ABSECON — Holy Spirit football coach A.J. Russo likes to schedule the toughest opponents he can find, and the Spartans likely won’t face anybody as good as Maryland powerhouse Mount St. Joseph the rest of the 2019 season. The Gaels went 10-2 a year ago and scored 34 or more points in nine of those victories, and it doesn’t seem as if they’ll be taking a step back this year.

Mount St. Joseph built up a 35-14 lead by halftime and cruised to a 56-27 win over Holy Spirit in the Spartans’ 2019 season opener. Patrick Smith, a junior who played a year at St. Augustine Prep and last year was at the Peddie School, took the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown to put Spirit up 7-0, but it was all Gaels from that point. Mount St. Joseph (2-0) scored on its first five possessions to put the game out of reach by halftime, but Russo said he liked the way his players competed, and that will pay dividends as the Spartans now turn to their West Jersey Football League schedule after a bye week.

“We asked our kids in the second half to go out and compete — regardless of what the score was, to go out and play — and they did that. They competed in the first half as well, we just didn’t match up well with those guys. They are obviously one of the better teams we’ll see all year, so to have an opportunity to play a team like that early in the season allows us to build. We’ll fix some of the mistakes we made, address some of the issues we had, and just keep getting better. That’s all you can do. We don’t want to peak right now, we want to peak in November,” Russo said. “Their quarterback was running around in the pocket a little bit, our defensive backs took their eyes off the receivers, and that happens. But what I was impressed about was (quarterback) Trevor Cohen and how he handled himself, he’s a sophomore and he battled against these guys and made some plays.”

“We don’t hang our heads, not one bit. We fought to the end,” added senior receiver and defensive back Ahmad Brown. “The outcome wasn’t what we wanted it to be, but I’m proud of my teammates. We fought to the last whistle, they gave it everything. I told them at halftime that no matter what, we’re brothers until the day they put me six feet under.”

Michael Weaver picked off a pass and returned it 50 yards for a touchdown early in the third quarter to cut the deficit to 35-21, but Mount St. Joseph answered with a pair of scores to stretch its lead to 49-21. There were some bright spots for the Spartans, as Cohen passed for nearly 200 yards and rushed for 42 more, including a touchdown, and Smith accounted for nearly 300 yards in rushing, receiving and return yardage. It was simply too much of quarterback Michael Atkins, though, as the Gaels’ junior passed for 415 yards and three scores. Senior tailback Marlowe Wax added 139 yards and four touchdowns on just 17 carries.

“Overall, the takeaway is we’re not that bad, we’re a good team, that’s just a better team than we’ll see all season. We’ll just keep going at it and try to get better,” Russo said. “Obviously, we wanted to come away with a victory but that didn’t happen, but it gives our guys an opportunity to see what it’s like to be at that level. They have a lot of Division I kids on that team. We have a couple kids who eventually can be there, but they have to keep working hard. Hopefully they’ll see that’s where they have to be to get to that level.”

Added Brown, “This is just a building block. I take my hat off to them because they are a really good team, I respect their coaches and they are a well-coached team. We have stuff to work on, definitely, but we’re going to be good. We’re looking forward to playing the next opponent, and we’re going to keep getting better and better.”

What’s next: Holy Spirit has a bye week before hosting Eastern Regional on Sept. 13 at 7 p.m.

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

More From 97.3 ESPN