By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
ABSECON — Two minutes, 29 seconds. Doesn’t seem like much time, but for a quarterback like George Pearson, it was plenty.
Pearson connected with running back Malik Ingram on a swing pass that went for 46 yards down to the Holy Spirit 6-yard line, and three plays later he hooked up with sophomore Clarence Lewis for a touchdown with 56 seconds left on Friday night in the Non-Public Group 2 semifinals. Anthony Pucciarelli booted home the extra point to give Mater Dei the lead, and the Seraphs recovered a fumble on Holy Spirit’s last-gasp drive to seal a 35-34 win that put them into the state championship game for the second straight year.
And, for the second straight year, it was the Seraphs breaking the hearts of the Holy Spirit faithful. In last year’s title game, Mater Dei scored on a hook-and-lateral play with seconds remaining for a 26-20 win. This year, Mater Dei will take on either St. Joseph of Hammonton or Immaculata, who play in the other semifinal on Saturday.
“I can’t imagine what they are feeling. I know, myself, I’m feeling a lot of pain, so I can only imagine how it feels to lose (to Mater Dei) two years in a row. One thing we said before we came out here was that, no matter what, we leave it all on the field. We lost by a point. We gave it everything we had but still came up short. Seniors move on and the best of luck to the rest of the team next year,” said Holy Spirit senior quarterback Josh Zamot, who transferred in from St. Augustine this year after leading the Hermits to nine wins and a playoff berth in 2016. “One thing I’m very proud of is we handled adversity very well. Everyone seemed to doubt us every week, especially our defense. But the way they’ve progressed since the St. Joe’s loss — they played a heck of a game tonight, unfortunately we lost by one point. I’m definitely proud of my team and I couldn’t be happier with the way I spent my senior year here.”
“It hurts. It really stings. One of the things we talked about is we feel bad for the seniors. Those kids were the leaders in the offseason, they were the ones who got us started this year, got us going in the weight room,” added Spirit coach A.J. Russo. “To have this happen at the end of the game is kind of tough on them. But, you know what? That’s what football is. We come out here and play, and someone’s going to win and someone’s going to lose. As long as you come out here and play hard and give your all, what can you say? At the end of the day, the team that has the most points at the end of the game wins. But I’m really proud of the way our kids played. They fought, they left everything on the field, and that’s all you can ask for.”
Mater Dei tied the game, 28-28, on a 3-yard touchdown run by Ingram with 6:52 remaining, but Zamot led the Spartans on a scoring drive to take the lead. He scrambled for a big run down the right sideline, reaching the Seraphs’ 29, and a couple of runs by E’lijah Gray brought Spirit inside the 10-yard line. Zamot then hooked up with Ahmad Brown on a swing pass to the left, and Brown dove into the corner of the end zone to put Spirit up, 34-28. But Spirit, which has had trouble with extra points all season and rarely attempts them, was stopped on the two-point conversion.
“We scored with about two minutes left and went for two, and unfortunately we didn’t get it,” Zamot said. “I’ll take the blame for that. It was my call. We called for the ball to go to me, and I didn’t get it into the end zone. But, we gave it all we got and unfortunately this is how it happened in the end.”
Holy Spirit (8-2) jumped out to an 8-0 lead in the first quarter when Zamot burst through the line for a 15-yard touchdown run and Azim Baker-Coley added the two-point conversion, and pushed its lead to 20-7 by halftime on a 91-yard kickoff return from Lee Dawson and a 39-yard scoring strike from Zamot to Alvaro Lora. Dawson added a 90-yard kickoff return in the third quarter after Pearson had cut the Spartans’ lead to 20-14 with a nine-yard touchdown run. Dawson’s heroics gave Spirit a 28-14, but Mater Dei continued to mount comebacks behind Pearson and Ingram.
“In the second half, our offense didn’t get onto the field until basically the start of the fourth quarter. Lee Dawson played his heart out, so for us, the positive stuff that he did on the field — two kickoff returns for touchdowns, I don’t know when the last time was that happened here at Holy Spirit — but in the second half they took advantage of us. They ran the ball real well on us and had a good scheme,” Russo said. “Our defense played well. They were just opportunistic and hit us (with big plays) a few times. Our kids have nothing to be ashamed of. They played very hard, and I’m proud of them.”
The difference in the game was Pearson, a 6-foot-1, 185-pounder who has committed to Central Michigan. He had a hand in four of the Seraphs’ five touchdowns, rushing for three and passing for another.
“That’s what you get with a kid like that. We knew coming in that George was the best quarterback that we’ve probably played against all year. He was going to be the difference maker, and that’s kind of what happened tonight. We shut him down in the first half, but in the second half he got the better of us,” Russo said. “We’re proud of our seniors. They really kick-started us in the offseason. We have one more game, against Atlantic City, and I know they are going to play their hearts out. That’s a great rivalry for us, and that’s a great way for us to end the season, too. If you’re not going to win a state championship here at Holy Spirit, the next best thing is to beat Atlantic City (on Thanksgiving). That’s what these guys have to look forward to, and I know they are going to have a good week of practice and we’re going to get ready to go on Thanksgiving.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays