ABSECON - The Hammonton High School defense seemed to surround Taalib Gerald during the first quarter Friday night.
The Holy Spirit running back stopped, cut back to the opposite of the field and sprinted into the end zone for a 38-yard touchdown.
Gerald was just as elusive for the rest of the game. The senior carried 19 times for 98 yards and three touchdowns to lead Spirit to a 30-0 win over Hammonton in the season opener for both Cape-Atlantic League American Conference teams.
"My line blocked really well for me," Gerald said. "The lanes were there. I just had to use my vision to get to the outside and use my speed."
Spirit coach John Iannucci said some college recruiters are concerned that Gerald is only 5-foot-6. Iannucci isn't concerned about Gerald's height.
"He's a fantastic kid," Iannucci said. "Recruiters tell me, 'Well, he's only 5-6.' I say, 'If a guy 5-6 scores, you get the same amount of points.' "
Friday's game was one of the most anticipated of the opening weekend of high school football.
Spirit has won three straight state titles and is ranked No. 1 in The Press Elite 11. Hammonton is a perennial power with 30 playoff appearances.
Holy Spirit played without standout running back and defensive back A.J. Dawson, who was out with a shoulder separation.
The Spartans didn't miss him. They dominated the game with their triple-option offense.
The Hammonton defense had trouble finding the ball. Spirit quarterback T.J. Anderson rushed 12 times for 60 yards. Spartans fullback DeAndre Dennis ran up the middle 10 times for 79 yards. Running back Franco Rifici didn't touch the ball much but made it count when he did, rushing three times for 47 yards.
"That's how it is with the triple-option," Gerald said. "Even the refs were confused as to who had the ball sometimes."
Spirit scored on its first two possessions. Gerald's 38-yard run put the Spartans up 7-0 with 5 minutes, 44 seconds left in the first quarter.
"Everybody over-committed," Gerald said. "I juts cut back. I took it to the outside and broke a couple of tackles. My linemen were blocking for me down field and it was off to the races."
A 30-yard run by Rifici set up Spirit's next touchdown. Gerald grabbed a pitch out and scored from 5 yards out to put Spirit up 14-0 with a little more than two minutes left in the first quarter.
The game never got any closer. The Blue Devils struggled to move the ball against the Spirit defense. Hammonton gained just 13 yards in the first half. Rifici sparked the Spirit defense with two tackles for a losses and an interception. Joe DiBuonaventura recovered two fumbles. Tyler Flynn intercepted a pass.
"We had to play as a team on defense," Rifici said. "Everybody stayed in their gaps. I trusted my teammates. We were in the right spots, and they helped me make the tackles."
For at least one night, Spirit lived up to preseason expectations and set the stage for the most anticipated game of the year.
Spirit will host rival St. Joe, which is No. 4 in The Press Elite 11, Friday. St. Joe beat Absegami 48-6 in its opener Friday.
Spirit began last season with consecutive losses to Hammonton and St. Joe. Those defeats now motivate the Spartans. Newspaper stories about those games are posted on a wall of their weight room.
"Last year we were like, 'Where are we? Where do we have to go?' " Iannucci said. "This year it's. 'Where do we want to go?' That's the question. If we don't get better, somebody catches up to us."
Contact Michael McGarry:
HS - Gerald 38 run (Rifici kick)
HS - Gerald 5 run (Rifici kick)
HS - Gerald 1 run (Rifici kick)
HS - Anderson 1 run (Kick missed)
HS - Ricifi 23 field goal
RECORDS - Hammonton 0-1; Holy Spirit 1-0