PISCATAWAY — The Holy Spirit High School football team badly needed a turnover Sunday afternoon.
DePaul Catholic quarterback Zach Bednarczyk threw a pass. Spirit defensive back A.J. Dawson jumped and got his hands on the football. But the ball deflected off his fingertips into the waiting arms of sliding wide receiver Matt Gref for a first down.
That’s the kind of game it was for Spirit. Even when the Spartans did something right, it turned out wrong.
Spirit’s goal of winning four straight state championships ended with a 35-16 loss to DePaul in the state Non-Public II title game at Rutgers University. Spirit (11-1) is ranked No. 1 in The Press Elite 11.
“DePaul is not equivalent to any team in South Jersey,” Spirit coach John Iannucci said. “It’s a different animal, but we probably played our worst game. That’s my fault. But we just ran into a North Jersey buzz saw.”
Spirit relied all season on a stingy defense that had not allowed a point in the playoffs. The Spartans had six shutouts this season.
But DePaul produced 427 yards of offense. Bednarczyk (10 carries for 105 yards) and running backs Markey Clark (11 carries for 105 yards) and Kareem Walker (19 carries for 105 yards) dashed through the Spirit defensive line for big gains. Bednarczyk (8-of-11 for 118 yards) consistently found receivers open.
“They had athletes all over,” Spirit linebacker and running back Franco Rifici said. “They don’t have kids like this in South Jersey. They play hard. They play fast. They play strong.”
The game was played on a raw, gray day. A light snow consistently fell in the second half.
The Spirit seniors hoped to end their high school career the way they started it — with a state championship. Spirit won the state Non-Public III title in 2010 and the Non-Public II championships in 2011 and 2012.
But DePaul (10-2) was simply bigger, faster and stronger than Spirit. DePaul established itself as one of the state’s best early this season with wins over perennial North Jersey powers Don Bosco Prep and Bergen Catholic. DePaul’s only losses were to state Non-Public IV champion Paramus Catholic and state Non-Public III winner St. Joseph Montvale — two of the country’s best high school teams.
Iannucci said he didn’t like the way the Spartans prepared for the game. He blamed himself for not getting Spirit ready to face a team like DePaul.
“We couldn’t match (their talent) in practice,” Dawson said. “We played the best we could play. There was really nothing we can do.”
DePaul controlled the game from the start. DePaul scored on six straight possessions and showed its dominance by driving 97 yards in nine plays for its second touchdown.
“We knew when they scored we had to score,” Dawson said. “When we didn’t, we knew it was a problem.”
Spirit trailed 19-0 at halftime, but the Spartans had opportunities to score in the first half. Spirit found success with Dawson (nine carries for 56 yards) and Taalib Gerald (eight carries for 65 yards) running to the outside against the DePaul defense.
Spirit drove to the DePaul 28-yard line in the first quarter and to the 24 in the second quarter. But DePaul stopped Spirit on downs both times.
After DePaul's first touchdown, Rifici returned the kickoff 61 yards to the DePaul 30. But again, Spirit could not sustain its offense and the drive ended in an interception.
Spirit received the second-half kickoff and drove to the DePaul 19 but was again stopped on downs. A touchdown in any of those spots could have given Spirit some much-needed confidence.
“It (a score) would have changed the momentum and everything,” Rifici said.
Spirit’s only moment of hope came early in the fourth quarter when Rifici cut DePaul’s lead to 22-8 on an 8-yard touchdown run with 11 minutes, 4 seconds left in the game.
Spirit then needed a stop or a turnover. And that’s when the ball bounced off Dawson’s hands and Gref made the catch at the Spirit 7.
“When I tipped the ball, I thought it was going out of bounds,” Dawson said. “I saw the receiver behind me and in my head I was like. ‘Wow, that’s a great play.’ ”
On the next play, Walker scored on a 7-yard run to give DePaul a 28-8 lead with 6 minutes, 51 seconds left in the game. Any chances of a Spirit comeback were gone.
Despite the defeat, the Spirit seniors’ careers rank among the best in school history. They were part of teams that went 39-8 in four years. Spirit won the Cape-Atlantic League American Conference championship this season.
“We’ve been through ups and downs together,” Dawson said. “We became brothers and one giant family.”
Contact Michael McGarry:
DePaul 6 13 3 13—35
Holy Spirit 0 0 0 16—16
DEP—Speidel 4 run (kick missed)
DEP—Speidel 3 run (Clark kick)
DEP—DuBoise 16 pass from Bednarczyk (kick blocked)
DEP—Clark 28 field goal
HS—Rifici 8 run (DiBuonaventura pass from Steeb)
DEP—Walker 7 run (kick missed)
DEP—Bednarczyk 15 run (Clark kick)
HS—Dawson 1 run (Gerald run) Individual leaders
Rushing—DePaul, Bednarczyk 10-105, Walker 19-105. Holy Spirit, Gerald 8-65.
Passing—DePaul, Bednarczyk 8-11-0-118. Holy Spirit, Anderson 1-6-2-8.
Receiving—DePaul, DuBoise 2-38. Holy Spirit, Taylor 1-8.
Records—DePaul 10-2; Holy Spirit 11-1