“This is a game you live for”

Posted: September 29, 2011

This time next year, Kaiwan Lewis hopes to be suiting up for the University of South Carolina in Southeastern Conference clashes before 70,000-plus spectators and national television audiences.

First, he has to play the game of his life on a little field nestled in a residential neighborhood.

Like many players who will participate in Saturday's showdown between Holy Spirit, the No. 1 team in The Inquirer Top 10, and No. 2 St. Joseph, Lewis will soon move on to bigger things.

Better things as well?

They can only hope.

"This is a game you live for," said Lewis, a defensive end and tight end for St. Joseph, which will host Holy Spirit at its tiny football complex with the small bleachers and little sideline areas and limited parking in the heart of Hammonton.

It's like a youth-league field - and that's no criticism. That's part of the charm of the Game of the Year in South Jersey.

This will be high school sports at its grass roots. Two great teams and all those fans squeezed into a cozy corner where the old-timers set up their lawn chairs behind the end zones and most of the crowd lines up three- and four-deep behind ropes that surround the field.

The playing surface is terrific. The grass is thick and lush, a field of dreams for generations of St. Joseph football players.

"It's got to be one of the nicest turf fields I've ever seen in South Jersey," said St. Joseph athletic director Bill Hiltner, the long-time former AD at Sterling.

But the complex is like something out of small-town America, circa 1955. It's a scene on autumn Saturdays that NFL Films should capture and preserve in that big, air-conditioned vault at its headquarters in Mount Laurel.

"It's going to be electric," Lewis said of the atmosphere.

These teams are real rivals. They have been battling in Cape-Atlantic League play for years. The programs have been competing to attract many of the same eighth graders for years.

"I guess you could say we don't like each other," Lewis said. "It's always that way when two Catholic schools get together."

Holy Spirit offensive lineman Nico D'Angelo, who has committed to Villanova, said the teams are such fierce rivals because they are so similar.

"They're just like us," D'Angelo said. "They've got a bunch of tough guys, and we've got a bunch of tough guys. We both like to hit you in the mouth."

Some might see irony in the quaint site of this showdown. These aren't town teams filled with kids who grew up together. This isn't a Group 1 game.

These are powerful private-school programs that recruit to survive. These are state powers with athletes from across South Jersey - some of whom are attending St. Joseph or Holy Spirit primarily to play football.

But the site underscores that this still is high school football. The schools are 30 miles apart. They are in the same conference. Many of the players were in the same youth league, sometimes on the same youth team.

They're bigger and stronger now, but they still are high school kids. And they might never get to experience anything as cool as a clash between No. 1 and No. 2 on a cool, clear afternoon in a cramped little complex on the first day of October.

That's true for Lewis, who is projected as a middle linebacker at South Carolina.

And for D'Angelo, who will play offensive line at Villanova.

And for St. Joseph defensive end Max Valles, who might be rushing the passer for the University of Virginia this time next year.

There are lots of future college players on both rosters. That's why these teams are so good. That's why both teams are defending state champions and heavy favorites to win another state title at the end of this season.

Some of them will play before huge crowds in college. They'll run out of those tunnels. They'll play at the highest level.

And if they are really lucky, they'll get to experience something as good as the time they were part of the biggest game of their lives on the littlest field around.


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

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