When two rivals get together on a football field, it promises to be a memorable event regardless of the outcome.
On Nov. 30 at Met Life Stadium, Saint Joseph’s of Hammonton will meet Holy Spirit of Absecon in the Non-Public II state championship. If it was up to the players, they would play today. That’s how rich is the pre-game buzz among their friends and classmates.
“The Saint Joe-Holy Spirit rivalry is one like no other,” said Saint Joseph sophomore linebacker Ahmad Ross. “Practices are more intense and the sense of urgency picks up not only from the coaches, but the players.
“I always wanted to play in big-time games. I’m just excited that I have the opportunity to write my name in history with this group of guys. Holy Spirit knows us as well as any other team. They have their plan and are going to execute. We’re going to have to make plays for 48 minutes,” he said.
The Wildcats (9-2) defeated Holy Spirit, 28-14, earlier this season. The Spartans (7-3) blew a 14-0 halftime lead when Saint Joe’s scored four unanswered touchdowns over the final two stanzas.
For Saint Joseph’s, that might provide just enough confidence to capture a 20th title in 27 seasons.
“I think that helps us out a lot because we learned from our mistakes and came together as one, and when we played them our last game of the regular season, we came out in the second half and physically dominated,” said SJ star junior tailback Jada Byers. “But I told our team we can’t play like that in the playoffs. We have to come out right away.”
Byers has been virtually unstoppable. He enters the game with 1,645 yards on 194 carries and a total of 32 touchdowns.
“This game is very important for our program and our team and especially the seniors,” said Byers. “This is all our first time playing on this field together and we’re gonna step on the field as one. Also, it’s important for the program because more kids would look at our school more and make kids want to come here.”
The Wildcats know it won’t be easy.
“We all know what’s at stake,” said Ross. “The goal is to send the senior class off with their third state title. The other students at school are just as excited as us. I’m sure they’ll travel with us along with our older fans.”
Holy Spirit last captured a state crown in 2012.
“I’m very excited,” said Holy Spirit senior Ryan Yost. “This has been a dream of mine since eighth grade to not only make it to states, but to win it. For our whole team this is huge. Everyone is amped after last year losing in the state semifinal and the year before in states.”
Yost said the normal struggles of adversity have paradoxically paid dividends.
“It’s brought us closer as a team,” said Yost. “We’ve had a lot of ups and downs between arguing and fighting the past few games, but I believe that we’re closer now because everyone realizes that we need to be one family to win this game.”
Senior outside linebacker/defensive end Walid Jones agrees. Asked about stopping Byers, Jones lauded his defense.
“I feel great about it,” said Jones.
“Everyone on the defense knows what’s going on. We all have a job to do. If we all do our jobs, I feel like we can stop them. It will be a challenge with Jada. He is an amazing player,” he said.
“This is very important to us, especially the seniors. We have been talking about winning states before the season even started,” he said.
One week from now, the talking will stop.
John Knebels can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @johnknebels.