Swarming Holy Spirit defense shuts out 10th-ranked Absegami
GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP - The Holy Spirit High School football team's defense outscored its offense Friday, and that's just fine with the Spartans.
Junior captains Jeff Steeb and A.J. Dawson each returned an interception for a touchdown as the Spartans beat Cape-Atlantic League American Conference rival Absegami 18-0.
The Braves are ranked No. 10 in The Press Elite 11.
"We're just looking to make plays out there," Steeb said. "We just go out and try to make plays for our offense to get them the ball back."
Steeb set the tone early.
The Spartans' middle linebacker stepped in front of Absegami's first pass of the game and returned it 25 yards for a touchdown.
"When it's hitting you right in the chest, it's a good feeling," Steeb said. "You know it's coming and I'm just trying to get in the end zone and make a play."
Absegami fans may have expected a long night after seeing the ensuing two-point conversion.
A botched snap on the extra point turned into a two-point conversion when Spirit kicker Franco Rifici ran back, picked up the bounding ball and somehow found Dandre Dennis in the flat for the score.
Spirit took the 8-0 lead into the break and never looked back.
The Spartans' first drive of the second half stalled in Absegami territory, but the defense came up big once again, recovering a fumble to set up a 36-yard Rifici field goal.
With the Braves forced to take to the air in a two-possession game, Dawson stepped in front of a deep out and ran back an interception 42 yards to put the game away late in the fourth.
"I was just sitting in my zone and the ball basically came to me," Dawson said. "I saw two routes together. They ran right into each other, so I knew the ball was coming. I just stayed where I had to be and the ball came right to me."
Much of the talk surrounding the Spartans this season has focused on first-year coach John Iannucci and his triple-option offense.
Holy Spirit's defense, however, has allowed just one touchdown in its last 12 quarters of play.
"They run to the ball," Iannucci said of his defensive unit. "Usually you have to yell at kids to run to the ball, but they run to the ball. You don't have to complain about it and you saw that tonight. That's the way we play defense. We run to the ball."
Iannucci preferred Friday night to his last experience on Absegami's field.
Absegami came from behind to beat Cherry Hill East (coached by Iannucci at the time) 21-20 in a South Jersey Group IV playoff game on Nov. 10, 2006.
Iannucci said he always has taken pride in his defenses wherever he has coached and said this season was no different despite a young Spirit team.
The Spartans had only seven seniors listed among the 38 players on the roster.
"We practice just as long on defense as we do on offense," Iannucci said. "And it will grow because we have everybody on defense back (next year) and our first backups at almost every position, so we're pretty good on defense now and we'll get better."
Absegami features one of the area's most potent offenses with talent at the skill positions, but Spirit held the Braves to just one first down and 40 yards of offense in the first half.
"I feel like we're a really good defensive unit," Dawson said. "We're not great yet. We can get a lot better than what we are, but it's just going to come together. …I feel like in the future we could really be a threat."
Note: Absegami quarterback Rashad Kinlaw, who has verbally committed to play at Notre Dame next season, was not in uniform. Coach Dennis Scuderi Jr. had said during the week that Kinlaw, who is recovering from a broken leg, might make his season debut.
Contact John O'Kane:
Holy Spirit 8 0 3 7-18
Absegami 0 0 0 0-0
HS-Steeb 25 INT return (conversion good)
HS-Rifici 36 field goal
HS-Dawson 42 return (Rifici kick)
Rushing 169 129
Passing 39 85
First downs 10 8
Turnovers 1 3
Penalties 6-60 3-22
Rushing-Holy Spirit, Dennis 11-75, Dawson 8-47, Gerald 14-39, Rifici 3-22, Steeb 2-3, Anderson 8-(-17); Absegami, Hood 10-52, Bing 11-49, Dolan 8-28.
Passing-Holy Spirit, Anderson 3-7-39-0; Absegami, Dolan 9-17-85-2.
Receiving-Holy Spirit, Nolan 2-22, Gerald 1-17; Absegami, Hood 3-39, Bing 2-25, Loveland 1-14, Robinson 2-13, Miller 1-8.
Records-Holy Spirit 2-2; Absegami 3-2.