work.”

“I haven’t caught a pass since youth league. I wasn’t expecting to get the ball, so when I found myself wide open and Trevor threw it to me, I just knew I had to get up the field. I was just hoping he would throw it to me,” Teller said. “I just knew the game situation, when we came out I saw they had no safety over the top, so I knew it was going to be open, and I was just hoping (Trevor) could get the ball to me and I would do my best from there. I was just focusing on catching the ball and getting upfield. I was kind of nervous when they called the play, but I had to shake that off when I got up to the line.”

“He’s an offensive tackle with an eligible number. That’s coach Roman’s call and that’s something that we practice. Teams kind of lose track of him. Their linebacker ran right by him, and I was waiting for Trevor to pull the trigger. We were trying (to run the ball) but they had nine guys in the box and two guys covering Elijah Steward. We were trying to run the ball (in the second half) to set the tone, but their linebackers and defensive linemen did a great job. They gave our offensive line some fits, but we were able to figure it out at the end,” Spirit coach A.J. Russo said. “That third quarter was crazy. We couldn’t stop them at all, but then we were able to do a couple things down there (inside the 20). They have some big kids, and Shertel can get out around the edge so you can’t really sell out on anybody else. You have to make sure you play some solid defense. Our linebackers stepped up at the end and our edge guys made some plays.”

Iannuzzio, a first-year starter whose brother was a standout player a couple years ago at Absegami, really impressed coach Russo, as did guys like Weaver, Markus Lewis and Michael Francisco.

“He’s a first-year starter for us, he’s out there for the first time as a senior, so to have the opportunity to come out as a senior and in your first start do this was pretty awesome,” Russo said. “Coming in, we knew it was going to be a battle. The way that our kids were able to handle what was going on — in that third quarter we hit some adversity. But this is huge for us, you talk about having to play one game, if Covid hit and we only had one game to play, this was the game we wanted to play. To have the opportunity to do that right off the bat was great for us, and obviously the outcome was even better. Those guys (at St. Joe) play so hard, it was a good feeling to get out there and play football again, especially against these guys.

Russo said he wouldn’t be surprised if the Spartans end up seeing St. Joseph Academy again later in the year, when the NJSIAA groups squads into four-team playoff “pods.”

“I don’t know at the end how they are going to do the (playoff) pools or pods, or whatever they are calling it. They may put us with (St. Joe) again and it would be great if they did, to have the opportunity to play them again,” he said. “We’re not promised tomorrow with everything that’s going on, so we’re happy to have the opportunity to play them.”

Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sully@acglorydays.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays