By Phil Anastasia
Franco Rifici is 5-foot-7 (maybe), 165 pounds (barely) and he might be the best player on what might be the best defense in South Jersey.
And that's not even the best part of his story.
"He's the best defensive player in South Jersey," Holy Spirit coach John Iannucci said of Rifici. "When you strip it down to what's done purely on the field and without the college potential hype, Franco might be one of the best high school players I've coached or seen in my 36 years of coaching."
Rifici and the rest of the Spartan seniors will take the field for the final time Sunday as Holy Spirit, the No. 1 team in The Inquirer Top 25, faces North Jersey power DePaul in the Non-Public 2 championship game at Rutgers University.
It will be a special moment for all the seniors, as Holy Spirit attempts to cap a perfect season with a 12-0 record and to capture the school's fourth consecutive state title.
"It's tough thinking it's going to be our last game," Rifici said. "I can't believe it's the last game with these guys. It's going to be tough to get through it."
Holy Spirit has allowed just 60 points all season, and nearly half of them came in a 31-28 win over No. 2 St. Joseph on Sept. 20. The Spartans have six shutouts, including three in a row, and have allowed a touchdown or less in 14 of their last 18 games.
Holy Spirit's defense features tackle Ray Ellis, who has scholarship offers from Delaware, Villanova and Bowling Green, among other programs, as well as linebacker Jeff Steeb, a Villanova recruit, and several other top athletes.
But the Spartans' smallest guy has stood tall all season.
"He is a great high school football player," said Bishop Eustace coach Rob Cormier, whose team lost to Holy Spirit in the second round of the state tournament. "He's about as solid a kid as I have seen in that outside linebacker/strong safety spot all season."
Rifici's diminutive stature is only part of the story.
He also is relatively inexperienced. He didn't start playing football until eighth grade, and didn't learn much about the sport until he began suiting up for the Spartans.
"I was always a soccer guy," Rifici said. "I always played for my dad (also named Franco). I don't think he was too happy when I started to play football."
Rifici said he a "backyard athlete" as a youngster and decided to try football for the Absecon Blue Devils as an eighth grader. He remembers when he first fell for the game.
"I was a freshman and we were blowing out Bishop Ahr," Rifici said of a 42-0 win in a Non-Public 3 playoff game on Nov. 12, 2010. "They put the 'twos' in the game and I was at wide receiver and I got a crack-back block, everybody was yellling and I was like, 'Yeah, I like this.'"
Rifici said he made gradual improvement during the course of his career. He credits former coach Charles Roman as well as Iannucci and his teammates with teaching him the game.
Now, he's a versatile player who contributes on offense, kicks and punts, and specializes in heavy hits from his strong safety position.
"I love hitting," Rifici said.
Rifici knows Holy Spirit's defense faces a major challenge in a DePaul offense that features Villanova recruit Zach Bednarczyk at quarterback as well as several other Division I recruits.
"We know it's a challenge but we're looking forward to it," Rifici said. "We play together, we trust each other. That's the best thing about our defense. We're always there for each other."
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