PISCATAWAY - Some parents gave themselves an early weekend by taking Friday off from work. There were no sniffles or concerns for a cold.
They wanted to watch their sons compete for a state nonpublic football championship at Rutgers Stadium.
"This is a big day, but it's important to him," said Paul Valles, the father of St. Joseph High School's Max Valles. "I had to be here to watch him play."
St. Joe started the championship double-header at 5 p.m. with a 40-0 win over St. Mary's of Rutherford in the state Non-Public II title game.
Holy Spirit won a dramatic second game 14-13 over St. Joseph-Montvale for the Non-Public III title.
Even though Rutgers Stadium wasn't filled to the top, the high school athletes got a glimpse of what Division I college football could be like. They got to see themselves on the big screen in the south end zone, and their names were announced after every play.
"This is great that they get to play in a place like this," said Jenna McCoy, 21, from the Seaville section of Upper Township. She was at the game even though her brother, Matt, who plays for St. Joe, was injured. "A lot of these guys think about going to college and they get a taste of it."
The players ran out of the tunnel as they would in a college game, and St. Joseph was led by senior Michael Mazzeo, who ran to the Wildcats sideline, raising his arms to pump up the crowd.
"Ever since I was little, I knew coach (Joe) Sacco," said St. Joe freshman Mike Giraldi, of the Erial section of Gloucester Township. "It's a little weird seeing them here after watching them while I was growing up."
Giraldi was a water boy for some of the eight straight championships St. Joe won from 1999 to 2006.
His ties to St. Joe run deep, which means his disdain for Holy Spirit runs just as deep. Very few Wildcat fans wanted to see Spirit win.
"We do not want to see Holy Spirit win," McCoy said. "There's a big rivalry there and we are not rooting for them."
At about 7 p.m., more and more fans filled the stadium for the start of the Spirit game. The Spartans fans didn't mind the cold conditions as they watched their team attempt an undefeated season.
They had at least 11 buses leaving from different parts of Atlantic County, including one from Brigantine and two from Egg Harbor Township.
"I think you're going to see what it means when they show up," Holy Spirit athletic director Keith Gorman said. "I think the season has been great, but this is the crowning point. I think it means a lot to our fans."
For the fans that arrived early, the parking lot was the best spot to prepare. The Spirit fans tailgated as they would for any other high school game, but this time they did it in the shadow of a 52,000-seat stadium.
An undefeated season was on the line for the Spartans against the team that knocked them out of the playoffs last year. Some of the die-hard Holy Spirit fans remember the championship season of 2007 when the Spartans were also undefeated. Then, they were happy to be there for the school's first state football championship.
Friday night was a little different. They didn't make the trip just to enjoy a few beverages and the company of their former high school classmates, but to witness another championship.
"We just want to get behind the team," said 1958 graduate Al Bigler, 70, of Ventnor. "All the guys are here for the team. The alumni really get behind the team."
Bigler arrived on one of the fan buses and spent a couple of hours before the game with other Spirit fans, who took over the parking lots behind the south end zone, braving the cold and all.
"It feels like an Eagles game," Bigler said.
The cold wasn't going to keep anyone away, even if it was in the low 30s at game time for Spirit. They dressed in big, bulky jackets with layers of clothing underneath.
Family and friends couldn't miss the opportunity, especially when some of the Spirit players have thought about being in this very stadium next year.
"(Wide receiver Donny Pham) has talked about this all week," said Pham's girlfriend Jill Ojeda, 16, of Mays Landing. "He's been so pumped about this. This is where he wants to go to school."
Chris Byers, 20, was part of Spirit's 2007 state championship team. He drove up with his brother Nick, 17, to see another one.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing," Byers said. "It's something they will never forget."
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