Franco Rifici, 18, of Galloway Township of the Holy Spirit football team is The Press Player of the Year.

At 5-foot-7, 165 pounds, Franco Rifici sometimes disappears among the rush of blue-and-gold-dressed players when the Holy Spirit High School football team takes the field.

He's much easier to notice once the game starts.

The senior seems to always be where the action is. The running back, linebacker and kicker is The Press Football Player of the Year. He scored touchdowns, intercepted passes, made tackles and even kicked field goals.

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Rifici helped the Spartans finish 11-1, win the Cape-Atlantic League American Conference championship and reach the state Non-Public II final.

"I don't look like the biggest guy," Rifici said. "People tend to overlook me. That doesn't bother me. It fuels me. You don't have to be big to play football. Nothing beats heart."

He was at his best on defense, where he played a combination strong safety and linebacker position. He was a big reason why Spirit shut out six teams this season. Teams often changed their schemes during games to send blockers his way.

"I was always a defensive guy," Rifici said. "I just like hitting people."

Spirit lost to DePaul 35-16 in the state final at Rutgers University on Dec. 8. But the game typified the effort Rifici gave throughout his career.

He ran for an 8-yard touchdown the first time he carried the ball. He returned a kickoff 66 yards and he threw a jarring block on another kickoff return that drew roars from the crowd when it was replayed on the Rutgers video scoreboard.

Not bad for a soccer guy.

Rifici grew up in Absecon but now lives in Galloway Township. He comes from a family of soccer fanatics. His relatives love nothing more than to watch Italian professional soccer teams play.

Meanwhile, Rifici can't wait for Monday Night Football.

He started playing organized football in the eighth grade and immediately took to the sport.

"I was always playing pickup football games in my back yard," he said. "I really wanted to try football, and once I did I liked it a lot."

A lack of size isn't the only thing Rifici has had to overcome in high school career.

He tore the meniscus and the patellar tendon in his right knee playing soccer in the eighth grade. He underwent surgery to repair the tear.

After his sophomore season, he underwent surgery again on his right knee this time to correct the alignment of his patella. He came back in time to start his junior season on schedule.

Several Spartans will continue their career in college. Some are mulling scholarship offers.

Rifici just wants a chance to play in college. He just doesn't know where yet.

"My height might prevent me from (playing in college)," he said, "but I'm going to keep trying. It's up to the colleges. It's not up to me."

But Rifici hasn't let size slow him down yet.

"I can't be thinking someone is too big for me," he said. "I just have to go and give it all I got, and hopefully come out on top."

More often than not this season that's exactly what he did.

Team of the Year

The Holy Spirit High School football team dominated with defense.

The Spartans had six shutouts and finished 11-1. They won the CAL American Conference and reached the state Non-Public Group II final.

Spirit is The Press Team of the Year. The Spartans finished No. 2 in The Press Elite 11.

This season capped an outstanding career for the Spirit seniors, who were part of teams that went 39-8 and won three state championships the past four years.

"These seniors have a lot to be proud of," Spirit coach John Iannucci said. "They have three rings. They're tough kids, and they played hard."

Coach of the Year

Coach Dave Ellen of the Bridgeton High School football team saw the disappointment in the eyes of the Bulldogs after they lost to Woodstown 14-9 in the South Jersey Group II semifinal.

Ellen also saw his team's passion for the sport.

That is what made this season one of the most enjoyable in Ellen's 15 years at Bridgeton. The Bulldogs finished 8-3 and won a share of the Cape-Atlantic League National Conference. Ellen is The Press Coach of the Year.

"I've been around long enough," Ellen said. "Sometimes you have good football players but they don't love the game like some other kids. Sometimes you get teams that really buy in. That's what makes the journey fun, and that's what made it fun this year."

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