PISCATAWAY — The Holy Spirit High School football team played for Bill Walsh on Sunday.

More importantly, they played like him.

The Spartans dominated their biggest rival on offense, defense and special teams to beat St. Joseph 38-0 to win the state Non-Public II championship at Rutgers University’s SHI Stadium.



“When Spartans football comes together,” senior defensive back and wide receiver Ahmad Brown said, “this is what we put out. There’s no feeling like it. I love the Spartans family.”

Walsh, a former Spirit coach and player, died Nov. 15 after a two-year battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was 52.

Walsh was famous for his toughness and leadership as a player and coach. Spirit fans waived white towels with Walsh’s No. 16 on them throughout the game. Walsh’s widow, Cindy, and daughter, Kelly, a Holy Spirit senior, found themselves right in the middle of the Spartans’ raucous post-game huddle.

“His fire was driving us,” Brown said of Walsh. “He always came in the weight room and said ‘Compete.’ He always had a smile on his face. No matter what happens with us, we always have to smile and adapt, overcome and adjust. This was for him.”

Spirit held St. Joe to minus-10 rushing yards and just 47 yards of offense for the game. Andrew Constantino, Brown and Sabri Drinks each made two tackles for losses.

On offense, E’lijah Gray, who wore Walsh’s No. 16, rushed for 106 yards and a score. Junior running back Patrick Smith ran for two touchdowns, while sophomore Trevor Cohen complemented the running game by competing 7 of 13 passes for 136 yards and a touchdown. Wide receiver Elijah Steward caught six passes for 127 yards.

“It was like (Walsh) was in everybody’s body,” said Gray, of Somers Point. “All of us played like him — hard, tough, Holy Spirit football all-around.”

St. Joe-Holy Spirit is one of South Jersey’s most passionate rivalries. St. Joe (9-2) and Spirit (8-4) played a regular-season game Nov. 2 with the Wildcats winning 22-19.

Sunday’s game was the second straight year these schools met in the state Non-Public II title game. St. Joe won 41-22 at MetLife Stadium last year.

Their rivalry began in 2000.

St. Joe dominated the early years and leads the series 15-7. But it’s more than just the on-the-field success that makes this rivalry intense.

St. Joe and Spirit are members of the Camden Diocese. The schools compete to attract many of the same students to their programs. Sunday’s winner not only got a state championship trophy but also bragging rights when speaking to prospective players.

No one involved in the game expected Sunday’s contest to be as lopsided as it was.

Drinks set the tone on Spirit’s first defensive play from scrimmage.

The sophomore linebacker burst into the backfield and tackled Wildcats standout running back Jada Byers for a 5-yard loss.

“It got everybody rocking and rolling,” Drinks said. “Everybody was lit after that.”

One-play after Drinks’ tackle, Brown sacked St. Joe quarterback Jayden Shertel in the back of the end zone for a safety to give the Spartans a 2-0 lead.

“Defense wins games,” Brown said.

St. Joe did not pick up a first down until there were 43 seconds left in the first half. Brown and Smith followed that first down with an 18-yard sack of Shertel. Spirit held the Wildcats to minus-30 rushing yards and just 1 yard of offense in the first half.

It was the Spartans’ special teams that made the first big play of the second half.

Luke Spotts broke through the Wildcats’ protection and blocked a punt. C.J. Egrie fell on the ball in the end zone for a touchdown to put Spirit up 24-0 with 10:53 left in the third quarter.

“I’m not going to make excuses,” St. Joe coach Paul Sacco said. “They outplayed us on just about every snap of the game. That’s it. We couldn’t get anything going.”

Spirit had not had a signature win this season before Sunday. The Spartans picked the right game to make their mark.

“For the past two weeks, we’ve had great practices,” coach A.J. Russo said. “Our kids have been laser focused. All the credit goes to the kids.”

The victory gave the Spartans their fifth state title and first since 2012.

Walsh coached Spirit to its first state championship, the 2007 Non-Public III crown at Rutgers University.

On Sunday, the Spirit players posed for a picture with the state championship trophy. They put one finger up to indicate they were No. 1, and then they pointed toward the sky for Walsh.

“With Bill passing away, it bonded us,” Russo said. “Cindy and Kelly were with us every step of the way. It meant a lot to our players. We’re very happy we could do this for coach.”

Holy Spirit 2 14 16 6 — 38

St. Joseph 0 0 0 0 — 0

FIRST QUARTER

HS – Shertel sacked by Brown for safety

SECOND QUARTER

HS – Steward 16 pass from Cohen (run failed)

HS – Smith 3 run (Smith run)

THIRD QUARTER

HS – Egrie recovers blocked punt in end zone (Smith run)

HS – Gray 6 run (Gray run)

FOURTH QUARTER

HS – Smith 1 run (run failed)

INDIVIDUAL LEADERS

Rushing – SJ. Byers 8-35; HS. Gray 19-106

Passing – SJ. Shertel 8-21-0-57; HS. Cohen 7-13-1-136

Receiving – SJ. Byers 2-15; HS. Steward 6-127

GALLERY: Holy Spirit vs. St. Joseph in state Non-Public II final

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