ABSECON - Holy Spirit High School football running back A.J. Dawson showed everyone what kind of night it would be when he easily galloped 55 yards to a touchdown on the Spartans first offensive play against Pingry at Ed Byrnes Stadium on Friday.
Holy Spirit, which ran on nearly every down, was too fast and skilled for Pingry and won the state Non-Public II semifinal 44-6. The Spartans led 17-0 after the first quarter and 31-0 at halftime.
The Spartans improved to 7-4, and Pingry, of Martinsville in Somerset County, ended its season 4-7.
Holy Spirit, the No. 2 seed and the defending state Non-Public II champion, will meet top-seeded Immaculata (10-1) next weekend at a site and time to be determined. The Spartans were state Non-Public III champions in 2010. Immaculata beat fifth-seeded Montclair Kimberley 49-7 in the other semifinal Friday.
Dawson also played defensive back and scored again when he intercepted a pass late in the first quarter and ran it back 60 yards for a touchdown. Fellow running back Taalib Gerald also had two TDs, on runs of 4 and 60 yards.
"The hole was huge (on that first touchdown run) and I was off to the horses and had to turn on my track speed," said Dawson, a 17-year-old junior from Egg Harbor Township who runs the 200 and 400 meters for the Holy Spirit track team. "Once we got up, we just had to minimize mistakes and penalties, and treat it like it's 0-0."
The Spartans added Franco Rifici Jr.'s 20-yard field goal to make it 10-0 with 3 minutes, 17 seconds left in the first quarter.
Following Dawson's interception and score, the Big Blue turned the ball over again on a fumble that defensive back Joe DiBuonaventura recovered at the Pingry 20-yard line early in the second quarter.
It took the Spartans just three more three plays to score again. Rifici gained 15 yards around left end on second down, and Gerald went 4 yards for a touchdown around left end on the next play. Rifici's kick made it 24-0.
"The run is what we do," Holy Spirit coach John Iannucci said. "Right now we have, I think, six guys averaging over 5 yards a carry. We run what the (opponent's) defensive system dictates. Taalib blocks when A.J. runs, and A.J. blocks for Taalib. Scoring on the first play helps a lot. We've done that a lot this year.
"People didn't think we had a chance when we were 0-2 (this season), but we're back."
Holy Spirit accumulated 257 yards rushing. The Spartans completed 1-of-2 passes for 28 yards.
"We like to run. We always have and we always will," said Holy Spirit senior left guard Steve Domonoski, a 17-year-old senior from EHT. "We keep pushing."
Holy Spirit quarterback T.J. Anderson left with an injury in the second quarter and was replaced by Andrew Light.
"Our quarterback got banged up a little, but he'll be fine," Iannucci said. "Why bring him back in a game like this?"
Gerald led the Spartans in rushing with 117 yards on 11 carries. He ran 60 yards up the middle for a touchdown on the last play of the third quarter.
Light scored on a quarterback sneak late in the second quarter. Rifici added a 5-yard TD in the third quarter as he broke a tackle around left end.
Besides Dawson, Rifici and Rahim Harris also intercepted passes for Holy Spirit.
Contact Guy Gargan: