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South Jersey football rivalries, playoffs clash

As far as A.J. Russo is concerned, his Holy Spirit High School football team has two monumental games left on the schedule, not one.

As far as A.J. Russo is concerned, his Holy Spirit High School football team has two monumental games left on the schedule, not one.

"We're approaching this like we have two state championship games this year - one next weekend and one Thursday," said Russo, the Spartans' second-year coach.

Holy Spirit (8-2) has advanced to face Mater Dei (11-0) in the Non-Public 2 state final Dec. 3 at 1 p.m. at Kean University.

But first, the Spartans host longtime rival Atlantic City (4-5) in the annual Thanksgiving Day game.

Russo is in the majority of South Jersey football coaches whose teams have advanced to championship weekend Dec. 3-4 but also have to play traditional Thanksgiving games.

But it's not unanimous.

Millville coach Dennis Thomas said he was leaning toward resting many of his regulars in the oldest Thanksgiving Day rivalry in South Jersey, the 145th meeting between the Thunderbolts and Vineland.

Millville (9-1) has advanced to face defending champion Toms River North (11-0) in the South Jersey Group 5 title game Dec. 3 at 6 p.m. Rowan University.

The Thunderbolts visit Vineland (7-2) on Thursday morning in a renewal of a series that began in 1893.

"That game is too important," Thomas said of the sectional title game.

Paulsboro coach Glenn Howard said it's a "tricky" situation for coaches in his shoes.

The Red Raiders' game Friday night with rival West Deptford is unique in that both teams have sectional championship games the weekend of Dec. 3-4.

West Deptford (10-0) will play Cedar Creek (10-1) in a rematch of last year's South Jersey Group 2 title game Dec. 4 at 11 a.m. at Rowan.

Paulsboro (9-1) will face Salem (8-2) in the South Jersey Group 1 title game Dec. 3 at 2:30 p.m. at Rowan.

"They're undefeated and we're 9-1 (with nine games in a row)," Howard said. "So you worry about losing a game and losing momentum. It's a tricky thing."

This season will mark the sixth time since 2002 that Paulsboro and West Deptford have met on Thanksgiving weekend when both teams had championship games the following weekend.

"We're used to this," West Deptford coach Clyde Folsom said. "But it is a tough situation."

Lenape (10-0) has advanced to face Timber Creek (10-0) in the South Jersey Group 4 title game Dec. 4 at 2:30 p.m. at Rowan.

But first, the Indians must travel to Medford to face school district rival Shawnee (8-2) in the Thanksgiving game.

McAneney said his players would mutiny if he proposed "throttling down" against Shawnee.

"Our kids love to play football," McAneney said.

In 2014, Shawnee was 10-0 and lost by a 10-7 score to a Lenape team that had dropped its playoff opener the previous weekend. The Renegades regrouped and won the South Jersey Group 4 title the next weekend.

Timber Creek will visit Winslow Twp. (2-7) in a new Thanksgiving rivalry this year.

Coach Rob Hinson has indicated his team will play to win, especially with a perfect record on the line and with athletes such as junior quarterback Devin Leary and senior wide receiver Ezrah Archie in pursuit of South Jersey marks for passing touchdowns and receiving touchdowns, respectively.

"Done it the last five," Hinson said of playing to win on Thanksgiving with a sectional championship game looming the following weekend.

Howard said New Jersey's unique playoff system/Thanksgiving tradition is "crazy" in that it puts teams in the odd position of taking a break from their championship run to meet a rival in a game that holds a lot of meaning in many towns.

Here are some other thoughts from coaches who are dealing with the complicated task of preparing a team for a rivalry game with the knowledge that the biggest game of the season is the following weekend:

Holy Spirit's Russo: "Our entire coaching staff went to Holy Spirit. We know the meaning of Holy Spirit-Atlantic City. We know how much this game means to so many different people.

"We're going to go out 100 percent to win this game. There's no way we would take any other approach."

Millville's Thomas: "I understand the tradition. But Vineland is a good team, very physical and I just don't want to take the chance of losing a player. The (sectional) championship game, that just means too much to us."

Paulsboro's Howard: "The last thing you want to do is lose a player or a couple of players that would cost you the championship game. That would be really sad. It's almost like you're playing Russian Roulette. But we play to win at Paulsboro. Every time we step on the field, we're trying to win that game.

"Our starters can expect to play the whole game. The good thing is that it's a level playing field. Salem (the Red Raiders' opponent on Dec. 3) has a Thanksgiving game too (vs. Woodstown)."

West Deptford's Clyde Folsom: "We play to win. There's no other way to approach it for us. It's football. You don't get to play that many games. If there's a game on our schedule, we're going to play it and play it to win.

"You just hope not to get anybody hurt but that's the case with any game you play anywhere on the schedule."

Lenape's McAneney: "When you're a championship-caliber football team you have championship-caliber football players, and they want to play football.

"If I told my guys not to play, they'd go to a field in Mt. Laurel somewhere and play. The great thing for us is that we're playing Shawnee, one of the perennial powers in South Jersey football, and these kids all know each other. These kids want to win this game."