Elijah Steward was overwhelmed with emotion as he stood at midfield.
The sophomore wideout had just came off an impressive performance in the state championship game, but Steward had one thing on his mind.
“It’s not for us,” Steward said. “It was always for coach Walsh.”
Before Holy Spirit’s first playoff game in November, former head coach and longtime assistant, Bill Walsh, passed away after a long battle with ALS.
The Spartans then dedicated their postseason to him, and they capped it off on Sunday with a dominant 38-0 victory over St. Joseph (9-2) in the Non-Public, Group 2 championship at Rutgers University.
“After what happened with coach Walsh we knew we had to win this one for,” junior running back Patrick Smith said. “Tonight was for him.”
Holy Spirit (8-4) wore “No. 16” on the side of their helmets after Walsh passed during the playoffs. He wore the number when he played for the Spartans in the 1980s. Holy Spirit players also wore his number on the shirts underneath their jersey.
Holy Spirit coach A.J. Russo brought back Walsh, who coached the Spartans from 2003-07 and won a state title in his final year, as an assistant when he took the job in 2015.
Russo said some of the first kids he and Walsh recruited were senior running back Elijah Gray and senior safety Ahmad Brown. Both upperclassmen made huge plays for the Spartans.
Brown had five tackles, two sacks and got Holy Spirit on the board with a safety in the first quarter. Gray added 106 rushing yards on 19 carries and one touchdown.
“We were really tight, Bill and I, Ahmad and Elijah,” Russo said. “I’m just happy that we could do this in the last year that these guys are here as seniors.”
The victory was also Holy Spirit’s first state championship since 2012 and the first time the Spartans topped St. Joseph since 2016.
The Spartans were able to bottle up senior running back Jada Byers, a Sacred Heart recruit, for 35 yards on eight carries. He also had two catches for 15 yards. The senior finished his career with 4,958 rushing yards.
Holy Spirit held the Wildcats to 47 yards of total offense.
“I really don’t even have any emotions,” Byers said. "They came out there with everything they had. They came out there from whistle to whistle. They played how I wanted my team to play…I gave it everything I had. I can’t even cry right now.”
Holy Spirit had success through the air and on the ground.
Steward hauled in six catches for 127 yards and one touchdown. Sophomore quarterback Trevor Cohen went 7 for 13 for 106 yards and one score. He also added 25 yards on the ground.
Junior running back Patrick Smith had 68 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries. His 3-yard score gave the Spartans a 16-0 halftime lead. He transferred from the Peddie School before this season.
Smith said he and Gray call each other the “one-two punch” because of their bruising style of running the football.
“I’m blessed that he came here,” Gray said of Smith.
The Spartans also got a touchdown off special teams.
Junior CJ Egrie recovered a punt blocked by senior Luke Spotts in the end zone that gave Holy Spirit a 24-0 lead early in the third quarter.
“For the last two weeks these kids have been laser-focused on everything that we’re doing in practice,” Russo said. “It was unfinished business based on these guys for the last three years.
“[St. Joseph has] got us a few times. We’ve had big leads on them at halftime and they’ve come back to beat us. We weren’t going to let that happen today.”
Coach Walsh would be proud.
Holy Spirit: 2 14 16 6 -- 38
St. Joseph: 0 0 0 0 -- 0
HS: Ahmad Brown safety
HS: Elijah Steward 16 pass from Trevor Cohen (Cohen run failed)
HS: Patrick Smith 3 run (Smith run)
HS: CJ Egrie blocked punt return (Smith run)
HS: Gray 12 run (Gray run)
HS: Smith 1 run (Smith failed)