John Iannucci Holy Spirit coach

New Holy Spirit High School football coach John Iannnucci talks with running back Talib Gerald, left, during a preseason practice last month in Hammonton. Iannucci makes his debut as the Spartans' coach tonight at Hammonton.

Press photo by Sean Fitzgerald

Holy Spirit High School football players Liam Nolan and A.J. Dawson hear the same constant questions from friends and family and just about everybody who knows they are members of the Spartans' team.

What is new coach John Iannucci like?

How do the Spartans look this season?

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How effective is Spirit's triple-option offense?

Spirit will begin to satisfy everyone's curiosity tonight. The Spartans play at Hammonton at 7 p.m. in the most anticipated local game of the season's opening weekend.

Both Spirit and Hammonton are perennial powers. Spirit is the defending state Non-Public II champion. Hammonton is No. 3 in The Press Preseason Elite 11.

"We're practicing hard and the mood is good," said Dawson, a junior running back and defensive back. "The triple option is working. We're ready."

The curiosity about Spirit is more than understandable. The school is synonymous with football success. The Spartans have won three state titles in the past five years.

"Our football tradition is so big," said Nolan, a senior wide receiver. "Everyone (who asks questions about the team) loves Holy Spirit football."

Iannucci is the first coach with no previous Holy Spirit connections to lead the Spartans in at least 25 years.

"They've been very successful," Iannucci said of Spirit. "The school stands for certain things. You want to keep those things on top of the building. The foundation is set. We're just redecorating the floors in between."

Iannucci is a life-long coach and has coached at several schools up and down the East Coast, including Cherry Hill East from 2004-06. Iannucci replaced Spirit graduate Charles Roman, who is now an assistant at St. Augustine Prep.

"Anytime there is a change people are curious," Iannucci said. "Some people don't like change. Some people embrace change."

Iannucci is well known for his expertise on the triple-option offense run by colleges like Navy. It is an offense rarely seen in southern New Jersey. The offense is designed to give offenses three players to carry the ball on every running play. The quarterback either runs with the ball or pitches it to another player depending on what the defense does.

Iannucci said the Spartans are a work in progress and have between 40 and 60 percent of the triple-option down.

"Every day we're getting better and better," Nolan said. "It's a complex offense, so it's going to take longer to learn. Sometimes we make minor mistakes, but we know what we're doing (wrong)."

Holy Spirit is young but talented. Spirit will start no seniors on defense and three on offense. The Spartans feature outstanding speed in Dawson and junior Talib Gerald. Sophomore Chip LaFragola starts at quarterback.

In Hammonton, Spirit faces a veteran team that reached the South Jersey Group III final last season, losing to undefeated Timber Creek 33-7.

Hammonton coach Pete Lancetta said the Blue Devils defense - led by junior linebacker Dylan Rosu - must stay patient against the triple-option.

The Blue Devils have little experience defending the offense but they did scrimmage Cherry Hill East when Iannucci coached there.

"They can hold the ball a long time on you," Lancetta said. "When they get the ball and start making first downs, you can get frustrated. But you can't panic. Regardless of how many first downs they get if we can come off the field without giving up a score, we're going to be high-fiving each other."

Hammonton's offense is also potent with quarterback Christian Mortellite (1,046 passing yards and 11 touchdown passes last season)and running back David Williams (939 rushing yards last season). Iannucci said he counted 10 plays in the Blue Devils' preseason scrimmages that covered at least 40 yards and either scored touchdowns or gave Hammonton the ball inside their opponents' 10-yard line.

"We have to weather the tide," Iannucci said. "Opening day you're going to make mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes. I think it's who rides the wave and gets back on level ground fastest is going to be successful."

Tonight will be another step in Iannucci becoming part of the Spartans' sports culture.

The Spirit players have gotten to know their new coach. Nolan said they often joke around with him after practice.

"A week after he got here, jokes were flying around," Nolan said. "He got to know us all really quickly."

Iannucci speaks with passion about coaching. He is also ready for tonight's debut.

"The only way you can test what you do is on Friday nights," Iannucci said. "You want to see the kids succeed. That's why you coach."

Contact Michael McGarry:


Holy Spirit at No. 3 Hammonton

Where/when: 7 p.m. today at Hammonton

Radio: 97.3 FM

Last five meetings:

2011: Hammonton 37, Holy Spirit 14

2010: Holy Spirit 28, Hammonton 7

2005: Holy Spirit 24, Hammonton 14

2004: Hammonton 21, Holy Spirit 0

2003: Hammonton 38, Holy Spirit 0

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