PISCATAWAY, N.J. - Joe Sarnese knew one thing for sure about the Non-Public 3 state championship game.

He wasn't certain that Holy Spirit would win, although he had faith in the Spartans.

He wasn't positive that Holy Spirit would be able to shut down St. Joseph of Montvale's rushing attack, although he had confidence in the Spartans' self-styled "Doom Squad."

But Sarnese knew this: The last game of his scholastic career would be at night.

"Every playoff game has been at night," Sarnese said after Holy Spirit's dramatic 14-13 victory Friday night in Rutgers Stadium. "I knew this game would be at night. It had to be. One star in the sky."

Holy Spirit senior linebacker Steve Hartley, one of Sarnese's oldest and closest friends, said the same thing: "One star in the sky."

That was the Spartans' theme through the playoffs, through the last month, through the emotional turmoil that followed the Nov. 7 death of Sarnese's father, also named Joe.

Sarnese discovered the body of his father, who died of an apparent heart attack at age 53. The elder Joe Sarnese was a huge supporter of Holy Spirit football, and a former youth coach of many of the athletes with the Ventnor Pirates of the Atlantic County Junior Football League.

"That first week was so traumatic," Holy Spirit coach Chalie Roman said. "He [the elder Joe Sarnese] was such a big part of our program."

What happened with this team and its best player over the last month was storybook stuff, except it was stranger and sadder and sweeter than fiction.

The younger Sarnese, a 6-foot-1, 197-pound athlete who has committed to Villanova, played the best football of his career during the worst time of his life.

He rescued Holy Spirit with two late touchdowns in a Nov. 19 state semifinal victory over Pope John XXIII. He capped it all with a remarkable performance Friday night, setting up Holy Spirit's first touchdown with a great catch, and scoring the second touchdown on an 81-yard return of the second-half kickoff.

"He's the best football player in South Jersey," Roman said. "Anybody that doesn't know that hasn't seen him play."

Hartley, who made 12 tackles, including two sacks, was near tears in describing the emotional impact of the victory on the Spartans, and especially on Sarnese.

"I've basically known Joe since I was born," Hartley said. "It's hard to put into words what this has been like, what this means to him."

On a cold December night, Sarnese stood on Rutgers' field after his team finished a 12-0 season with a victory over one of the state's most famous programs. He looked up, past the bright stadium lights.

The NJSIAA could have scheduled this game during the day. That has been the case in the past.

But Sarnese said he knew that wouldn't happen this year. He knew he would be playing his last game at night.

"My dad wanted me to do two things: Keep playing football and win a state championship," Sarnese said. "This is what he wanted to see. He had the best seat in the house."

Contact staff writer Phil Anastasia at 856-779-3223 or panastasia@phillynews.com.