WESTWOOD, Mass. -- Long-time Xaverian head coach Charlie Stevenson is the elder statesman of the Catholic Conference, a man who’s seen it all in his quarter-century plus on the Hawks’ sideline for Thanksgiving. And yet he paused when asked how his prized running back’s performance Thursday morning might stack up against Turkey Days past.
Senior Noah Sorrento finished with 172 yards and four touchdowns on 18 carries, as the Hawks cruised to a 34-13 win over archrival St. John’s Prep. But it sure felt like 272 yards, perhaps more.
"I dunno, but it was a pretty good one," Stevenson laughed in talking about Sorrento’s performance. "I don’t know what the total yards were, if it’s even impressive or not. But the way and the times in which he made his runs were just pretty special, you know? That was very impressive, no question."
Broiled in a 7-6 halftime stalemate, the Hawks turned to some of their hallmark running plays in the second half to break the game wide open.
On their first series of the third quarter, Sorrento took four straight carries across midfield before quarterback Jake Farrell set up first and 10 at the Prep 27 with a soft 16-yard completion to Joe Gaziano. After a five-yard false start penalty, Farrell darted in from 32 yards out for the score, pulling the ball on an inside zone read, curling around a seal-off block from Joe Parsons and leaving a Prep defensive back diving at air for the 13-6 advantage with 4:04 to go in the frame.
Xaverian caught a big break two plays later when an Eagles shotgun snap went wide of quarterback Ollie Eberth deep in his own territory. Senior defensive end Alex Papadopoulos fell on it at the Prep 2, and Sorrento rumbled in from a yard out two plays later for a 20-6 score.
Sorrento's third rushing score of the day, coming three plays after Owen Rockett caught his second TD pass to cut the lead to 20-13, might have been his most impressive. In just three plays he ground up 76 yards, capping it with a beautiful 40-yard touchdown run. Noah cut inside the right hashmark on a toss, stiff-armed a defensive back then cut back to the sideline with 25 yards to go, launching himself into a large snowbank gathered behind the far pylon for added effect.
"We ran the power a few times then we broke it open with the toss," Sorrento said of the three-play drive. "It was just open field for me. It was a great second half, we really ran the ball well."
Already up 27-13 with 9:33 to go, the Hawks got another great break just one play into the ensuing Prep drive, with Papadopoulos again falling on a fumble in Prep territory. The Hawks capitalized with a six-play, 32-yard drive, Sorrento punching it in from 13 yards out on the same toss play that got him his third score, for a 34-13 advantage with 6:10 to go.
The Hawks have now won two straight in this heated series, both times deciding the Catholic Conference title. They still has next week's MIAA Division 1 State Championship to look forward to. But this was the last time they will play at the Hawk Bowl in 2014, and that sentiment was not lost on Sorrento.
"It's unbelievable, we've got a great group of seniors here that really deserve it. They've been working hard for four years," Sorrento said. "This is something we'll remember forever, absolutely."
Clean bill of health: The 2013 installment of this rivalry is most remembered as a pyrrhic victory for the Hawks, who won 28-22 but lost four key players -- most notably two-way backs Shayne Kaminski and Kenny Kern -- to injury ahead of the following week's Division 1 State Championship. Central Catholic went on to double up the Hawks at Gillette Stadium, 34-17, to win their first state title in 15 seasons. Hindsight is 20/20, but one had to wonder what could have been, had it not been for the rash of injuries in a game that -- while deciding the Catholic Conference title -- had no playoff implications.
With the Hawks already set to take on Everett on Dec. 6 at Gillette Stadium for the D1 state final, Stevenson had no intentions of sitting his starters. And he was animatedly insistent, telling reporters after Nov. 15's state final berth-clinching win over BC High, "My players? Do you really think I can keep them off the field on a Thanksgiving Day game? Are you crazy? Absolutely not."
"The fans who come here for this game aren't paying $10 to watching people just not play football," Stevenson continued on that day. "I've never coached a game where I've not sent players on to the field where we weren't trying to win the game. I don't know how any coach could do that to his players. That doesn't make any sense to me. Maybe you do that in other sports...but not football."
The Hawks come out of this one happy to win their second straight Catholic Conference title, but also relieved not to lose anyone to injuries in this year's installment, ahead of the state final.
"I think we're ready to go," Stevenson said. "We know what the game is gonna be, we know what Everett is, they're very good. In my opinion, we're the two best teams."
Rockett gets liftoff: It seemed like whomever the Hawks put on Prep receiver Owen Rockett, they were going to be in for a rough day.
On a morning where running back Cody Harwood was held in check, and the pass rush kept Eberth caged inside the pocket for the most part, the matchups of the senior Rockett on either of the Hawks' star cornerbacks was one of the few battles the Eagles won decidedly.
Each of Rockett's scores, both quick slants from the field side, went through the same progression.
On his first TD catch, Rockett opened up sophomore Mekhi Henderson's hips with a jab step to the outside, then ripped across his face with inside leverage and found himself plenty of room to make the haul and rumble in for the 13-yard completion that cut Xaverian's lead to 7-6 in the second quarter.
In the third quarter, now matched up with senior Ernest Simon, Rockett went through the same pattern and Eberth, once again taking a short drop, fired for a seven-yard score that cut the lead to 20-13.
Rockett, in the final game of his high school career, finished with five catches for 74 yards and the two touchdowns.
"We were very concerned about [Rockett] and he proved to us why. He's very good," Stevenson said.
Pass rush, Papadopoulos set the tone: Gaziano, a Northwestern commit and the reigning ESPN Boston Defensive Player of the Year, was once again run away from for most of the day, though he still came up with two sacks to bring his season total to 14. But one of the unsung heroes of the day was Papadopoulos, who came up with two fumble recoveries in the Prep end of the field to set up two Hawk scores.
"Pap has been playing hard for us all year long," Stevenson said of the 6-foot, 230-pound senior. "He's been working hard for four years to get out on the field this year. I'm happy to see him have some good memories here on Thanksgiving Day against St. John's Prep. Hopefully, he can make a couple more next week."
High praise for Kern: In talking about his rushing performance, Sorrento was deferential to his line as well as his linebacking partner Kenny Kern, who is often tasked with the less-than-glorious role of a blocking fullback on offense.
The Hawks incorporated more toss plays than usual this morning, which meant Kern spent a lot more time cut blocking guys on the perimeter or sealing a player away, in addition to his typical north-south blocking patterns on dives and counters. But when told of Sorrento's comments, Kern passed the buck right back.
"All the credit goes to him. He's just seeing where I'm going and he's cutting off me, which way my hips are," Kern said. "I'm not back there, so it's hard to tell, but I just know I got my guy, so I go full speed and work it."
XAVERIAN 34, ST. JOHN'S PREP 13
SJP 0 6 0 7 --- 13
XAV 0 7 13 14 --- 34
X - Noah Sorrento 1 run (Coby Tippett kick) 7:55
S - Owen Rockett 13 pass from Ollie Eberth (kick failed) 1:11
X - Jake Farrell 32 run (kick failed) 4:04
X - Sorrento 2 run (Joe Gaziano kick) 3:08
S - Rockett 7 pass from Eberth (Justin Foley kick) 10:53
X - Sorrento 40 run (Gaziano kick) 9:33
X - Sorrento 13 run (Gaziano kick) 6:10