Behind closed doors with the St. Joseph football team
The Wildcats and legendary coach Paul Sacco emerged from a long week of practice and preparation with a signature victory over rival Holy Spirit.
Paul Sacco turned the key in the front door of the empty church at 10:44 last Friday night.
The vestibule was cool and dark. Further inside, there were flickers of light from small candles in glass cups in alcoves along both sides of the nave of the beige brick building on Third Street in Hammonton.
Sore, stiff and smiling following a 47-minute bus ride after one of the most physically imposing and emotionally satisfying victories in the recent history of St. Joseph High School football, players and coaches made their way into pews for a ritual that is nearly as much a part of the program as weight-training sessions and repetitive drills at practice.
The Wildcats' private time in St. Joseph's Church lasted less than five minutes, although several of the players as well as Sacco — the 61-year-old head coach is South Jersey's all-time leader with 307 career victories in his 36th season — crossed the street to touch a statue of the Blessed Mother for the second time in the last six hours.
"One time, I locked a kid in here," Sacco said when the players and coaches were out of the church.
The coach was tired, pleased, and about as relaxed as he gets during football season. His team had dominated arch-rival Holy Spirit in the second half, erasing deficits of 13-0 and 26-14 and emerging with a 42-26 road victory in a clash of teams ranked in the Top 10 in South Jersey.
It was a vintage St. Joseph victory: the product of strength, will, conditioning, relentless play along the line of scrimmage, and crisp execution of the team's wing-T offense.
It was an imposing performance that seemed to answer questions about the state of South Jersey's most decorated program that arose after a rare off season in 2016.
And it was a game that followed, with uncanny accuracy, the script that Sacco and his assistants envisioned during a long week of practice and preparation, of film study and the forever fretting of a coach so consumed with his calling that he refused to spend an offseason week in Aruba in celebration of his 25th wedding anniversary.
"No way he was going to miss more than one day in the weight room," Peggy Sacco said of her husband.
Practice, practice, practice
"Run it again."
To watch St. Joseph practice all week is to see the Wildcats do the same thing over and over and over again.
That's by design. Sacco has been running the same offense — and calling the same plays — for 36 seasons.
The plays senior Qwahsin Townsel executed against Holy Spirit are the same ones that Charles Sacco — the coach's younger brother — ran during Paul Sacco's first season as coach in 1982.
Sacco's teams don't fool anybody. That's not the coach's style. His top assistant, Rick Mauriello, has been with the program for 25 years — four as a player, 21 as a coach — and is still waiting for a trick play.
"Twenty-five years, and I haven't seen a fake punt," Mauriello said. "Can I get one fake punt?"
The St. Joseph offense features quick-hitting dive plays — "belly" in the Wildcats' nomenclature — with counters, off-tackle runs and sweeps. About five times a game, they'll throw a pass.
For Sacco, it's all about timing between the quarterback and running backs, and it's all about blocking. The running backs are instructed far more in their blocking assignments on each play than in their task when the football is in their hands.
On offense, the Wildcats work again and again on their pre-snap shifting and on their precision. On defense, it's all about alignment, who goes where and what each player's assignment is, when Holy Spirit stacks three receivers on one side of the field or lines up this way or that.
There's no tackling in practice. The Wildcats will "thud" on some plays, but most of it is non-contact drills again and again.
"One more time," Sacco or Mauriello will yell, and the team will run the same play or adjust to the same defensive alignment.
"Last one," Sacco or Mauriello will yell, but the players know bettter. There's always another one.
"How come we have like five 'last ones'? " one player wondered last Tuesday.
"No. Ninety," another said.
During practice on Wednesday, Sacco told the defense that the next play was the "last one," but the defensive players stayed on the field, working on the same alignment, through five more plays.
"He does it every day," Townsel said with a smile. "Every day."
Watch it again
Sacco knelt on the floor in front of a white board in the Wildcats' film room at 8:15 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 10.
The Wildcats' 40-0 victory over Mainland on opening day was less than 18 hours old. It was time for Sacco and his assistants — Mauriello, Bill Roberts, Rob Neuber, Mike Luko and John Wehner — to break down the video of the last game and, more importantly, turn their full attention to the next one.
"Every time we go down there, we get in trouble in the first five or six minutes," Mauriello said of past road trips to Holy Spirit. "If we can get out of the first five or six minutes 0-0, we'll win the ball game."
Sacco spent Saturday night watching video of Holy Spirit's scrimmages as well as St. Joseph's game against Holy Spirit from last year. That game ended badly for St. Joseph, with the Wildcats losing two fumbles down the stretch and dropping a decision when the visiting Spartans kicked a field goal in overtime.
"Eight, 10," Sacco estimated of how many times he had viewed the game since he went home that Sept. 17 night.
The number kept growing during the week, too, as Sacco kept sliding the silver disc into the DVD players at his home in Hammonton and in the side room at the school's athletic complex with the framed newspaper clippings of past championship seasons adorning the walls.
"We know how it ends. Let's hit the field," Sacco told the players Thursday after making them watch it with him before practice.
But back on Sunday morning, Sacco was more concerned with the Holy Spirit offensive formations. He drew about eight alignments — "Roger Trips RT Pistol" and "Quads RT Stack" and "Lehigh Pro RT 200" among them — and knelt to write on the bottom of the whiteboard.
The first video they watched was Holy Spirit's Aug. 25 scrimmage against West Deptford.
"We got to spy him," Mauriello said after watching Holy Spirit quarterback Josh Zamot break loose for another big gain.
"Can we keep up with him?" Sacco wondered. "If I could bring back Kaiwan, I would."
Former St. Joseph star linebacker Kaiwan Lewis, who played at South Carolina and Rutgers, would be around this week. But he's an assistant coach now.
Neuber said the Wildcats would be fine with their former star on the sideline in khakis and a T-shirt.
"Our Jimmies are better than their Joes," Neuber said.
Mauriello and Sacco were more concerned. They kept watching Zamot, who had transferred to Holy Spirit this season after three years at St. Augustine, make play after play on the screen.
When they popped in video of Holy Spirit's 50-0 win over Middle Township two nights earlier, Zamot quickly made another: pump-faking a bubble screen and tossing a touchdown pass to Daniel Tarsitano well behind the Panthers' secondary.
"That's a bad-ass play," Mauriello said between sips of Red Bull. "That play gives me nightmares."
On the screen, Holy Spirit kept it simple in the season opener.
"He's in two formations because he knows he's playing us next week," Mauriello said of Holy Spirit offensive coordinator Charlie Roman.
Next up was video of Holy Spirit's scrimmage against Vineland.
"Our [defensive] ends can't get too deep," Sacco said of containing Zamot. "They can't go past the quarterback."
"We're going to spy him," Mauriello said. "Angelo [Vokolos, the team's freshman linebacker] is going to spy him."
The last video the coaches watched was St. Joseph's win over Mainland on the previous day.
"We can't be making these mistakes this week," Sacco said while viewing his team's 40-point win.
The video review broke up around 12:30 p.m. But the day was far from over.
All the coaches were back by 4 p.m., when the players arrived and went through a light workout, a walk-through with heavy emphasis on conditioning and alignment. Over and over, the coaches put the defensive players in proper positions against a scout team that was showing Holy Spirit's formations.
"Don't get drawn in," Mauriello told the defensive backs in instructions that would haunt the coach when Holy Spirit would score the first touchdown of the game.
The players were excused a little before 7 p.m. but there was time for Sacco and Mauriello to review video of Holy Spirit scrimmages. At a little after 8 p.m., 12 hours after the Sunday session began, Sacco turned out the lights of the school's athletic complex, locked the door, and drove home in his blue Ford Escape.
Sacco became St. Joseph's head coach in 1982 when he was 25. In his first 34 seasons, the Wildcats won 25 championships — seven sectional crowns from 1983-92 and 18 state titles since the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association began holding those tournaments for non-public teams in 1993.
Under the demanding, detail-oriented coach, St. Joseph quickly became renown for its off-season weight training, execution and success. They drew athletes from far and wide, and they usually made them into better football players over their careers.
The Wildcats were a machine: In 11 seasons from 1996 to 2006, they went 112-9. From 2010-15, they went 62-5.
From 2009-15, St. Joseph won seven state titles in a row. The Wildcats won every one of those championship games by at least two touchdowns and usually prevailed by margins such as 40-0, 55-0 and 51-0.
They were darlings of their alumni and fan base, but they also were a team that confounded others in South Jersey football. They were tough to categorize. They were a powerhouse team representing a tiny private institution, with enrollment this school year of around 215 students in grades 10-12.
That makes St. Joseph the second-smallest high school in South Jersey with a football program, ahead of only Wildwood. But the football program is an out-sized presence in the school, and the Wildcats have regularly dominated teams from public schools with 10 times the number of students.
That creates scheduling issues. For years, the Cape-Atlantic League wrestled with arranging opponents for St. Joseph because many public schools were reluctant to play the Wildcats, citing St. Joe's advantages as a non-public school that can attract students from anywhere.
In 2013, the West Jersey Football League voted down a proposal to merge with the Cape-Atlantic in large part, according to then-Willingboro coach Reggie Lawrence, "because St. Joe's Hammonton is the elephant in the room."
The WJFL agreed before the 2016 season to merge with both the Cape-Atlantic and the Colonial Conference, but scheduling games for powerful non-public programs such as St. Joseph, Holy Spirit, St. Augustine Prep and Camden Catholic remains a nettlesome issue for league officials.
And things changed a bit for St. Joseph in 2016. The Wildcats went 7-4, losing that many times for just the second time since 1994. They lost to division rival Cedar Creek. They lost to Holy Spirit. They were beaten, 42-0, by St. Augustine, with Zamot leading the way for the Hermits.
And they lost to eventual champion Mater Dei, 26-0, in the state semifinals, a game perceived by some as a changing of the guard with the Seraphs replacing the Wildcats as the dominant small-school, non-public program in the state.
The week rolls on
Monday was a half-day of school, so at 2 p.m. Sacco was sitting in one of those metal-and-plastic, chair-desk combinations in the middle of the Wildcats' film room with his team around him. They were watching video of the 40-0 win over Mainland.
"Good hustle, Angelo," Sacco said to his star freshman.
"Good job, 'Q', " Sacco said after Townsel made a strong defensive play.
But the coach is never satisfied. There's always room for improvement.
"Guys, we can't make these mistakes against Holy Spirit," Sacco said. "It's not a switch you turn on and off."
On the screen, two Wildcats collided on a punt return. The players tried to stifle their giggles with little success.
"Guys, I've been doing this 36 years, and I never seen that once," Sacco said.
The week rolls on. The players lift weights before practice every other day. They watch video every day before or after taking the field.
Practice sessions are focused on offensive execution and defensive alignment.
The players also are told to study their scouting report, an exhaustive 15-page document with diagrams of every Holy Spirit offensive formation, plus a rundown of all the Spartans players with their names, heights, weights, grades, and synopses of their ability as a player.
Of Zamot: "QB Josh Zamot 6-1 190 12. They go how he goes. He runs hard and throws well. He will get his. But we need to play smart and not give up big plays."
Of sophomore running back Elijah Gray: "Elijah Gray 5-6 159 10. Small but fast. He runs hard but won't run you over. Runs well north and south and also jump cuts well. Hit him."
Of Holy Spirit's defense: "The front 5 is very active. The DTs will pinch every play. Both DEs fire hard inside every play. THEY WILL FIRE AN EXTRA MAN OFF THE EDGE ALMOST EVERY PLAY!"
The scouting report is filled with inspirational words from Sacco: "We can't get this Friday back after it's over. So play your hearts out on every play. ONE HEARTBEAT."
At practice, in the meeting room, in gatherings after workouts, Sacco and Mauriello maintain a near-constant banter. It's the soundtrack of St. Joseph football, the back-and-forth between the head coach and his top assistant. It's their release valve: Chiding each other.
Sacco spent 35 years as a St. Joseph teacher, focusing on health and physical education. This year, he joined the school administration, working in the advancement office.
"Yeah, you got to wear pants for the first time in your career," Mauriello told him. "You're the state's highest-paid lunch aide."
On Wednesday at practice, Mauriello was working with linemen, and Sacco worked with backs and receivers.
"Coach, how much time" left in the drill? Mauriello yelled to Sacco.
"Nine, 10 minutes," Sacco yelled back.
"That means 25," Mauriello said to the linemen.
"They should get a sitcom," Neuber said of Sacco and Mauriello. "Everybody would watch it."
Wednesday's practice was sloppy, at least at the start. The offense jumped offsides twice in an early drill. Then junior quarterback Mitchell Donovan and junior running back Nate Johnson botched an exchange. Then somebody jumped offside again.
"On the goal line." Sacco ordered. "Bear crawl 10 yards and back."
Things settled down, but the coaches and players were anxious. It was 50 hours to kickoff.
"I wish it was Friday," Sacco said after practice. "I'm getting antsy."
He went home, ate dinner, walked his dog Zeus, a German Shepherd, and took a dip in the pool in his backyard.
But at 9:30 p.m., he was back at the athletic complex, alone in the film room, watching video of last year's game against Holy Spirit.
A changed man
Peggy Sacco said her husband has gained perspective since the night she prayed for him to die. He values each day a little more, she said, and has noticed the beauty of a sunset.
She traces that subtle change in his outlook to November 2010, when Paul Sacco was experiencing headaches that kept getting worse. He was in school on a Wednesday afternoon when he agreed to visit the doctor. In no time, he was being loaded into a helicopter and air-lifted to Atlantic City Medical Center
More tests revealed significant bleeding on his brain. He would need a life-threatening procedure.
"The doctor told me he had a 3 percent chance of surviving the surgery," Peggy Sacco said. "He said it was less than 3 percent that he would ever be the same. He might not be able to walk. He might be a vegetable.
"I knew he couldn't live like that. I prayed that night for the Lord to take him."
Sacco didn't just survive the mid-November surgery. He missed the team's 50-7 win over St. Anthony in the state playoffs, but he was back on the field on Thanksgiving Day for a 20-8 victory over cross-town rival Hammonton.
"I didn't tell him in the hospital how bad it was," Peggy Sacco said. "He's such a doom-and-gloom guy. But after he coached on Thanksgiving, I was so mad I sat him down and said, 'Do you know how close you came to dying?' "
When Paul Sacco recounts the story of his near-death experience, he talks about complaining to the doctors that he was missing too much time with his team. And he said he was convinced when he heard about taking a helicopter to Atlantic City that he was the victim of another one of Mauriello's practical jokes.
"I was like, 'Ricky,' " Sacco said.
Sacco's focus on his football program is all-encompassing. It's not his job. It's his life. His father, Paul Sacco Sr.,said his son is a "spitting image" of his grandfather in frame and philosophy.
"Same height, 5-foot-1. Same build. Same appetite. Same thing: work, work, work," Paul Sacco Sr. said.
Peggy Sacco said her husband has changed a little since that scare, although he still won't take an extended vacation. Three days in Myrtle Beach, S.C., are about his limit.
"We can go, but we have to leave Thursday, and we usually come back Saturday night so that way he will only miss one day [Friday] in the weight room," Peggy Sacco said.
Last year, the couple was married 25 years. Peggy Sacco had been to Aruba before she started dating Paul. She loved it and wanted her husband to see it, so she bought a week-long vacation for two as an anniversary gift.
"I got the [travel] insurance," Peggy Sacco said. "I know to get the insurance. He wouldn't go."
Still, Peggy Sacco and Mauriello said the coach has mellowed a bit since the surgery.
"I tell him, 'You're not supposed to be here,' " Mauriello said.
Paul Sacco is not prone to talk about the lessons of November 2010. But he allows that the experience taught him that "maybe I'm here for a reason."
Peggy Sacco gives her husband a hand-written note before every game, commending him for his hard work during the week and expressing confidence that his players will not let him down. She's done it for every game for more than 30 years, since they started dating.
She knows most people think of her husband as the legendary coach with the 307-62-5 record. She's a football wife, through and through, so she gets that.
But she also is the person who talked to his doctor after the surgery.
"His doctor told me, 'If anybody ever says to you that there are no miracles, tell them to contact me,' " Peggy Sacco said. "He said, 'Tell them to ask me about Paul Sacco, and I'll tell them about a miracle.' "
At 2:15 p.m. on Friday, the team members attended Mass in the chapel in the school. At 3 p.m., they ate a meal of pasta and tomato gravy in the gymnasium, then walked across the parking lot to the school's athletic complex on Peach Street.
St. Joseph is a tiny school with limited facilities, but the athletic complex is impressive in its size although spartan in its design. It's a former auto-repair garage with a massive main room with garage doors at each end.
Sacco has a small office off the central room, which is filled with weight-lifting equipment. There is a locker room in the back and a film room off to the side with windows that overlook the practice field.
Sacco gathered the players in that room at around 4 p.m., reminding the seniors, "This is the last time you'll go to Absecon [where Holy Spirit is located]. Next time we go there, you'll be sophomores in college."
The coach wanted the players to watch one more video, but this one wasn't of Holy Spirit or St. Joseph. It was the music video of country star Kenny Chesney's "Boys of Fall," an anthem to the enduring allure of high school football.
More than a few players sang along with the chorus: "You mess with one man, you've got us all | the boys of fall."
At 4:19, the players boarded the bus. They made a stop on the way to Absecon, pulling in the parking lot of St. Joseph's Church.
Sacco, who might be the only football coach in the state with his own key to a church, led the team into the building. He walked down the left aisle and knelt at the marble rail in front of the altar.
"He doesn't pray to win," Peggy Sacco said. "He prays for God to let him use his talents and for everybody to stay healthy."
Before re-boarding the bus, Sacco and many of the players crossed Third Street, stopping traffic, to touch the statue of the Blessed Mother.
Two yellow buses filled with players and coaches rode through the center of Hammonton and turned onto the Atlantic City Expressway. It's about 40 minutes of near silence until the buses pulled up to the back of Holy Spirit High School on Route 9.
The locker room at Holy Spirit is small, so the freshmen in uniform had to sit outside. Mauriello told the players, "Guys, this is one of the most St. Joe-ready games I've seen in a long time. Man, we're ready to rock. Believe me when I tell you. There ain't no doubt."
A huge crowd filled most of the bleachers on both sides of Ed Byrnes Stadium, eager to see the No. 7 Spartans play the No. 8 Wildcats in a renewal of an old and fierce rivalry. The 50/50 drawing at halftime went for $1,015.
Before the coin toss, Sacco led the St. Joseph captains across the field for handshakes and hugs with Holy Spirit assistant coach Bill Walsh, the former Spartans head coach who is battling ALS.
It was everything the St. Joseph players and coaches feared and everything they hoped, both in the same game.
All week, they worried about a slow start, about early mistakes, about falling in a hole.
All week, they believed that they were bigger and stronger, that they could control the line of scrimmage, that they would gradually take control.
The first quarter was a disaster. A roughing-the-passer penalty on third down kept Holy Spirit's first drive alive, and Zamot made the very play that terrified the St. Joe coaches all week. Faking a run, he stepped back and lofted a 17-yard touchdown pass to Ahmad Brown for a 7-0 lead.
It got worse for St. Joseph. A botched handoff killed a promising drive. Then a low punt snap set up Holy Spirit at the Wildcats' 45.
On the next play, Zamot fired a perfect pass between two St. Joseph defenders to Alvaro Lora for a 13-0 lead.
Sacco gathered the players in a huddle and urged them to "settle down."
St. Joseph finally got on the board after defensive end Sencere Tapp sacked Zamot and forced a fumble that fellow end Brad Lomax recovered on the Spartans' 23. Three plays later, Townsel followed center Tucker Monico's block and raced eight yards into the end zone. The 6-foot-1, 205-pound Townsel also ran for the two-point conversion, cutting Holy Spirit's lead to 13-8 with 6 minutes, 41 seconds remaining in the first half.
Things were heating up. The second quarter was a little like Hearns vs. Hagler or maybe Arturo Gatti vs. "Irish" Mickey Ward III in Convention Hall across the bay in Atlantic City. It was haymaker after haymaker, two teams standing at midfield and waling away.
Holy Spirit senior Lee Dawson returned the ensuing kickoff 77 yards, and Elijah Gray scored on a 2-yard run. Holy Spirit, 19-8.
Townsel capped a three-play drive with a 38-yard touchdown run to make it 19-14.
Gray made a sensational cut in the secondary and went 57 yards for a touchdown on the next play from scrimmage. Holy Spirit, 26-14.
St. Joseph sophomore Jada Byers took the ensuing kickoff 62 yards for a touchdown. Then Donovan made his best pass of the night, pump-faking a defender in the air and tossing the 2-point conversion to Johnson to make it 26-22.
Recap: Five touchdowns, 35 points, in 2:41.
"I can't figure this game out," said Paul Sacco Sr., who walks the sidelines of his son's games and takes photographs. "These coaches, they think they have it all figured out, and then the game starts and it just goes crazy."
Coming down the stands from his perch atop the press box, St. Joseph assistant Bill Roberts ran into Roman, another former Holy Spirit head coach who had spent the previous five seasons helping turn St. Augustine into a powerhouse program.
"He told me, 'If you guys stop running 'belly,' we'll stop passing,' " Roberts said.
No way the Wildcats were going to stop running "belly," their power play with Townsel smashing into the line behind the blocks of tackles Wisdom Quarshie (6-3, 295) and Dashan Birch (5-9, 290), guards Lomax (6-2, 230) and Bobby Hyndman (6-0, 195), center Monico (6-3, 255), and tight end Anthony Pinto (5-11, 185).
At times, the Wildcats went to their "gold package," bringing defensive tackle Sean Morris (6-3, 275) in as an extra tight end.
Townsel scored two touchdowns in the first half, but he was unsettled at the break. He was the last player out of the locker room, sitting alone on a bench after his teammates began the long walk back to the field.
Townsel, who lives in Pleasantville, began his career at Holy Spirit, transferring to St. Joseph as a sophomore. And in 2016, his late fumble was a factor in the overtime loss to his old team.
"I just needed to pray," Townsel said. "This game meant so much to me. I kept thinking about last year. I've been thinking about that game since it ended last year."
Townsel didn't fumble this year. Nobody did. The Wildcats dominated the second half, consuming 6:45 on the opening drive and taking a 28-26 lead on Johnson's 4-yard burst around right end.
Morris and Quarshie controlled the interior of the defensive line, Tapp wreaked havoc around left end, and the offensive line and Townsel kept pounding away, like Gatti working the body.
It was classic St. Joseph football, all power and precision and physicality. Townsel scored two more touchdowns in the second half as the Wildcats tightened their grip, outscoring Holy Spirit, 20-0, and emerging with an emphatic victory.
"Let's go!" Byers screamed at the final gun, before the players gathered in a churning mosh pit of a celebration at midfield, chanting, "Ohh, ahh, St. Joe Wildcats."
The bus ride home was quiet. Some players listened to music on their headphones, but most of them just sat back, sore but satisfied.
Mauriello's eight-year-old twins, Mia and Luca, came along. Mia fell asleep, sitting between her dad and Roberts. Luca fell asleep, too, leaning on Sacco across the aisle.
Mauriello checked his phone for scores on his Twitter feed, telling Sacco that Delsea had beaten Cedar Creek, 28-20, and St. Augustine had walloped Williamstown, 45-7.
"That one surprises me," Sacco said.
After the stop at church, the bus pulled up to the school parking lot. It was 10:57 p.m.
Sacco addressed the players before leaving the bus, telling them they were off Saturday but to be ready to return to practice Sunday to begin preparations for a game the next Friday at Absegami.
Twenty minutes later, most of the coaching staff slid into a booth at the Silver Coin diner in Hammonton.
Sacco sipped a Pepsi as his assistants recounted the week, and the game, lamenting the Wildcats' lapses, especially on special teams, and lauding the work of the big men along the front lines as well as Townsel's hard running.
It was nearly 1 a.m. by the time the group broke up. Sacco stood outside as traffic whizzed past on the White Horse Pike.
"I think I've had enough football for this week," Sacco said. "But I don't know. I might go home and watch an Absegami tape."