ABSECON — The Holy Spirit and St. Joseph High School football teams tumbled together in what seemed like an endless cycle of big plays and momentum shifts Friday night.
When it was over, St. Joseph was left standing.
The Wildcats dominated the second half and beat Spirit 42-26 in a highly anticipated West Jersey Football League interdivision matchup of intense rivals.
St. Joe fullback Qwahsin Townsel rushed for 126 yards and four touchdowns. Holy Spirit (1-1) is ranked No. 7 in The Press Elite 11; St. Joseph (2-0) is No. 8.
The Wildcats trailed Spirit 13-0 in the first quarter and 26-14 in the second quarter.
“We might have been a little shocked by the atmosphere,” Townsel said. “We just had to settle in. Everybody needed to do their jobs and stop making mistakes.”
St. Joe grounded Spirit into submission with a dominant running game behind linemen Dahsan Birch, Wisdom Quarshie and Sean Morris.
“We blocked very well,” Townsel said. “The holes opened. We dominated on offense and then started dominating on defense. We had to make adjustments and everything went right.”
Senior defensive end Sencere Tapp sparked the Wildcats with two sacks and a batted-down pass. Defensive lineman Brad Lomax recovered a fumble and had a tackle for a loss.
“They caught us off guard at first,” Tapp said. “We’ve been working all hard week. This is one of the hardest weeks I’ve ever had at St. Joe. We stuck to the game plan and executed it. We took the emotions out and played football.”
This rivalry is one of South Jersey’s best, and few teams can match these programs’ traditions of success. St. Joe has won 18 state titles since the state Non-Public playoffs began in 1993. Holy Spirit has won four state titles and been to seven state finals since 2007.
St. Joe leads the series 12-6. The teams compete to attract many of the same players. They are both in the state Non-Public II playoff bracket. The rivals could play again in the postseason.
Fans packed Spirit’s home and visiting bleachers, and they saw a season’s worth of highlights in the second quarter.
The two teams combined to score five TDs in 2 minutes, 41 seconds
The stretch started with Townsel’s 8-yard scoring run with 6:41 left in the half.
Lee Dawson of Spirit responded with a 72-yard kickoff return to set up a Spartans TD.
Townsel ran 38 yards for a score. Spirit sophomore running back E’lijah Gray made the fans roar with an acrobatic cut at midfield and ran 57 yards down the middle for a TD.
Jada Byers of St. Joe fielded the kickoff, found nowhere to run and bounced to the outside for a 68-yard score.
When the stretch was over, Spirit led 26-22 at halftime, and many in the crowd limped to the snack stand.
The second half produced much less drama. St. Joe made sure of that.
The Wildcats took control on their first possession of the third quarter. They took the kickoff and drove 56 yards in 12 plays — all runs. The drive took 6:35 and ended with a Nate Johnson 9-yard run to give the Wildcats a 28-26 lead they never came close to relinquishing.
There were some questions about the Wildcats before this season. Their streak of seven straight state titles ended with a 26-0 loss to Mater Dei (Monmouth) in last year’s Non-Public II semifinals.
St. Joe did not look like its normal physical self in that defeat. The Wildcats gave a vintage performance Friday. St. Joe, as it has done so many times in the past, wore down its opponent with a physical game plan.
“We just wanted everybody to know,” Townsel said, “that we’re back.”
St. Joseph 0 22 6 14 — 42
Holy Spirit 13 13 0 0 — 26
HS – Brown 17 pass Zamot (kick good)
HS – Lora 45 pass from Zamot (kick failed)
SJ – Townsel 8 run (Townsel run)
HS – Gray 2 run (run failed)
SJ – Townsel 38 run (run failed)
HS – Gray 57 run (kick good)
SJ – Byers 68 kickoff return (Vokolos pass from Donovan)
SJ – Johnson 9 run (run failed)
SJ – Townsel 3 run (Byers run)
SJ – Townsel 2 run (run failed)
RECORDS – St. Joseph 2-0; Holy Spirit 1-1