Sparta and Pope John High Schools are only separated by 3.5 miles, but for the fans of either school, they are worlds apart.
The rivalry, which spans about five decades, continued on Tuesday night with Pope John winning the season's first encounter against Sparta in front of a capacity crowd.
"This is not only an inter-conference team, but it is the only parochial conference team in our division," Sparta basketball coach Brian Brennen. "There is a public-parochial debate in New Jersey and it gives you a chance to through your weight against a parochial program. And they are good team. That is what excites the Sparta kids when they play Pope John. We are generally one and two in the conference and it always has bearing on who is going to win the conference."
Pope John basketball coach Jason Hasson was concerned how his team would handle the intensity of the crowd.
"We have a lot of young guys who have never played in this game and it will make it a little more difficult because they haven't had the experience and might not know how to react to it initially," Hasson said. "But we played in some major events against some high level teams so I think that will get us ready tonight."
"It is a very good, healthy rivalry," said Rev. Kieran McHugh, Pope John president. "It has been this way for 50 years. Everybody has worked very hard to make sure that rivalry is healthy and safe and very good spirited so you have to be part of it."
All dressed in black T-shirts, Pope John fans shouted, "we hate Sparta."
"I've been in Sparta for 25 years and I have been close to the athletic program here, and both Sparta and Pope John have excellent athletic programs, good athletes and they are well coached," Sparta superintendent of schools Dennis Tobin said. "Every time they get together it is a good game. It doesn't matter what the records are, the players rise to the occasion. It has been a very healthy athletic rivalry that I think will continue for a very long time."
"This is a rivalry that has been in this town forever," Sparta wrestler Ryan May said. "It is insane, I love it. Pope John hates Sparta, Sparta hates Pope John—as simple as that."
Pope John basketball player Ryan Izzo said, "this rivalry is crazy. It has always been Sparta-Pope John. Whenever somebody hears about that game, everyone wants to come. Off the court we are all friends, on the court we are enemies."
Being part of his first Sparta-Pope John game, Moustapha Diagne said of the rivalry and the excitement, "It was good, and it was good to win."
"It has always been crazy," said Pope John alum and former basketball player Michael Leopardi. "This game means so much to our town."
"Coming in as a freshman, you don't really know anything about Sparta because most kids at Pope John don't live in the Sparta area, especially if you are on one of the sports teams," said Malachi Moore, Pope John basketball alum and defensive end at Boston College. "When I played Sparta in football the first time and I don't know what it is. It is always fun, but at the same time you want to prove who's town this is. This is always the game of the year. No matter where you play or how far you get, it is always Sparta-Pope John."