Tom Hehre waited three years for tonight.
The Holy Spirit High School senior will make his first varsity start at quarterback for the Spartans.
Spirit travels to Oakcrest for a 7 p.m. kickoff in the season opener for both schools. Both these Cape-Atlantic League National Division teams are expected to be among southern New Jersey's best. Spirit is No. 1 in The Press Elite 11, while Oakcrest is No. 6.
As the quarterback, Hehre automatically becomes one of the most high-profile players on one of the region's best-known teams.
Spirit finished 12-0 and won the state Non-Public III title last year. Spartans coach Charles Roman said the Spartans could be even better this year.
"I'm excited to show the world what I can do," Hehre, 17, said.
Oakcrest quarterback Quaashie Jetter can identify with how Hehre feels as he prepares for his first start. Last year, Jetter was the new guy.
Now a junior, Jetter led the Falcons to a 9-3 record and the South Jersey Group IV final in 2010. He threw for six touchdowns and ran for three more scores. He's expected to be even better this season.
Jetter said he's much more comfortable this year than last because there's no substitute for game experience.
"It's hard to simulate the speed of the game in practice," he said. "Once you get in a regular-season game, it hits you how fast the game is. The corners are faster, your receivers are faster, and the linemen are faster. I am able to think more this year and make better reads."
Because he's a senior, Hehre, unlike Jetter, won't have the benefit of more than one season as a starter. But the Ventnor resident has done his best to make the most of his only chance to start.
Hehre played for the Ventnor Pirates in the Atlantic County Junior Football League. A Pirates coach told Hehre when he was in the eighth grade that he had the talent to be a high school quarterback.
But Hehre sat his first three seasons at Spirit behind Joe Callahan, who threw for 1,124 yards and 13 touchdowns last year .
The 6-foot, 185-pound Hehre bided his time and did whatever he could to get on the field. He even played special teams.
"I like to think I'm a football player in general," Hehre said. "I told the coaches I could play anywhere."
Hehre also prepared for games the past two years as if he was the starter. He attended film sessions and studied opponents' weaknesses. When he quarterbacked the scout team in practice, he made sure everybody was in the right spot.
"He commands a lot of respect," Roman said.
But Hehre admitted being a backup was frustrating.
"People said, 'Why don't you transfer and start somewhere else?' " Hehre said. "But I feel you have to work for what you get. Callahan deserved to have his spot."
Hehre is one of Spirit's few inexperienced players, but according to Roman, the quarterback excelled in preseason scrimmages, completing 80 percent of his 25 throws in preseason scrimmages.
One would think it might be tough to step in at quarterback on such a veteran team, but Roman said the rest of Spartans are excited to see Hehre get his opportunity.
"He's been best friends with these kids," Roman said. "They all hung out together, He's a guy everyone is rooting for, and I think he's looking forward to making this team his."
Quarterback at Holy Spirit can be an overlooked position. The Spartans have so much talent sometimes it seems all the quarterback does is hand the ball off. Running backs Donta Pollock and Nigel Jones combined to run for more than 2,500 yards last season.
In 2007, Spirit also finished 12-0 and won the state Group III title. William Washington ran for a CAL-record 2,061 yards and quarterback A.J. Holland threw the ball just 97 times all season.
But Roman said there always comes a game when the Spirit quarterback must make big plays to get an important win.
"We expect the quarterback to completely lead the offensive team," he said. "Make sure you're in command of the huddle and everything that goes on. At some point in the season, we're going to need you to throw 18-for-25 and make a big throw. You have to be prepared for that when called upon to do it."
Hehre says he's ready for whatever comes his way. He said he was going to try and stay as calm as possible tonight.
But after a three-year wait, there's only so much he can do.
"Deep down I know I'm going to be real excited," he said.
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