The Holy Spirit High School football team seeks its fourth straight state championship this season.
St. Joseph chases its fifth consecutive state title.
But those streaks are only part of what defines these programs. What is just as meaningful as packed trophy cases is their games against each other.
The teams meet at 7 p.m. today at Holy Spirit in Absecon. The Spartans (1-0) are No. 1 in The Press Elite 11. St. Joe (1-0) is No. 4. The Wildcats lead the rivalry 10-4, beating Holy Spirit 7-0 last season.
"You only get so many opportunities in life," Spirit coach John Iannucci said. "You come to Holy Spirit to play in these type of games."
The games between the two schools have developed into the Cape-Atlantic League's pre-eminent rivalry since the mid-2000s. Tonight's winner becomes the favorite to win the CAL American Conference. Fans should pack the home and visiting bleachers.
"I think both sides have a lot of respect for the other program, but at the same time I think both sides get a little annoyed with the other program," Iannucci said. "Everybody thinks the other school gets more ink. But there's a lot of respect."
But this game could be the last time they play each other for at least two years. The schools will be in different CAL conferences in 2014 and 2015. Holy Spirit drops to the National Conference because of a decrease in enrollment. St. Joe remains in the American Conference because of the power points it accumulated the past two seasons. The Wildcats are the defending conference champion.
But if this is to be their last game for a while, it should be one of the best. Perhaps never before have the two teams combined to put this much talent on the field.
"It's fun coaching athletes, and I think it's enjoyable to watch," Iannucci said. "It's not the most fun to make up a game plan against them."
The biggest difference between the teams is age. Seniors dominate Holy Spirit's lineup, while St. Joe starts nearly all juniors and sophomores.
"We have a lot of young players, but we're not going to make excuses," St. Joe coach Paul Sacco said. "I know we're the underdog. I think they have a little bit more pressure on them than we do right now. Anytime you're the underdog you take your best shot and our kids are excited to do that."
Both teams come off dominant wins in their season openers.
Spirit shutout Hammonton 30-0. Defensive tackle Ray Ellis and linebackers Franco Rifici and Jeff Steeb lead a stingy Spirit defense. The Spartans have allowed six points or less in six of their last eight games dating back to last season.
"You can't make mistakes against Spirit," Sacco said. "They fly to the football on defense. They're good tacklers."
The Spirit defense will face a challenge in St. Joe. The Wildcats have featured some fast players in the past, but they've never had the overall team speed they have this season.
St. Joe scored six touchdowns of 40 yards or longer in a 48-6 win over Absegami last Friday. Quarterback Salaam Horne ran 43 and 76 yards for touchdowns. Cody Sampson had touchdown runs of 55 and 43 yards. Rocco Ordille, who finished third in the 100-meter dash at the outdoor track and field Meet of Champions last spring, ran 43 yards for a score.
Holy Spirit relies on speedy running back Taalib Gerald, who scored three touchdowns against Hammonton.
"St. Joe is one of the few teams as fast as us, if not faster," Iannucci said. "They might be the fastest team in New Jersey. They make some mistakes because they're young, but their speed compensates for that."
Before they worry about the speed of opposing ball carriers, both the Holy Spirit and St. Joe defenses need to find the runners first.
St. Joe's Wing-T offense is based on misdirection, as is Holy Spirit's triple-option. Spirit quarterback T.J. Anderson can be difficult to tackle at 6-foot-1, 220 pounds.
"We have to keep the pressure on them by moving the football," Iannucci said. "If we can hold onto the ball, their speed is on the bench."
Both coaches seem wary of putting too much emphasis on the game. After all, it's only the second week of the season. But how these teams will be remembered after the season ends will be based in large part on tonight.
"It's two parochial schools that have won numerous state titles," Iannucci said. "Everybody wants bragging rights. It's that little bit of bragging rights that separates the two teams each year."
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