DANVERS, Mass. – According to St. John’s Prep’s players, their season just began on Saturday in the eighth game of the 2010 season.
“Coach said we have the longest preseason in high school football,” Eagles running back Tyler Coppola said.
The Prep had played to a 4-3 record, entering their Catholic Conference opener with Catholic Memorial. But after registering a 42-29 win over the Knights, with a frenetic fourth quarter when 48 points were scored, the Eagles felt their new season was off to a good start.
It was an emotional Senior Day in Danvers from beginning to end, as the Prep’s fourth-year players had their final game on home turf. Brandon and Jared Coppola, who both had their Eagles gridiron careers cut short by spinal column injuries, joined their brother, Tyler, for on-field introductions and provided an uplifting moment. The Eagles have also been dealing with the loss of assistant coach David McHenry’s wife, Terry, who died last week and was a longtime head of the boosters at the Prep.
Emotions aside, there was a still a game to be played — an important one at that — and the Eagles responded.
“When we first got out there, we were definitely ready to go,” senior offensive guard Nate Cyr said. “But with the introductions with our parents and everything, it was a little emotional. It was a little hard to get ready to go out there and hit some people. But we got it done.”
Catholic Memorial (5-2, 1-1) was the first to strike in the first quarter on the first of three field goals by Tom Byrne.
St. John’s Prep took its first lead of the game with 4:40 remaining in the first half on Dillon Gonzalez’s 8-yard touchdown run. The score came on an end around that the Eagles ran to perfection on two occasions with Gonzalez running for 62 yards early.
“It’s something new that we put in this week,” Gonzalez said. “We know teams are looking for Tyler [Coppola], so we were trying to mix things up a little bit.”
After taking a 7-6 lead to the locker room, Coppola got things going in earnest during the second half. The senior back finished with 25 carries for 246 yards and two touchdowns, both of which came in the pivotal fourth quarter.
“There weren’t any surprises,” Knights head coach Alex Campea said. “We just didn’t stop them the way we should have or could have. But they’re a good football team and Coppola’s a heck of a back.”
Still, despite Coppola’s offensive outburst, Catholic Memorial remained engaged in a one-possession game at 29-22, following A.J. Doyle’s 8-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Hamel with 1:24 remaining in the game.
What happened from there was a flourish of activity.
The Knights recovered the ensuing on-side kick, with a recovery by Josh Charles (who also had a fumble recovery on defense earlier in the fourth). However, Catholic Memorial’s drive was cut short when Alex Moore grabbed a tipped ball and raced 65 yards with an interception return for a touchdown.
On the following Prep kickoff, the Knights’ sublime returner, junior Armani Reeves, again made it a one-score game with an 86-yard return for a touchdown.
The ensuing Catholic Memorial on-side attempt rolled out of bounds, but with 20 seconds remaining, Campea still had three timeouts at his disposal. After the Eagles took three knees in the V-formation, they were forced to punt with Reeves set to return and seven seconds to go.
Hearts were surely fluttering on the Eagles’ sideline.
“I’m a stubborn old guy and said, ‘We’re going to kick it deep,’” Eagles head coach Jim O’Leary said on his decision to kick to Reeves earlier. “I was so frustrated, I didn’t want to give them the ball at the 40 and have them throw it up to those kids. I wanted to get them back down here and make them earn it from a further distance.”
There would be no such luck the second time around despite Reeves’ best efforts. After a lateral and a Catholic Memorial fumble, Eagles senior Pat Shunney took a scoop and score 25 yards to seal the deal — for good.
“As I said to our kids before the game, every game in our league is the league championship,” O’Leary said. “We were fortunate to win this one. We find ways to win.”
Catholic Memorial33320 -- 29
St. John's Prep07728 -- 42
CM Tom Byrne 33-yard field goal
SJP Dillon Gonzalez 8-yard run (Connor Shaw kick)
CM Byrne 22-yard field goal
SJP Tommy Gaudet 9-yard run (Shaw kick)
CM Byrne 23-yard field goal
SJP Tyler Coppola 4-yard run (Shaw kick)
CM Armani Reeves 57-yard run (Byrne kick)
SJP Coppola 43-yard run (Coppola run)
CM Brandon Hamel 8-yard pass from A.J. Doyle (kick blocked)
SJP Alex Moore 65-yard interception return (Shaw kick)
CM Reeves 86-yard kickoff return (Byrne kick)
SJP Pat Shunney 25-yard fumble return