ATLANTIC CITY — It might have been the cold and windy weather.
Or it could have been an opponent many fans thought was capable of an upset.
Whatever the reason, an undefeated Holy Spirit High School football team that had been sluggish the past few weeks gave one of its best performances of the season Thursday morning.
The Spartans started fast and never let up, beating Atlantic City 49-0 in the 85th meeting between the schools. Atlantic City still leads Atlantic County’s oldest rivalry 49-32-4, but Spirit has won eight of the last nine games between the schools.
“This was a statement game,” Spirit running back and defensive back Taalib Gerald said.
Spirit led 35-0 at halftime Thursday. Gerald ran for two touchdowns. A.J. Dawson ran for a touchdown and returned an interception for a score. Quarterback T.J. Anderson ran for a touchdown and threw a touchdown pass.
With Thursday’s win, Spirit avenged a 13-7 loss to Atlantic City on Thanksgiving last year. That is Spirit’s only loss in its last 18 games.
Spirit (11-0) is ranked No. 1 in The Press Elite 11 and will play DePaul for the state Non-Public II title on Sunday, Dec. 8 at Rutgers University. Atlantic City finished the season 4-6.
The game was played in chilly, blustery conditions that made punting and kicking into the wind a risky proposition.
“Coming out (on the field) at 9 o’clock, it was freezing,” Dawson said. “But we knew we had to get it together. We knew once we started running around we would be fine.”
Despite Spirit’s impressive credentials and Atlantic City’s under-.500 record, many fans of both schools expected a closer game.
Spirit won its past two games — both playoff contests — relatively easy. The Spartans beat Pingry 48-0 on Nov. 15 and Bishop Eustace 38-0 last Friday. But they started slowly in both games and did not play as crisply as they had early in the season. Spirit only led a .500 Eustace team 10-0 at halftime.
Meanwhile, a young Atlantic City team nearly upset top-seeded Eastern in the South Jersey Group V quarterfinals on Nov. 15. Atlantic City lost 32-26, but the Vikings had the ball inside the Eastern 10-yard line with a chance to score the winning touchdown with less than a minute left in the game. Eastern (10-1) is No. 4 in the Elite 11.
“Last year we overlooked (Atlantic City) a little bit,” Gerald said. “This year, we didn’t take them lightly. We saw they played Eastern close, so we figured they’d play us close too. We were focused in practice.”
Holy Spirit never gave Atlantic City a chance to think about an upset.
The game turned in the Spartans’ favor late in the first quarter.
Spirit led 7-0 and appeared to be driving for another touchdown, but the Spartans fumbled at the Atlantic City 20-yard line. The Vikings recovered the ball.
But on Atlantic City’s first play after the turnover, the Spartans’ defense got the ball back.
The Vikings threw a pass to a wide receiver in the flat.
Spirit defensive back Joe DiBonaventura hit the receiver and shook the ball loose. Gerald recovered the fumble at the Atlantic City 20-yard line.
“Us turning the ball over could have changed the momentum for them,” Gerald said.
“But us getting the ball right back changed the momentum back (to Spirit), and we never let it go.”
Two plays later after Gerald’s recovery, Dawson (six carries for 59 yards) scored on an 18-yard run to give Spirit a 14-0 lead as time expired in the first quarter.
The Spirit defense made sure the lead held up with another dominating effort. The shutout was Spirit’s fifth of the season. The Spartans have not allowed a point in their last three games.
Atlantic City mustered just 15 yards of offense in the first half. Spirit defenders Ray Ellis and Franco Rifici each made tackles for losses.
“We knew we had to play at a high tempo because we’re going into the state championship game,” Dawson said. “We stepped up, got the job done and now we can get ready for the state championship.”
Contact Michael McGarry:
Holy Spirit 14 21 7 7 – 49
Atlantic City 0 0 0 0 – 0
HS— Anderson 12 run (Rifici kick)
HS— Dawson 18 run (Rifici kick)
HS— Gerald 24 run (Rifici kick)
HS— Dawson 34 int return (Rifici kick)
HS— Gerald 9 run (Rifici kick)
HS— Taylor 17 pass from Anderson (Rifici kick)
HS— Juliano 3 run (Rifici kick)
Records— Holy Spirit 11-0; Atlantic City 4-6