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Rifici coming up big for Holy Spirit

Franco Rifici is 5-foot-7 (maybe) and 165 pounds (barely) and he might be the best player on what might be the best defense in South Jersey.

Holy Spirit's Franco Rifici watches a field-goal attempt during a game last month. (Ben Fogletto / Press of Atlantic City)
Holy Spirit's Franco Rifici watches a field-goal attempt during a game last month. (Ben Fogletto / Press of Atlantic City)Read more

Franco Rifici is 5-foot-7 (maybe) and 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. "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 Spartans seniors will take the field for the final time Sunday as Holy Spirit, the No. 1 team in The Inquirer's South Jersey rankings, 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 capture its fourth straight 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 schools, as well as linebacker and Villanova recruit Jeff Steeb 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 the 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 Franco]. I don't think he was too happy when I started to play football."

The younger Rifici said he was 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 crackback block. Everybody was yelling, and I was like, 'Yeah, I like this.' "

Rifici said he made gradual improvement during 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'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."

State Non-Public Group 2 Final

DePaul vs. Holy Spirit

Sunday, 1 p.m. at Rutgers

Previous state titles: Holy Spirit, four (2007, 2010 in Non-Public 3; 2011, 2012 in Non-Public 2); DePaul, none.

Coaches: Holy Spirit, John Iannucci (19-4 in two seasons at Holy Spirit; 12-18 in three seasons at Cherry Hill East); DePaul, John McKenna (63-29 in nine seasons).

How DePaul can win: The Spartans are battle-tested from playing in the Big North's United Division with St. Joseph of Montvale, Don Bosco Prep, and Paramus Catholic. QB Zach Bednarczyk (84-for-164 passing, 1,527 yards, 17 TDs; 389 rushing yards) is a Villanova recruit. Senior WR/DB Kiy Hester has offers from Michigan State, Ohio State, and Nebraska. Sophomore RB Kareem Walker (101 carries, 1,064 yards, 11 TDs) has a Penn State offer. Senior DE Justin Nelson (eight sacks) is a Rutgers recruit.

How Holy Spirit can win: The Spartans play defense and run the football, and that's a formula for success. The defense is led by tackle Ray Ellis, who has offers from Villanova, Delaware, and Bowling Green, among others, as well as linebacker Jeff Steeb, a Villanova recruit. Franco Rifici and A.J. Dawson are top defensive backs. Holy Spirit quarterback T.J. Anderson directs a triple-option attack that features speedy halfback Taalib Gerald (17 TDs).

Fast fact: Since 2010, Holy Spirit is 10-0 in state-tournament games and has outscored opponents by 398-72.

- Phil Anastasia