The Holy Spirit High School football team began the season as the prohibitive favorite to win the state Non-Public II title.

Spirit will play for that championship - as the underdog.

The Spartans don't mind the status change.

Spirit (7-3) and Camden Catholic (10-0) kick off at 7 p.m. at The College of New Jersey in Ewing Township, Mercer County. Spirit is the No. 2 seed and No. 10 in The Press Elite 11. Camden Catholic is the top seed and No. 5 in the Elite 11.

"We're not in the position we expected to be, but it's not going to change the way we play," Spirit linebacker Ethan Gambale said. "We didn't play to our potential all season, but now we've gotten in a groove."

Spirit began the season with high hopes. The Spartans finished 12-0 and won the state Non-Public III title last year. They returned several standouts and were No. 1 in the preseason Elite 11.

The Spartans were disappointed their enrollment placed in them in the Non-Public II because they wouldn't get to play northern New Jersey Non-Public III powers such as St. Joseph Montvale in Bergen County.

But Spirit struggled from the start. The Spartans forfeited a 41-16 win over Oakcrest for using an academically ineligible player. They struggled with turnovers and penalties and lost to St. Joseph 34-7 on Oct. 1 and Hammonton 37-14 on Oct. 21. Spirit was 3-3 after six games.

"We hit some speed bumps," Gambale said. "We were pretty low. Kids were almost giving up, but we got it back together. Now we're starting to play like we should have been."

The Spartans have won four straight since the Hammonton loss by the combined score of 169-25.

"We played a number of sophomores and even a couple of freshmen this year," Spirit coach Charles Roman said. "While they were surrounded with some really good senior players, it took them a while to grow up and come into their own. Now they're playing like we hoped they would have played earlier."

Meanwhile, Camden Catholic has excelled from the start under first-year coach Gil Brooks, who built a national power at St. Joseph Prep in Philadelphia. Brooks, a South Jersey attorney, coached St. Joseph to a 167-57-2 record from 1992-2007.

There should be nothing fancy about tonight's game. Both teams emphasize the run.

"It's whoever comes out and plays for more physical," Roman said. "Somebody is going to have an advantage pushing the other team's line off the ball."

Quarterback Pete Galiano sparks Camden Catholic with more than 1,300 yards of total offense.

"He is a true dual threat," Roman said. "He throws the ball well, but he's way more dangerous when he pulls the ball down. His running ability is outstanding."

Spirit features running backs Donta Pollock and Nigel Jones, both of whom have rushed for more than 4,000 yards in their careers.

The Holy Spirit and Camden Catholic football teams haven't played in at least 18 years.

The two schools meet often in other sports, especially boys basketball where they played in the 2008 and 2009 state tournament.

"I go cheer for our basketball team," Gambale said. "Their fans are pretty crazy, so it always gets pretty heated. It's exciting to play them in football because I'm used to cheering against them on the court."

Tonight could be the start of an intense football rivalry. Spirit is already one of the state's elite Non-Public programs. Camden Catholic only figures to build on this season with Brooks as coach.

"We're probably going to be playing each other for years and this is the beginning of it," Roman said.

Contact Michael McGarry:

609-272-7185