By Phil Anastasia
The last time Holy Spirit played St. Joseph of Montvale was the Non-Public 3 state championship game at Rutgers in December of 2010.
That also was the last time St. Joe lost in the playoffs (HS won that night by a 14-13 score in the last game for Spartans' standout DB/WR Joe Sarnese, now at Villanova).
A pair of multiple-time defending state champions squared off in a early scrimmage Tuesday at Holy Spirit's Ed Byrne Stadium in Absecon.
SJ, which has won the last two NP 3 titles, had the upper hand in the hard-hitting, controlled scrimmage.
But HS, which has won three straight state titles -- the NP 3 crown in 2010, and the last two NP 2 championships -- showed well at times against a deeper team that probably is a week or two ahead in terms of workouts and conditioning.
SJ opens its season Sept. 7 against De Matha (Md.) while HS doesn't open until Sept. 13 against Hammonton at home.
"I thought we showed we could play with them," HS coach John Iannucci said after the scrimmage in 85-degree temperatures on a sunny late morning and early afternoon.
The teams were pretty even through the initial 10-play battles between the first-team offenses and defenses.
SJ scored the only TD in that session on a long pass on a perfectly executed wheel route. Otherwise, HS's defense did a nice job of containing the visitors.
"It was a good experience," said HS senior linebacker Jeff Steeb. "Those are different kids from North Jersety. We showed we can play with them."
HS got good work from Steeb and senior DT Ray Ellis. On the other side of the football, senior QB TJ Anderson directed an offense that was able to generate some rushing yards against the SJ defense.
Senior FB Deandre Dennis and senior HB Franco Rifici had some nice runs for Holy Spirit. Rifici also made a couple strong tackles as a DB and unleashed the kick of a day -- a punt that soared over the return man's head and probably went about 75 yards.
During the second, 10-play session between the first units, SJ seized command of play, generating a few scores as HS's defense broke down in a couple of coverage situations. SJ's depth and conditioning seemed to be factors at that point as well.
It was tough to get a completely accurate read as this wasn't a game scrimmage like the first half of St. Augustine Prep vs. Paramus Catholic on Monday. And Iannucci said the Spartans weren't at full strength, as senior LB Mike Mooney is out as he recovers from an illness and a few other regulars were dinged, too.
But it was clear that SJ is ahead of SJ at this point. Nobody from HS was complaining about that -- they wanted a tough, physical matchup with a North Jersey power, and that's what they got.
The defense clearly will be a challenge for every team on the schedule, and Anderson is a physical QB who has made great strides in operating their Spartans' triple-option attack.
"We ran the ball pretty well and that's who we are," Iannucci said.
The scrimmage should help the Spartans prepare for the challenging early part of of their schedule, as they play Cape American contenders Hammonton and St. Joseph of Hammonton in the first two weeks.
"They play a national schedule," Ellis said of St. Joe Montvale. "This was a good experience for us. We've got some things to work on but I feel like we were right there with them."
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