ABSECON - Holy Spirit High School's Joe Sarnese made big plays from beginning to end Friday in the Spartans' state Non-Public III football semifinal against Pope John XXIII.

When it came down to the crucial moments, Holy Spirit coach Charlie Roman said there was no doubt that the ball was going to Sarnese, and the senior made a classic catch for the win.

Sarnese made a leaping grab over Pope John XXIII's Noah Brown in the left side of the end zone for a 25-yard touchdown with 23 seconds left that gave Holy Spirit a 34-27 victory in a showdown of unbeaten teams.

The Spartans (10-0) are top-ranked in The Press Elite 11. Pope John, of Sparta in Sussex County, is 10-1.

"I could see the ball coming toward me and I knew I had to make a play," Sarnese said. "This was a game where we proved what we could do against a really good team. We don't want to beat teams 42-0. A game like this is what it's all about."

The situation had much added emotion because Sarnese's father, also named Joe, died Nov. 7 at his home in Ventnor. The elder Sarnese was very close to the team and the coaches.

"The situation brought us closer together," Sarnese said. "We don't think of ourselves as a team because we're like a family. He was really close to our team, and this was for him."

Quarterback Joe Callahan was more specific.

"There's only one star in the sky tonight," Callahan said, pointing upward. "He's watching over us."

Holy Spirit will play a state Non-Public III championship game the weekend of Dec. 3-5 at a site to be determined against the winner of today's game between top-seeded St. Joseph Montvale and No. 3 DePaul Catholic.

"Sarnese really makes you a great coach," Roman said. "The ball was definitely going to him. It's been that way for two years now. When we need to make a play we go to Joe. He's had a real tough time but he came through for us."

The score was tied at 27-27 when the Spartans got their final chance by forcing a three-and-out with 1 minute, 41 seconds left. The winning touchdown was set up by running back Donta Pollock, who carried the ball 37 times for 159 yards and three touchdowns in the game. Pollock got the ball on all but six Spartans running plays in the game.

Pollock ran for 20 yards to the Lions' 38-yard line, and Callahan tossed to tight end Ryan Donovan for 8 more yards to the 30. Pollock got 5 more yards and a first down at the 25. Callahan threw incomplete twice before the touchdown pass to Sarnese.

"I felt we could do it, because we've been doing that all year," Pollock said. "My job is to run the ball and the guys up front opened the holes. Our defense gave up a chance to win it."

The Lions led 27-20 and had the ball, but fumbled it away on their own 12-yard line with 4:02 left. Pollock got 7, 3 and then the final 2 yards for a score. The extra-point snap was low, but Spartans kicker Tommy Worthington made the kick to tie it.

Sarnese, who has verbally committed to attend Villanova University, took the opening kickoff 63 yards to the Pope John 20-yard line, and on the sixth play from scrimmage, Pollock scored from 1 yard out.

But the Lions answered with running back Kyle McGrath, who bulled his way to 113 yards on 27 carries. McGrath, listed at 5-foot-11, 215 pounds, often carried four or five tacklers forward for extra yardage.

"We haven't had a team do that to us all year," Roman said. "But our defense made the plays in the second half."

In the first quarter, McGrath went off right tackle to tie the game at 7-7. He got the ball on nearly every down, but the Lions took to the air for the first time on their next possession and quarterback Sean Kenney hit tight end Cole Farrand with a 34-yard TD.

The Spartans made it 14-14 midway through the second quarter on Pollock's 3-yard run up the middle. But the Lions went up again as Kenney tossed a 61-yard TD to wide receiver Patrick Thomas.

Holy Spirit scored again as Sarnese made a catch on a 27-yard pass in the back of the end zone. But Worthington missed the extra point and Pope John led 21-20 at halftime.

Pope John had the only touchdown of the third quarter, a 1-yard run off left tackle by McGrath. But Lions kicker Ryan Krueger missed the extra point and the visitors led 27-20.

"I thought our defense played a good game, and we put 27 points on the board," said Pope John coach Vic Paternostro, the state leader with 373 victories. "Holy Spirit was very good. They were just a step better than us today."

Contact Guy Gargan:

609-272-7210