In a season of change, the Holy Spirit High School team found one constant.
A stingy defense has propelled Spirit into position to win its third straight state title.
The second-seeded Spartans (7-4) play top-seeded Immaculata (10-1) for the state Non-Public II title 7 p.m. Saturday at The College of New Jersey in Ewing Township.
Spirit has allowed a touchdown or less in seven games this season. The Spartans allow 9.5 points per game and have allowed a total of six points in their two playoff wins.
"The defense sets the tone for the team," junior lineman Ray Ellis said. "Even if we don't score, we know our defense is going to stop the other team. Maybe we'll even get points on defense."
The Spirit defense features some of the region's top players. A.J. Dawson is a speedy defensive back. Jeff Steeb is a college prospect at linebacker. The 6-foot-2, 243-pound Ellis is a tenacious pass rusher.
All three also play offense, but defense is their passion.
"I like defense just because we can go out and hit people," the 6-2, 224-pound Steeb said. "I used to play offense, but when I came to Holy Spirit I (mostly) switched over to defense, and I've loved it ever since."
With each defensive stop during a game, Spirit gets tougher and tougher to score against.
"It gets us pumped up," said Steeb, who lives in Mullica Township. "We just keep going out and shutting other teams down."
Spirit needed something to rely on this season.
Coach John Iannucci took over the program after former coach Charles Roman left to become an assistant at St. Augustine Prep. Iannucci installed a new offense - the triple option.
The Spartans probably would have experienced some growing pains this season no matter whom the coach was. Nearly all of the standouts from last year's 8-3 team graduated.
This year's schedule was tough at the start. Spirit opened with a 22-20 overtime loss at perennial power Hammonton. The next week, Spirit lost at St. Joseph, No. 3 in The Press Elite 11, 7-0.
After the St. Joe loss, Spartans starting quarterback C.J. LaFragola transferred to St. Joe. T.J. Anderson took over as Spirit's quarterback.
Through everything that happened the defense remained solid.
The Spartans are quick to pursue the football, but they also stay disciplined to prevent ball carriers from cutting back across the field for big gains.
"We're all patient," Steeb said. "Nobody comes out of their gaps to be a hero."
Not only has the Spartans' defense shut down opposing offenses, but it's also managed to score points on its own.
Dawson returned an interception 60 yards for a touchdown in last Friday's 44-6 semifinal win over Pingry. Dawson and Steeb both returned interceptions for touchdowns in an 18-0 win over Absegami on Oct. 5.
"I think when we score (on defense) it really stuns the other team and surprises them," said Dawson, an Egg Harbor Township resident.
Few teams in the state can match Spirit's playoff success the past few years.
Spirit won the state Non-Public III championship 14-13 over St. Joseph Montvale in 2010. Spirit beat Camden Catholic 51-7 to win the state Non-Public II title last year.
In Immaculata, Spirit faces a team that will be especially motivated. Saturday will be the last game in the long storied career of Immaculata coach Pierce Frauenheim, who has coached at the Somerset County school for 47 years.
Like Spirit, Immaculata has not been challenged in the playoffs, winning its two games by the combined score of 96-13. Quarterback Antonio Natale leads an Immaculata offense that has scored at least 30 points in five straight games.
Most in the state high school football community view Immaculata as the favorite. But there is no underestimating the tenaciousness of the Spirit defense that has helped the Spartans prosper in a transitional season.
"We didn't doubt ourselves even when we were 0-2," Ellis said. "Not everyone else believed in us, but we got here."
Contact Michael McGarry:
State Non-Public II final
Who: No. 2 Holy Spirit vs. No. 1 Immaculata
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: The College of New Jersey
Tickets: $5.50 for adults, $2 students and senior citizens.