WAYNE TOWNSHIP - One thought almost certainly crossed the minds of the Holy Spirit High School football coaches and players 10 minutes into their playoff game Friday night.
We drove two hours north on a rainy, windy, cold night for this?
DePaul Catholic (Passaic County) scored on its first two possessions.
Spirit, a team mostly of sophomores and juniors, looked shaken. The Spartans were unable to move the ball against a fierce wind.
DePaul was driving again in the first quarter and seemed certain to grab a three-touchdown lead.
"They were just drilling us," Spirit coach Charles Roman said. "I was thinking we were going to get embarrassed."
Somehow, Spirit gathered itself and survived. Defensive back Quay Williams forced a key turnover. Spirit running back Nigel Jones began to gain yards.
The Spartans rallied to win the state Non-Public III quarterfinal 28-21. Donta Pollock scored the winning touchdown on a 3-yard run with 2 minutes, 51 seconds left in the game.
"I think they're too young to realize when things are really bad," Roman said of his team. "They just keep fighting and fighting."
Sixth-seeded Spirit (7-2) meets the winner of today's quarterfinal between second-seeded St. Joseph Montvale and seventh-seeded Bishop Ahr in next weekend's semifinals.
But no matter what happens the rest of the way, Friday's win will be one of, if not the, defining moment of the Spartans' season.
Spirit overcame more than its poor start. Jones (23 carries for 110 yards) left the game in the third quarter with an ankle injury and did not return.
Spartans receiver Dan McNair epitomized Spirit's night. He dropped a sure touchdown pass in the second quarter, but in the third quarter he intercepted a pass and returned it 74 yards for a touchdown to tie the score at 14.
The game was played on third-seeded DePaul's artificial grass field. There was a fierce wind. No team scored without the wind at its back. The rain held off, for the most part, until it fell heavily in the fourth quarter.
DePaul (7-3) led 14-0 with 4:26 left in the first quarter. DePaul drove just 41 and 22 yards for the touchdowns. DePaul got the ball in such good field positions because Spirit's first two punts into the wind traveled 16 and 12 yards.
Spirit seemed to have no idea how to tackle DePaul wide receiver Shakim Phillips, who is headed to Boston College. He scored DePaul's first touchdown when he caught a pass in the flat and sprinted untouched 30 yards for a touchdown.
"I was starting to get nervous," Spirit quarterback Joe Callahan said.
Spirit stabilized the game and gave itself a chance with one play.
DePaul was in the Wildcat formation with Phillips at quarterback. He ran with the snap but Williams, a defensive back, reached in and stripped him of the ball. Spirit recovered at its own 21-yard line with 2:36 left in the first quarter.
"I knew we needed a big play to get back in the game," Williams said.
Callahan said: "That gave us energy."
Williams made another game-changing play against Phillips in the second quarter. He tackled Phillips for a 1-yard loss on a running play. Phillips left the game with an injured shoulder and did not return.
"That was huge," Williams said. "It made them a one-dimensional team. They couldn't really pass the ball any more."
Still, Spirit trailed 21-14 late in the third quarter.
Jones began the tying touchdown drive with a 39-yard run, but he injured his ankle on the tackle and had to leave the game.
Fortunately for the Spartans, they have Pollock. A standout linebacker, Pollock (14 carries for 62 yards) has the talent to be one of the region's top running backs, but he rarely plays offense.
"You hate to see a player go down," Pollock said, "but you have to keep it rolling."
Pollock carried five straight times for 18 yards after Jones left the game as the Spartans moved to the DePaul 13-yard line. Callahan finished the drive with a 13-yard touchdown run to make it 21-21 with 11:16 left in the fourth quarter.
Spirit began its winning drive at its own 38-yard line with the wind at its back and 6:54 left in the game.
Callahan completed a critical 30-yard, third-down pass to Joe Sarnese to give the Spartans the ball at the DePaul 27-yard line.
Pollock grinded out the tough yardage. His 3-yard touchdown gave Spirit a 28-21 lead with 2:51 to play.
"Donta pretty much carried the team on his back," Callahan said. "Him and the offensive line. He was breaking tackles."
DePaul had one more possession and it ended on downs in their own territory. More hard running from Pollock helped Spirit run out on the clock.
Spirit left the field soaked and chilled but happy. The Spartans start just five seniors. Spirit had lost its two biggest games of the regular season to St. Joseph and St. Augustine Prep.
Friday's victory was a win a young team can build on.
Contact Michael McGarry:
Holy Spirit 0 7 7 14-28
DePaul 14 0 7 0-21
DEP-Phillips 30 pass from Kowal (Burgio kick)
DEP-Kowal 1 run (Burgio kick)
HS-Jones 2 run (Worthington kick)
HS-McNair 74 int. return (Worthington kick)
DEP-Foesel 25 pass from Kowal (Burgio kick)
HS-Callahan 13 run (Worthington kick)
HS-Pollock 3 run (Worthington kick)
Rushing-Jones 23-110, Pollock 14-62, Callahan 2-14 HS.; Phillips 3-26, Robinson 16-91, Kowal 9-33 DEP.
Passing-Callahan 7-13-0-66 HS.; Kowal 5-10-1-93 DEP.
Receiving-Sarnese 3-45 HS.; Phillips 1-30, Foesel 2-37 DEP.
Records-Holy Spirit 7-2; DePaul 7-3