South Jersey Sports Report: National Signing Day for Area Athletes
Most National Signing Day ceremonies for high school football players are held in the library of a player’s school, or some other place on campus. But Holy Spirit senior running back E’lijah Gray chose a house on a quiet street in Galloway Township. It’s the Walsh residence, and Gray considers himself sort of an “adopted” son of former Spirit head and assistant coach Bill Walsh, who passed away in November after a nearly three-year battle with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
The past four years Gray, a Somers Point resident, has become a favorite of the Walsh family, which includes Bill’s wife, Cindy, and daughter, Kelly, who is a classmate of Gray’s at Holy Spirit, a senior who plays on the Spartans’ field hockey and softball teams.
Gray, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of his final three seasons, announced he is committing to Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass., an NCAA Division I program outside of Boston that competes in the Northeast Conference.
“It just came down to how I felt about the school. When I went up there for a visit, I felt like I was at home. It felt like I was at Holy Spirit, honestly,” said Gray, who said he also considered Assumption and St. Anselm. “This is great because everyone I love is here in (Coach Walsh’s) house. It’s just an amazing feeling. He meant everything to me. It’s a great feeling. Blue-and-gold all the way.”
Also on hand was Spirit senior receiver and defensive back Ahmad Brown, who earlier in the day committed to St. Anselm, a Division I program in New Hampshire. Brown and Gray helped lead Spirit to three appearances in the state championship game during their careers, and the Spartans won it this past fall with a 38-0 win over rival St. Joseph of Hammonton.
“These guys are resilient. Most of (the seniors) are the first class that Bill and I really had in here, and to see the success they’ve had the past four years is fantastic. I feel great for them. There were some ups and downs — we played in three state championship games and only came away with one victory — but just the fact that they were able to get there three times in four years is a testament to how hard these kids worked. I’m just glad that this final year they were able to show their true talents,” said Holy Spirit football coach A.J. Russo. “At the end of the day, regardless of what division it is, if you do well in the classroom academically, do well on the football field, and if you can help your parents afford college and maybe cut that cost in half, that’s what it’s all about. That’s what we as high school coaches should be preparing kids for. I’m glad we have that opportunity with E’lijah and Ahmad, and we have some other D-III kids who will be committing next week. It’s good for their families, it’s good for them, and that’s what high school football is all about.”
Gray formed a strong bond with coach Walsh during his four seasons at Holy Spirit, and this season Gray wore special cleats emblazoned with Walsh’s photo. He also inspired Holy Spirit to put logos on its helmets for the first time ever, as the night Walsh died Holy Spirit played in a state playoff game with a Spartan logo on one side of its helmets and Walsh’s retired No. 16 on the other.
“Bill had many ‘adopted’ sons but I know E’lijah was a special one for him. E’lijah does so much outside of the football field, just like Bill did. I don’t know if Bill was grooming him for that kind of stuff, but it’s taken that kind of turn,” Russo said. “E’lijah is going to do some special things, and I know that Bill’s memory and the way that Bill worked with E’lijah is going to pay dividends in the long run. He knows that, and this is great tribute to Bill, Cindy and Kelly that E’lijah wanted to do this here. I know Bill and his family have meant a lot to him.”
OTHER NOTABLE SIGNING DAY COMMITMENTS
Jake Cook, Mainland, WR: Cook, who had a breakout senior season after not playing football his junior year and instead concentrating on basketball, signed with St. Anselm.
Brayden Pohlman, Mainland, DL: Pohlman, who played late in the season despite suffering an ACL tear in early October, has committed to Kutztown University.
Bryce Eimer, St. Augustine Prep, LS: Eimer is one of the top long snappers in the country, and he’ll be taking his talents to James Madison University.
Chandler Bird, St. Augustine Prep, OL: Bird, one of the top centers in the state, chose Brigham Young University in Utah.
Isaiah Gerena, Barnegat, TE: Gerena spent his first three seasons at Holy Spirit before transferring to Barnegat for his senior season. He’s one of the top tight ends in the West Jersey Football League, and will be headed to Morgan State.
Louie Barrios, Cedar Creek, QB: Barrios, Glory Days Magazine’s Football MVP, had a record-setting senior season and led the Pirates to the Central Jersey Group 2 championship. He’ll be heading to Pace University in New York.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays