In its final 2012 game, the Holy Spirit High School football team showed it would be a team to watch in 2013.
The Spartans beat favored Immaculata 30-6 to win the state Non-Public II title. It was Spirit's third-straight state championship. The Spartans return nearly every player from that game.
"That game let us know that we can play with anybody no matter how big the competition," Spirit running back Taalib Gerald said. "It gave us confidence coming into the season this year."
Spirit will start the season No. 1 in The Press Elite 11.
"We're not state champions. That was last year," Spirit second-year coach John Iannucci said. "We're taking it one game at a time. The players know that and they also know they have big bull's-eyes on them."
The Spartans will rely on a stingy defense that allowed a touchdown or less in nine games last season. Ray Ellis, a 6-foot-3, 250-pound defensive tackle, is a force inside.
"The difference between him this year and last year is night and day," Iannucci said. "Last year, he was good for two plays and then he was OK. This year, every play he's taken over."
Linebacker Jeff Steeb has scholarship offers from Villanova and Delaware. A.J. Dawson and Franco Rifici lead the secondary. Steeb, Dawson and Rifici all will play running back. Rifici seems to always be in the right spot on offense, defense and special teams. He booted an 80-yard punt in a scrimmage against St. Joseph Montvale this preseason.
Holy Spirit should be better on offense as it's running the triple-option for the second season.
"Last year at this time there was a bit of confusion," Gerald said. "It was a brand new offense and everyone was getting used to Coach Iannucci."
T.J. Anderson took over at quarterback early last season and improved with each game. The 220-pound Anderson bench presses more than 400 pounds and runs the 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds.
Spirit also will feature running backs with the speed to score every time they touch the ball - most notably Gerald, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season. Fullbacks DeAndre Dennis and Steeb are more than capable of gaining the tough yards inside.
The Spirit seniors want to finish their high school careers with another state championship.
"We can't worry about the hype and pressure," Gerald said. "Once you start believing the hype you stop working hard."
Contact Michael McGarry:
Coach: John Iannucci (second year at Spirit, 8-4)
League/Group: Cape-Atlantic League American Conference/state Non-Public II
Last season's record: 8-4
Playoff appearances: 27
Playoff record: 26-17
2013 prediction: Favorite – Spartans feature several college prospects and have won three consecutive state titles.
Key game: Sept. 20 vs. St. Joseph – The result of this game always goes a long way toward determining what kind of season both teams have.
Key players: A.J. Dawson, Sr., RB/DB, 5-9, 175; Taalib Gerald, Sr., RB, 5-7, 180; Deandre Dennis, Sr., RB/LB, 5-9, 185; Franco Rifici, Sr., RB/DB, 5-5, 165; Jeff Steeb, Sr., RB/LB, 6-2, 225; Mike Mooney, Sr., TE/LB, 6-1, 215; Ray Ellis, Sr., G/DT, 6-3, 285; T.J. Clayton, Jr., G/DL, 6-2, 257; Shawn Coursey, So., DE, 6-5, 255; T.J. Anderson, Sr., QB/LB, 6-1, 220; Joe Diboventura, Sr., WR/DB, 5-10, 178; Jordan Taylor, Jr., WR, 6-5, 188; Rahim Harris, Sr., DB, 5-9, 170; Tyler Flynn, Sr., WR/DB, 5-10, 185; Jack Cordavari, Sr., WR/DB, 5-9, 175; Andrew Hoke, Jr., OL, 5-9, 220; Amir Young, Jr., OL, 6-3, 285; Pat Shober, Jr., WR/S, 6-0, 185; Jack Lynch, Sr., WR, 6-0, 170; Jake Fable, Sr., TE, 6-4, 180.
Top newcomers: Anthony Dobronte, So., DE, 6-2, 220; D.J. Ellis, So., TE/LB, 6-0, 220; Mike Juliano, Sr., RB/DB, 5-9, 180