By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Friday night lights have to take a back seat to sunshine this week, as two marquee matchups take place on Saturday afternoon. Cedar Creek begins its home schedule by welcoming in Delsea Regional, no stranger to state championships. Another team that knows a thing or two about state championships is St. Joseph of Hammonton, and the Wildcats clash with Holy Spirit after picking up coach Paul Sacco’s 300th win last Friday night at Mainland. Game time is set for noon in Hammonton.
Holy Spirit is coming off a 34-0 win over Middle Township, but Spartans coach A.J. Russo said facing St. Joe provides quite a different challenge.
“All three phases of the game — offense, defense and special teams — has been a main focus this week. We’re not good enough right now to just focus on one aspect of the game. We’re still improving, so we’ve been concentrating on all three phases of the game to prepare for St. Joe’s,” Russo said. “A lot of the focus has been on the playoff game last year. There are no moral victories in football, they beat us. But it left a little bit of a taste in our mouth and we want to come back and play some good, hard-nosed football against these guys on Saturday. That’s our motivation.”
Holy Spirit hung tough with the Wildcats during the playoffs last season before losing 14-0, so Russo knows his team has what it takes to compete with St. Joseph.
“Our kids aren’t going in there to try to just hang with them. We’re going in there to be competitive and to beat them,” Russo said. “We can’t go in there with the mindset that we just want to hang with them. We believe that we have an opportunity here to compete with them on every snap, and that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to play hard, play fast and compete with them every snap.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge for Holy Spirit will be stopping St. Joseph’s offense. The Wildcats have rolled up 87 points in their first two games, and have been successful both with the ground game and through the air. In a 37-19 win over Allentown in the season opener, Qwahsin Townsel racked up 200 yards rushing, and in a 50-7 win over Mainland, quarterback Matt Tucker completed 7-of-10 passing for 137 yards and two touchdowns.
“They are a balanced team. Usually when you talk about wing-T teams they are very run-oriented, but St. Joe does a good job both with passing and the run game. You can’t really isolate on one because they will get you with the other, so you have to really have a solid game plan in place to stop both the run and the pass. With the athletes they have, any little crease they can take advantage of and put seven on the board real quick,” Russo said. “We have to play better than we did last year in the playoff game. I think we had 41 total yards of offense. If we do that again, we’re in trouble. So we’ve been focused on a balanced attack and not be so one-sided with our attack. We’ve been trying to get to that. That’s what we want the base of our offense to be, we want to be as balanced as possible.”
But the Spartans have some weapons of their own. Running back Reggie Jean-Charles rushed 18 times for 194 yards and a touchdown in the win over Middle, while quarterback Mike Costabile was 9-of-14 for 212 yards and three touchdowns.
“It’s a game of inches, so if it’s close coming down the stretch, any little play can turn the tide. It’s going to be tough. We have to go out there and play hard on every play,” Russo said. “With Bill Walsh on our staff, he’s been coaching against Paul Sacco for years. St. Joe vs. Holy Spirit has been a rivalry for a number of years. It’s two small Catholic high schools in South Jersey that have great traditions. Any time you get two teams like that together, you’re looking for a great game. I know they are thinking the same thing.”
Delsea Regional at Cedar Creek, Saturday, 1 p.m.: The Pirates are looking to keep pace with St. Joseph and Oakcrest in the new West Jersey Football League Independence Division, and they’ll face a tough test in a Delsea team that annually competes for state championships. Plus, the Crusaders are smarting from a blowout loss to Timber Creek last week.
Cedar Creek got its season started last Friday night with a 41-10 win over Absegami in which quarterback Jesse Milza threw for 300 yards and four TDs. Nice weather should help the Pirates’ high-powered passing attack, so if the Crusaders can’t stop Milza and force some turnovers, they could be looking at an 0-2 start.
Friday night games
Lenape at Egg Harbor Township, 6 p.m.: The Eagles had a rough start to their season against Millville last week, and the schedule doesn’t get any easier this week. Lenape is one of the toughest teams in South Jersey. The Eagles will have to force some turnovers, play with some short fields and get something from special teams if they hope to pull off the upset.
Mainland Regional at Middle Township, 6 p.m.: The Mustangs played solid defense in the first half against a powerful St. Joseph team last week. If they can bring that kind of effort again they will be in good shape against a Panthers squad that was shut out in its season opener. Look for Tahir Campbell to break out a little more than he did against St. Joe. He’s a solid runner and the kind of back who can handle 18 to 20 carries per game.
Buena Regional at Oakcrest, 6 p.m.: The Chiefs squeaked out a win against Pleasantville last week while the Falcons were all over Ocean City. Oakcrest has an explosive offense with a lot of different options in both the running and passing games.
Absegami at Lower Cape May, 7 p.m.: This will be a 40-mile bus trip for the Braves, but they’ll be chomping at the bit to get their first win after falling to Cedar Creek in the opener. Look for Ifreke Andy to get a lot of work at the running back position.
St. Augustine Prep at Williamstown, 7 p.m.: Perhaps the best Friday night game, the Hermits are ranked in the top 20 in the state by nj.com and this will be a serious road test. Williamstown is as tough as they come, but Prep has been playing some solid defense. From the second half of the season opener against Malvern Prep until the fourth quarter last week against Atlantic City, the Hermits allowed all of eight points.
Washington Township at Atlantic City, 7 p.m.: Should be a good crowd for the Vikings’ home opener. If Atlantic City can jump out early — and it has the athletes to do just that — it could be a long night for Township, which fell, 35-7, to Hammonton last week.
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN