"Hey West Jersey Football League, can you give us some tougher games?" "OK, how about Kingsway, Eastern, Camden Catholic and St. Augustine Prep on the road, and we'll throw in Hammonton, St. Joseph and Washington Township?"
Holy Spirit football coach A.J. Russo has been lobbying the league for a tougher schedule, and he certainly got what he asked for this season. Now the question is, can a revamped defense and an offense that features a new quarterback live up to the strong tradition the Spartans have built up over decades? That remains to be seen, but Russo said he likes his team's chances against one of the tougher schedules the WJFL dished out this year in its first two-year realignment since absorbing the Cape-Atlantic League prior to the 2016 season.
"It's a challenge and that's the way these kids are taking it. Our schedule is challenging, and the past couple of years we've been asking the West Jersey Football League about that, so this year they gave us what we asked for, which is fine. We're going to compete, we're preparing, and we'll be ready to go. It gives us an opportunity to play against some of the bigger schools in the area and play against some schools we've never played before. We've never played Kingsway, maybe once or twice we've played Eastern, and I doubt we've ever played Washington Township, as far as I know — so the opportunity to play those bigger schools will be great for our program," Russo said during preseason camp this week. "I believe (the biggest challenge) is upfront with the offensive line, getting those guys to gel and play together. And we've put a new defense in, coach Reardon's defense. That will be something different for the kids, but they seem to be adjusting. We went from a 5-2 to a 3-3 stack. It's a little more basic for the kids and it allows them to play, play with speed, don't think a lot, just go out there and use the talent that you have."
The Spartans lost some serious talent from the 2018 graduating class, including quarterback Josh Zamot, an all-South Jersey type talent who is now playing at Stony Brook, as well as linemen Anthony Lord, Owen Kramer and Dimitris Pali. But Spirit has plenty of returning talent, including guys such as linebackers John Bee and Azim Baker-Coley, receivers Ahmad Brown and Alvaro Lora, linemen Malachi Valentine and Colin Nolan, TE/DE Isaiah Gerena and, most notably, running back E'lijah Gray, a junior who already has two years varsity experience and a couple thousand yards under his belt. Stepping in to play quarterback is senior Ryan Yost, a 6-foot-4, 180-pounder who transferred in last year from Shawnee.
"At the quarterback position, losing Zamot is big, but we also have Ryan Yost who is an amazing quarterback and he's ready to lead us. Everyone is ready to compete," Nolan said. "(Gray) is a tank. You can't bring him down with just one person. He's going to fight for extra yards and he's going to get that first down when you need it."
"We lost some of those key guys, but we got young kids who are ready to come up and they are super hungry, ready to come in and eat right away," Bee said. "It's huge having (Gray). No matter what the situation is, you know you can always give him the ball and he'll make a play. No matter what, he's making a play, forward yards every time. He's a very special player. We love competition. We don't care who we're playing, we're going to go out there and compete every single snap, no matter who it is. We're looking to win every single game, we don't care who our opponent is."
Russo also has former Prep coaches Charlie Roman and Mark Reardon, both Holy Spirit alums, on his coaching staff.
"It's really good. They both have college coaching experience. From a schematic perspective, they do great things with the team. The kids are energized by the energy that they bring to the team," Russo said. "And the camaraderie that those guys have — both being former Spartans, alumni — that's basically our whole coaching staff. That continues the tradition we have here at Holy Spirit. They understand what it takes to be in this school as a student, as a player and as a coach, so it's great to have those guys."
The biggest challenge for Spirit will be up front, as a revamped offensive line will be going against some pretty good defensive fronts, including St. Joseph's massive defensive line later in the season. But Gray is an accomplished back, and Yost is a tall quarterback with a good arm who can stretch the field.
"You really can't replace guys like (Lord, Kramer and Pali), they are amazing offensive and defensive linemen," Nolan said. "But we definitely have young kids who are ready to go out there and play their hearts out for this team and show what they are really capable of. And they've shown it so far in camp. They keep working hard and grinding for this team, and I'm sure they are going to do fine this season."
"It differs a little from last year for us, mostly up front on the offensive line. We lost three senior starters and now have kids battling for those spots, which bodes well because now the kids are competing every day to earn those spots. With the two returning linemen me we have, Colin Noland Riley Howat, both of those kids have helped the younger kids solidify that offensive line. We're starting to gel a little bit, but it's still a work in progress. We have all the skill kids back (on the outside) that we had last year, and, obviously, having E'lijah back there in the backfield is always an advantage. The good thing about E'lijah is his work ethic. He is the hardest worker on this football team, through the offseason, into the season, and it shows by the quality of play on the field. This year, he added 10-to-12 pounds of muscle, he's a lot stronger, and he always has that forward lean when he's running, so he's always getting positive yards. He'll get two or three extra yards on carries just because of the way he runs the ball," Russo added. "We have a kid, Devin Lee, who is a sophomore and will be spelling E'lijah, and Devin is a good back. He's still learning, but he'll help by giving E'lijah some breaks throughout the season."
The Spartans open up with a Week Zero trip to Baltimore to take on Mount St. Joseph, one of the top teams in Maryland.
"We've been trying to get a game like this since our freshman year. Coach (Bill) Walsh has always been trying to go for the big guys, like Paramus Catholic one year. It's great that we can go to another state and play a team that's as good as this team, and just play our hearts out," Nolan said.
"We're super excited," Bee added. "They are a top-ranked team out of Maryland and it should be really interesting going there and facing new competition, new faces. We're ready to battle."
The players also have the added inspiration of playing for longtime assistant coach Bill Walsh, who is battling ALS. He still tries to get out to games and practices when his health allows.
"We know he's in our spirits and he's going to be out there. He's going to watch us somehow and he's always going to support the team, and it's big that we get these young guys to understand how much he means to this football team and how much just having him here means to us as a whole team and a whole organization," Nolan said. Added Bee, "twenty four-seven, every time I step on this field I know I'm playing for him, playing like he's watching and still coaching every single game. We're playing our hearts out for him."
Ultimately, Russo believes the program prepares new players to step into roles vacated by graduating seniors, and he expects this year's team to live up to the lofty expectations the Spartans set each and every year.
"Our seniors this year understand that they are the ones who now have to step up and be senior leaders, and they've done a great job with that. They continue to talk about playing with effort every day that they are out on the field. If they do that, we're going to be successful, and that's the motto that they've taken this year and have done a great job with that," Russo said. "Everything here is about Holy Spirit. It's the name on the front of the jersey, not the name on the back, and that's the way it's always been here. That starts in school, too, with the foundation that our school brings to these kids in the classroom and we try to continue that on the athletic fields as well."
Contact Dave O'Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays