Tim Goodwin always noticed the crowd when the Holy Spirit High School football team played Absegami the past few years.
"We'd pack the house," said Goodwin, a senior Spirit lineman. "Tons of people showed up. They wanted to see a great game."
Those previous contests were preseason scrimmages, where fans are usually sparse.
The teams meet again tonight and another big crowd is expected. Kickoff is 7 at Absegami.
This time, the fans will watch a game that counts.
Tonight's game is the most anticipated of the young season and the first time Absegami and Holy Spirit have met in the regular season since 1999.
Holy Spirit (1-0) is No. 1 in The Press Elite 11. Absegami (1-0) is No. 3.
"This game is way overdue," Spirit coach Charles Roman said.
Absegami and Spirit are two of the Cape-Atlantic League's most successful programs.
Absegami won the South Jersey Group IV championship and is 38-17 since 2005. Holy Spirit won the state Non-Public III championship in 2007 and is 44-11 during the same period.
"Pride is on the line," Absegami coach Dennis Scuderi Jr. said. "It's a measuring stick for us. I'm sure they're using it as some kind of barometer to see where they're at."
Spirit and Absegami are natural rivals. The schools are located in neighboring towns - Spirit in Absecon and Absegami in Galloway Township. With the schools so close, it's no surprise the players and coaches know each other.
Absegami quarterback coach Chris Bell Jr., a 2002 Spirit graduate, quarterbacked the Spartans from 1999-2001.
"They're a few minutes away," Goodwin said of Absegami. "It's not like we don't hear a lot about them."
But Spirit and Absegami haven't played in 11 years because they were in different CAL conferences. This year's game was scheduled after the CAL realigned in the offseason to three divisions.
Absegami is in the American Division and Spirit the National. They meet because the league mandated interdivision games and matched teams based on their number of victories the past two seasons.
The Absegami vs. Spirit scrimmages were always a preseason highlight. They were the teams last warmup before the season opener. The starters would play a half because neither team wanted to risk injuries, but the scrimmage was hard-hitting and intense.
"Those scrimmages have all been game scrimmages that were always hotly contested," Roman said. "You add a whole new dynamic to it now that it's for real."
Tonight's game features some of the region's top players. But Spirit is troubled by injuries.
Linebacker Anthony Sarao and running back Nigel Jones are both bothered by sprained ankles.
Sarao, who is headed to Stanford University, played just six plays in Spirit's 49-0 win over Oakcrest last Friday.
Roman said Sarao injured his right ankle in the preseason and his left against Oakcrest.
"He's doubtful," Roman said.
Jones, who rushed for 1,033 yards last season, had just eight carries against Oakcrest before he injured his ankle.
"He's wait-and-see for (tonight)," Roman said.
Spirit has the depth to more than survive the injuries.
Donta Pollock has filled in for Jones at running back in Spirit's last three games dating back to 2009.
Pollock has rushed for 652 yards and six touchdowns in those contests. He gained 219 yards against Oakcrest last week.
"Their overall depth and talent at each position is probably as good as I've seen in the past few years," Scuderi Jr. said. "There really isn't a weakness."
Absegami features two of the region's most dynamic offensive players in running back Ben Martin, a senior headed to Rutgers University, and sophomore quarterback Rashad Kinlaw.
Martin ran for 134 yards and a touchdown in Absegami's 17-13 win over Egg Harbor Township last Friday. Kinlaw rushed for 108 yards and a score.
"Everybody knows the running back," Roman said. "He can score from anywhere. But this quarterback adds a whole new dimension and quite frankly he scares me. They're running bootleg with him and not even sending anybody out on patterns."
Tonight's winner can lay claim to being the CAL's top team. Although St. Joseph, No. 5 in Elite 11, and other contenders could change that as the season progresses.
There is plenty of football to be played but both Absegami's and Holy Spirit's seasons will be defined by what happens tonight.
Contact Michael McGarry:
When/where: 7 p.m. today at Absegami
Radio: 97.3 FM
Live blog score updates: GameDayExtra.com
Why this game is important: Holy Spirit is No. 1 in The Press' Elite 11. Absegami is No. 3. Tonight's winner can lay claim to being - at least for the moment - the Cape-Atlantic League's top team.
Keys to victory: Both said they wanted to control the ball and keep the other team's offense off the field.
Players to watch:
Holy Spirit: Joe Callahan, QB; Donta Pollock, RB; Joe Sarnese, WR/DB; Anthony Sarao, LB; Nigel Jones, RB.
Absegami: Rashad Kinlaw, QB; Ben Martin, RB; Steve Schwartz, OL; Tom Macauley, LB.