With sweat dripping off his forehead, defensive end Kaiwan Lewis of the St. Joseph High School football team needed inspiration for one more bench press this summer.

He thought about Holy Spirit.

In the heat of the summer, Holy Spirit linebacker Dan Mastromatteo needed motivation to finish one more sprint.

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He thought about St. Joseph.

Their traditions of success link the Holy Spirit and St. Joe football teams. Both teams won state titles last season and are favored to do so again in 2011. This year, both teams have the potential for special seasons.

Their rivalry is one of the state's best and this season they will meet on Oct. 1 at St. Joseph in Hammonton. Their seasons will be defined by what happens that day.

"The last couple of years I've looked at our game with them as the South Jersey championship," Spirit coach Charles Roman said. "Last year the two best teams in South Jersey were Holy Spirit and St. Joe's, and I think that's probably true this upcoming year. I expect the both of us to go out and prove it."

How good are the Holy Spirit Spartans and St. Joe Wildcats expected to be this season?

It is rare for a local team to feature one player headed to a Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I) college. Holy Spirit and St. Joe both feature multiple scholarship players.

Mastromatteo, a linebacker, is bound for North Carolina and Spirit running back and safety Nigel Jones is a top recruit.

Lewis is headed to South Carolina, while his teammate and fellow defensive end Max Valles will attend the University of Virginia.

"We're two Catholic schools with winning reputations that play hard," Mastromatteo said. "That's what you want. You want to play good competition and good players."

Holy Spirit is No. 1 in The Press Elite 11 ranking. St. Joe is No. 2. National websites that follow high school sports recognized both teams in the preseason. Rivals.com ranks Spirit No. 100 in the country. Maxpreps.com ranks St. Joe No. 25 in the country among the nation's small schools.

The Spartans are 47-9 the past five seasons, while St. Joe is 41-12. St. Joe's and Spirit's success has made them the big game for every opponent they face.

"It's a huge game when you play them," Oakcrest coach Chuck Smith said. "They have great reputations. You know you're playing an all-star team. You'd like to put that feather in your cap knocking them off. They might beat you seven out of 10 times. But those three times are going to be cherished wins."

Spirit's and St. Joe's dominance, however, comes at a time when many people in the state high school sports community debate whether it's fair for public schools to compete against parochial private schools.

Private schools, such as Spirit and St. Joe, have an advantage, some public school coaches argue, because they can attract students from anywhere. Meanwhile, public schools can only draw from their sending districts.

The Spartans are 32-2 against public schools the past five years with the last loss coming on Oct. 10, 2008 when Mainland beat them 24-0.

St. Joe is 37-5 the past five years against public schools with the last loss coming to Hammonton 16-14 on Nov. 28, 2009.

The Cape-Atlantic League realigned to three divisions last season in part so public schools with small enrollments would not have to play both Spirit and St. Joe. In 2007, the state's high schools nearly passed a measure that would have forced public and private schools to play in separate leagues.

"They play by different rules," Smith said. "It's unfair. Me, personally, I wish they would just play each other. They can play by their rules and all the public schools cannot worry about it."

But despite the controversy caused by Spirit and St. Joe's dominance, there's no denying the quality of their programs.

This is coach Paul Sacco's 30th season at St. Joe. He's the CAL's career victories leader with 246 wins. The Wildcats have won 13 state titles, including eight in a row from 1999-2006, since the non-public schools began to play for state championships in 1993. St. Joe is known for its dedication to off-season weight training.

Holy Spirit was one of the state's top programs under late coach Ed Byrnes in the 1980s and early 1990s. But between 1992 and 2002 Spirit had just two .500 or better seasons.

Things changed when Bill Walsh took over the program in 2003. Spirit finished 12-0 and won the state non-public III title in 2007, under Walsh. Roman was an assistant on that team and became the head coach in 2008.

St. Joe and Spirit did not begin to play each other until 2000 when the two were placed in the same CAL conference. Spirit won 35-0 last year but St. Joe leads the series eight games to four. St. Joe dominated the rivalry early, winning the initial meeting in 2000 50-2.

Spirit learned from those lopsided defeats.

"They were the measuring stick, and the blueprint for the success we've had has been taken from them," Roman said.

The teams have played some momentous games, including Nov. 3, 2007 when Spirit beat St. Joe 48-7 to end the Wildcats' CAL record 37-game winning streak.

Fans of each school might not believe it, but there is plenty of respect between the two programs.

Sacco and Roman talk often. But their personalities couldn't be more different.

Roman says exactly what he thinks and doesn't care who hears it. Sacco is more reserved and often refers to reporters as "sir."

The two first met at the Golden State Wing-T Football Camp in California in the early 2000s before Roman was even coaching at Spirit.

"He started teasing me," Sacco said. "He had the same type of attitude he has now. He said, 'Some day I'm going to come back there and you guys aren't going to kick Holy Spirit (around) any more.' I laughed. I said, 'I hope to see you one day.' He's back at Spirit now and doing a good job."

Both coaches said it's not just the wins on the field that bonds the two teams. They're both Catholic schools. They're both renowned for their football programs. The players see each other at parties, movies or local shopping centers.

For players of both teams, no matter what they achieve at Spirit or St. Joe, one of the lasting memories of their high school athletic careers will be how they faired against each other.

"If we win a state championship, and we lose to St Joe's," Spirit linebacker Ethan Gambale said, "then the season wasn't complete for us."

Contact Michael McGarry:


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