Holy Spirit Football One of the Great Success Stories in the COVID Shortened Season

Holy Spirit Football One of the Great Success Stories in the COVID Shortened Season
There were plenty of obstacles for high school sports teams to compete this season. Holy Spirit’s football team stood out as one of the area’s best stories for its dedication, perseverance and talent.  
 
The Spartans put it all together to finish 8-0 and the consensus No. 1 team in South Jersey. What made the accomplishment more impressive is that the Spartans played one of the most difficult schedules imaginable.  
 
The NJSIAA didn’t conduct football playoffs, but teams were able to have a two-game postseason The West Jersey Football League, which contains 96 teams, mainly in South Jersey but some Mercer County schools, decided to make a pod system. 
 
There were four different pods, with the top teams of similar Group sizes.  
 
Holy Spirit, despite being a Non-Public Group 2 school, played in the top pod, which consisted of the top teams in South Jersey. The other teams in the pod were Group 4 Winslow Township and Group 5 heavyweights Cherokee and Lenape.  
 
All four of the schools were undefeated at the time. 
 
Just to reach the top pod, Holy Spirit first had to beat St. Augustine, which the Spartans did by a 12-7 score. 
 
Then the Spartans scored a stunning 34-0 win over Winslow Township. It wasn’t surprising that Holy Spirit, but winning so decisively over a talented Winslow Township team was a little bit of a shocker. 
 
That set up the game for No. 1 in South Jersey between Holy Spirit and Lenape, which had scored a classic 31-28 overtime win over Cherokee. 
 
Spirit then beat Lenape, 21-7.  
 
“This is the first time ever a South Jersey champion was crowned playing on the field,” Holy Spirit coach A.J. Russo said. 
 
Then alluding to COVID, he said, “I hope it is the last.” 
 
Still it was quite an accomplishment.  
 
The Spartans actually set the tone for this season in their final game of 2019, a stunning 38-0 win over St. Joseph in the NJSIAA state Non-Public Group 2 championship game. 
 
Again, it wasn’t a stunner that Holy Spirit won, but the margin of victory was a total surprise. The teams had played a little more than a month before that in the regular season, with St. Joseph winning a 22-19 decision.

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“I think that win helped set the tone for this season,” Russo said. “We played our biggest rival in a state championship game after losing four weeks earlier.” 
 
Russo said he had a feeling that the Spartans would get revenge in that championship game. 
 
“The two weeks leading up to that game, our kids were so focused in practice and I have never seen anything like that,” he said.  
 
And wouldn’t you know, the two ended up meeting each other in the opening of this 2020 season. Holy Spirit won, 18-6 and the Spartans were rolling from there. 
 
Holy Spirit had one of the most dominant offensive players in the state, senior running back Patrick Smith. In just eight games, he rushed for 1,719 yards (7.7 avg.) and 16 TDs.  
 
Junior quarterback Trevor Cohen threw for 662 yards and seven touchdowns. Junior Michael Francisco had 30 tackles and five sacks, while junior Elijah Steward was a big-play performer with 24 receptions for 292 yards and four touchdowns.  
 
Francisco was part of a smothering defense, that according to Russo, allowed 300 rushing yards all season. To put that in perspective, Smith himself rushed for more than 300 yards in two different games.  
 
Like all coaches, Russo is already looking ahead to next year when the Spartans should be among the top teams in South Jersey once again, but he has allowed himself to enjoy what this team has done as well. 
“With the pandemic, we didn’t know what type of season it would be,” Russo said. “It was a week-to-week thing, and we were fortunate enough to get through it and the kids played so hard.” 

They also played well, better than any other team in South Jersey.
 
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Author: Marc Narducci; Photo Courtesy of Holy Spirit Football

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