ABSECON — The players on the Holy Spirit football team probably have no idea what galoshes are. They are much too young to know it's a waterproof overshoe (what the heck is an overshoe, by the way?). You have to go way back in the past to reminisce about galoshes, but the Spartans sort of time traveled back a few decades on Friday night — in the form of an old-school, smash-mouth, run-the-ball-down-their-throats type of football that was played in a driving rain and muddy conditions at Ed Byrnes Stadium.
With the weather such as it was, turnovers were going to be a big key to the Non-Public Group 2 state semifinals, and the Spartans got them early and often, racking up 22 points in the first half and 20 more in the third quarter on their way to a dominating 48-16 win over visiting Hudson Catholic. The victory puts Holy Spirit in a position it's very familiar with — even going back to the old days — i.e., the state championship game.
The second-seeded Spartans will take on the winner of Saturday afternoon's game between No. 1 St. Joseph-Hammonton and No. 4 Immaculata at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford on a date to be determined. Spirit lost to St. Joseph 28-14 earlier this season.
"It's great to maybe get another shot at St. Joe's. We knew it was going to be a dogfight tonight, and I'm glad we came out on top. After warming up you get used to it, you're already soaked and it's like, 'who wants it more?' Both teams had to run because neither could really pass the ball, it was a physical game and we came out on top," said junior tight end and linebacker Isaiah Gerena. "Coach stressed to us in the locker room before the game about ball security, and whoever secured the ball better was going to win this game. We knew the defense had to force some turnovers and take advantage of the weather, and that's what we were able to do."
"We knew coming into this game we would be facing some bad weather, so it was all up to what we wanted to do, did we want to fight or back down? We never back down," said senior lineman Malachi Valentine. "This is tradition, we carry on, we fight, no matter what the circumstances are. And we came out with the win."
Sophomore Charlie Murray pinned the third-seeded Hawks (6-5) deep in their own end with a solid punt early in the first quarter, and on Hudson Catholic's first play from scrimmage, senior linebacker Walid Jones pounced on a fumbled snap in the end zone. Junior star running back E'lijah Gray ran in the two-point conversion to give Spirit (7-3) a quick 8-0 lead. Later in the first quarter, Gray, who rushed for 123 yards on 25 carries, scored the first of his three touchdowns to put Spirit up 16-0. Then, with a little more than a minute remaining in the first half, Gray connected with Alvaro Lora on a halfback option pass in the end zone to push the lead to 22-0. The Hawks answered when Donnell Adams took the ensuing kickoff back 60 yards and Isaiah Decias scored the two-point conversion to shave the lead to 22-8 heading into halftime.
The rain stopped before the start of the second half, but Holy Spirit's scoring surge didn't. Gray scored a pair of touchdowns in the third quarter as the lead swelled to 36-8 with 6:41 left in the quarter. On Hudson's next play following the kickoff, Jones scooped up a fumble and ran it in from about 25 yards to push Spirit's lead to 42-8, and Devin Lee, a sophomore running back, capped off the Spartans' scoring with a fourth-quarter touchdown.
Following the win, the Spartans spent the better part of 10 minutes diving and sliding in the mud, reveling in the kind of game and victory that's only possible in high school football.
"We played in it all night, so we might as well enjoy it after we got the win. We were sliding in the mud and having fun, but now it's back to work to get ready for the next game," Gerena said. "Every year, people count us out. We've had some losses this year, but we stuck together and now we're going to state. I just go out there and do what my team asks me to do and play my best to hopefully win a state championship. There are so many leaders in this senior class, John Bee, Ryan Yost coming in as a first-year starter (at quarterback). I know it means a lot to them, and I want it just as bad."
"I wished for this. I wanted this," Valentine added. "I'll never forget this day, ever."
Valentine and Ahmad Brown heaped praise on Bill Walsh, the Spartans' beloved longtime assistant who is battling ALS, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. Coach Walsh is no longer able to attend games, but his daughter, Kelly, a junior field hockey and softball player, was in attendance.
"What Coach Walsh always says is, you have to adapt and overcome. We overcame the rain, we adapted to the environment and came out with the 'W'," Brown said. "We needed to get the ball into our playmakers' hands and let them do the rest for the team. We're just doing this for coach Walsh. We love you, coach."
Added Valentine, "I love that man to death. I just want to make him proud — we all want to make him proud, and hopefully what we did out there made him happy."
Contact Dave O'Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays