Jack Fusco always believed his school would be there for his senior year.
His football coach wasn't so sure.
"There was doubt right up until the last day," Holy Cross coach Frank Holmes said after guiding the Lancers to a 29-19 victory over Gloucester Catholic on a sunny and hot Thursday afternoon.
The West Jersey Football League cross-over game between non-public programs at Tom Reilly Stadium was a first in a lot of ways, including perhaps the earliest kickoff in South Jersey history.
The 10:30 a.m. start four days before Labor Day also marked a momentous occasion for the host team: It was the first sporting event for the new Holy Cross Prep Academy, an independent private school that has replaced Holy Cross High School.
When the Diocese of Trenton announced plans last year to close the school, alumni and other supporters of "Lancer Nation" went into action, creating a business model to keep open the 60-year-old institution on Route 130 in Delran.
One plank of the new school's plan for the future: Success in sports. So far, the Lancers are 1-0, thanks to a comeback victory over the Rams.
"I was telling the guys before the game this is the first sporting event for Holy Cross Prep Academy, and we need to set an example, and I think that's what we did," said Fusco, one of the Lancers captains.
Fusco, a 5-foot-11, 180-pound athlete who lives in Cinnaminson, carried the football nine times for 84 yards and a touchdown. He also caught three passes for 45 yards and served as a strong lead blocker for freshman tailback Nasir Abney, who gained 71 yards on 15 carries in an impressive varsity debut.
Senior quarterback Andrew Paolini was 9-for-13 passing for 116 yards He also ran for a score, and senior linebacker Dylan Sturtevant returned an interception 31 yards for a touchdown for Holy Cross, which was 5-5 last season.
"It was a hot day, and I thought our conditioning showed, especially in the second half," Holmes said.
Junior running back Da'Shaun Harris broke loose for two long touchdowns and finished with 174 yards on 14 carries, and senior tackle Luke Lesch made three tackles for losses for Gloucester Catholic, which was 6-4 last season.
"I knew we were going to be green," Gloucester Catholic coach Casey Murphy said. "We have a lot of guys who don't have a lot of varsity experience, and this was their first taste of four quarters of football at the varsity level.
"I think it was a combination of the heat and us not being as mentally sharp as we need to be."
Holmes, a teacher in the Delran system who is beginning his 10th season as Holy Cross' head coach, had some opportunities to jump ship on the Lancers when the future of the school was in serious doubt in the spring.
"But I couldn't leave these kids," Holmes said. "I told the kids, 'No matter what happens, I'm here with you.' There's no place I would rather coach. These kids are amazing.
"If I left, I would be a hypocrite, with all the things I've been saying for all these years about sticking together."
While Holmes and many others were worried about the future of the school, Fusco remained confident that he would be wearing maroon and white and representing the Lancers in his final season.
"I was confident but when we got word [in late spring] it was staying open, I was very relieved," Fusco said. "I never want to leave this school. It's a special place. There's a sense that you are allowed to be yourself, and I love that."
A winning football team plays a part in the grand plan of most private schools in today's competitive environment. Success in sports attracts student-athletes, engages the alumni and helps to rally the student population and create school spirit.
Holy Cross got a boost this season from the addition of three transfers from Camden Catholic, including senior kicker Danny Kay, who made three field goals on Thursday, and junior two-way lineman Mehki Bryant, a potential NCAA Division 1 recruit who has to sit out the first 30 days of the campaign under NJSIAA eligibility rules.
Wearing his No. 77 jersey, Bryant on Thursday served as a 6-foot-2, 330-pound water boy.
In addition, Holmes said this year's freshman class of football players ranks among the best in his tenure.
"I don't think I've ever seen a freshman class bring as much energy and enthusiasm," Holmes said. "That's part of what happened today. These guys don't want to let each other down."
Gloucester Catholic broke to a 12-3 lead as Luke Van Auken caught an 80-yard touchdown pass from Conor Regan, and Harris broken a couple of tackles and raced 72 yards for another school.
But Holy Cross controlled the second half — save for one, 80-yard burst for another score by the dynamic Harris — behind Paolini's work as a runner and passer, Sturdivant's pick-six and steady, physical play in hot conditions.
Fusco exemplified that.
"It was hot," Fusco said. "Normally, we start the season Sept. 7 or something like that, and it's under the lights.
"This was different. It was tough. But our conditioning carried us.
"We knew how much this game meant for our school. It's a new team, a new life, a new school, and it's really exciting to get off great start."
Gloucester Catholic 6 6 0 7 — 19
Holy Cross 3 9 10 7 — 29
HC: Danny Kay 22 FG
GC: Luke Van Auken 80 pass from Conor Regan (run fail)
GC: Da'Shaun Harris 72 run (run fail)
HC: Jack Fusco 1 run (kick fail)
HC: Danny Kay 23 FG
HC: Andrew Paolini 11 run (Kay kick)
HC: Dylan Sturtevant 31 interception return (Kay kick)