WOOLRICH TWP. – Holy Spirit doesn’t punt very often. In fact, the first three times the Spartans faced a fourth down situation in their West Jersey Football League Royal Division game against Kingsway, they went for it. They even had to put a punt formation in this week to practice against it. Turns out that was a good move..
Three times in the first half, Holy Spirit nearly blocked a punt, but each time the Kingsway punter, Mike Tanzola, was barely able to kick the ball away. Each time Holy Spirit senior Alvaro Laro was close to getting his hand on it, and he was not to be denied.
“I knew I was going to get one,” Laro said. “I was getting closer and closer and I knew I was going to get one. I knew there would be an opportunity to make a play.”
After a scoreless first half, Kingsway’s opening drive of the second half stalled at its own 44 yard line and the Dragons were forced to punt. Laro broke through the Dragons’ line and smothered the ball and the Spartans’ Justin Curcio pounced on it at the Kingsway 33-yard line. It was Laro’s first block ever and it happened at the perfect time.
Five plays later Elijah Gray scored the first of his three touchdowns on a five-yard run and that sequence was the spark Holy Spirit (5-2, 4-0) needed to post a 28-7 victory over the Dragons (4-3, 2-1) that clinched the Royal Division title for the Spartans.
“The defense had to be the difference tonight,” Laro said. “We were playing good defense and the offense wasn’t getting the job done in the first half so the defense had to make a play.”
Sometimes all it takes is one play and that blocked punt was the spark that lit the fire for Holy Spirit. Although they outgained Kingsway by a wide margin in the first half, 121 yards to 50, they didn’t have anything to show for it. But that all changed after the block.
Gray, the 5-foot, 9-inch, 290 pound junior, did rush for 67 yards in the first half, but he was virtually unstoppable after halftime, gaining an additional 111 yards to finish with 178 yards on 34 carries and the three touchdowns. He also completed a pair of passes he threw out of the wildcat formation for 38 yards and a touchdown. Make that 3-for-3 if you count the two-point conversion pass he threw after the last touchdown.
“He is just a special player on the field and off,” Russo said. “He is one of our team captains as a junior and he has really played well the last couple of games.”
Gray said the offense wasn’t running as efficiently as everyone would have liked, but the Spartans made some adjustments and came out more determined in the second half.
“We made some changes. The first half we weren’t really clicking that well.” Gray admitted. “Coach (Mark) Barbetto gave a great speech at halftime and told us to keep our heads up and to play the football game the way we know how to play. The second half it was just hard work and the dedication of the o-line and I thought we started to wear them down. In the first half we were running a lot of wide stuff, but we changed it around in the second half and started running right at them.”
Gray scored on the first series of the fourth quarter and Holy Spirit led 14-0 after Ryan Yost’s pass to Ahmad Brown for the two-point conversion. This score came after another blocked punt, this time by Sabri Drinks.
"The first one we were going after it," said Russo, "The second one we just had one guy rushing. That was just all-out effort on his part."
Gray scored on a 1-yard run to make it 20-0 before Kingsway got on the scoreboard on a three-yard run by A.J. Butler to make it 20-7. That play was set by a 50-yard pass play from Alex Odom to Butler.
Gray closed out the scoring by throwing a 10-yard touchdown pass to Eric Roman, then scrambled out of harms way to complete the conversion pass to Jahqir Haley.