EWING TOWNSHIP - Taalib Gerald of the Holy Spirit High School football team ran right by several Immaculata defenders on the opening kickoff Saturday night.
Immaculata never really caught up.
Spirit dominated and won its third straight state title, 30-6 over Immaculata in the state Non-Public II championship game at The College of New Jersey. The Spartans won the Non-Public III title in 2010 and have won the Non-Public II title in each of the last two years.
"There's nothing like this," said Spirit quarterback T.J. Anderson, who threw two touchdown passes and ran for a score. "I dreamt we were going to win this game."
Gerald's opening kickoff return set the tone for the game. He caught the ball at the Spirit 10-yard line and sprinted 50 yards up the middle to the Immaculata 43-yard line.
"That was real big," Gerald said of the kickoff return. "Coach (John Iannucci) told us any play could (make the difference). A big play could be the first play. You never know. I hit the hole, and I broke it open."
Three plays later, Franco Rifici ran 10 yards for a touchdown to give Spirit a 7-0 lead with 10 minutes, 18 seconds left in the first quarter.
The quick touchdown stunned the crowd.
Top-seeded Immaculata (10-2) came in as the favorite in part because Saturday's game was the last one in the long, storied career of Immaculata coach Pierce Frauenheim, who has coached at the school for 47 years.
Second-seeded Spirit (8-4) showed quickly that its first touchdown wasn't a fluke. The Spartans' second touchdown came less than three minutes after its first.
This time, Spirit took over at the Immaculata 12-yard line after the Somerset County school snapped the ball over its punter's head.
After an Immaculata offsides penalty, Anderson threw an 8-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Gerald to put Spirit up 14-0 with 7:54 left in the first quarter.
The game turned in Spirit's favor for good in the second quarter when the Spartans' defense made a goal-line stand.
Immaculata quarterback Antonio Natale threw a pass in the flat to Chandler Vanderbeek, who sprinted toward the goal line. But Spirit defensive back Tyler Flynn sprinted from the other side of the field to tackle Vanderbeek at the 1-yard line.
"I knew I had to get him," Flynn said. "I don't even know how close he came (to scoring). I hit him, heard everyone screaming, and I knew I stopped him."
Spirit then drove 99 yards in 12 plays to take a 21-0 lead. Anderson threw another touchdown pass to a wide-open Gerald, this one covering 24 yards.
Spirit running backs Gerald and Dawson were simply too fast for Immaculata. I
f Gerald (12 caries for 81 yards) and Dawson (nine carries for 70 yards) weren't breaking to the outside, fullback Dandre Dennis (10 carries for 50 yards) ran up the middle for big gains.
"Everybody on our team is fast," Gerald said. "They underestimated our athletes."
The Spirit defense shut down an Immaculata offense that had scored at least 30 points in five straight games.
Spartans cornerback Rahim Harris made two tackles for losses. His interception set up Spirit's final touchdown. Also for Spirit, Rifci made a tackle for a loss and intercepted a pass. Defensive lineman T.J. Clayton sacked Natale. Ray Ellis and Anderson combined for a sack.
The championship comes in a transition season for the Spartans.
Iannucci took over the program after former coach Charles Roman left to become an assistant at St. Augustine Prep. Iannucci installed a new offense - the triple option. The Spartans probably would have experienced some growing pains this season no matter who coached them. Nearly all of the standouts from last year's 8-3 team graduated.?
This year's schedule was tough at the start. Spirit opened with a 22-20 overtime loss at perennial power Hammonton. The next week, Spirit lost at St. Joseph, which is ranked No. 3 in The Press Elite 11, 7-0.
The Spartans persevered through everything.
The Spartans dumped a bucket of ice water over Iannucci in the final minute Saturday night. Several players sought out the coach for hugs.
"I feel about 90 years old," Iannucci said with a smile. "It's more rewarding for these kids. They've been through a lot."
Contact Michael McGarry:
Holy Spirit 14 7 3 6-30
Immaculata 0 0 0 6-6
HS-Rifici 10 run (Rifici kick)
HS-Gerald 8 pass from Anderson (Rifici kick)
HS-Gerald 23 pass from Anderson (Rifici kick)
HS-Rifici 33 field goal
IM-Natale 3 run (pass failed)
HS-Anderson 1 run (kick missed)
Rushing-Immaculata, Vanderbeek 6-58, Natale 7-33. Holy Spirit, Gerald 12-81, Dawson 9-70, Dennis 10-50.
Passing-Immaculata, Natale 17-28-1-138. Holy Spirit, Anderson 3-4-0-64.
Receiving-Holy Spirit, Gerald 2-31, Nolan 1-33.
Records-Holy Spirit 8-4; Immaculata 10-2