When the Xaverian Brothers coaches and players look back at last season’s 13-0 run that culminated in the program’s first Eastern Mass Division 1 Super Bowl title since 1998, one game in particular stands out as the springboard.
In Week 3, the Hawks traveled down to Brockton's Marciano Stadium to face the undefeated Boxers. In the first half, Xaverian did next to nothing on offense. The Hawks turned the ball over several times and gained less than 50 total yards as they fell behind, 7-0, at the break.
But in the final 22 minutes, the casual fan who didn't know the names Joe Colton and Chris Tamasi couldn't ignore them any longer.
First it was Colton who took a swing pass from quarterback Alex Phelan for a 25-yard gain – Xaverian's biggest to that point – before getting up off the sideline and pumping his arms in excitement. Moments later, Phelan dropped off a screen pass to Colton on the visitors’ sideline and he rumbled into the end zone to help tie the score.
Tamasi, who was all over the field from his weakside linebacker position all game, then made his presence felt on offense in the fourth quarter. On an option play to the short side of the field, Tamasi took a pitch from Phelan and cruised to the left pylon for the game-clinching score, as the Hawks won, 14-7.
The game served as a microcosm for the season, as the Hawks continually looked to Colton and Tamasi in the second halves of games to put opponents away. Colton finished with over 1,600 yards rushing and 21 touchdowns, while Tamasi had 92 tackles and two interceptions to go along with over 500 yards rushing and five scores.
"I think, from my perspective, and I’ve probably said this to you before, a real turning point for us was the second half of the Brockton game," said Xaverian coach Charlie Stevenson. "We've been in that stadium with a lot of football teams who got beat up in the first half like we got beat up that night in the first half and didn’t come out and win the football game in the second half like last year’s team did. That was a big plus for us as a team. That was a big confidence-builder as a team. That was a big thing.
"We've gone in there with teams that, wouldn't you say, Al, have done just about the opposite," he added, turning to defensive coordinator Al Fornaro, who simply nodded his head. "In the second half (of those games), me and Al are standing there like, 'I don't think we want to be here for this night.' For whatever reason, (last year's) team came out in the second half and said, 'We got punched in the mouth, but you know what? We’re going to punch back right now.' And they proved to themselves they can do that. That was a big plus for them. I've coached teams that couldn’t do that. Not that they were bad teams or bad kids, but they just couldn’t do it. Last year’s team could. And I've had other teams that could, too. I’ve had teams that never had to do that because they just punched them out from the get-go."
Tamasi remembers his touchdown vividly.
"That touchdown, I can still replay it in my mind over and over," he said. "Like I said, tremendous amount of respect for Brockton, but one of the special parts about last year were the away games. The away games were all the biggest games. And coming to Brockton with the band, the flashing lights, and all the big crowd… There’s something, that energy just consumes you and you get in this mode where you’re just lights out.
"I think it got into the both of us, we just knew what we had to do when we went into the game and fortunately we came out on top," he added. "That touchdown, I mean, once I got the ball, I did what I could to get to that pylon. And it just came out that we held them off. That was the pinnacle of our season that just skyrocketed us into the postseason."
Yet while each player is among the best in the state at his respective position on either side of the ball (Colton also plays cornerback), neither holds a scholarship offer at this point. To Stevenson, it highlights the age-old battle that all college recruiters grapple with: production vs. potential.
"(Colton’s) such a great kid and he’s so deserving of it all. And, in my opinion, he’s as good as a lot of high school running backs that get offers from college,” Stevenson said. "However, as we mentioned earlier, colleges recruit on potential moreso than what you did in high school. And that’s what happens to guys like Joe or the kid down at Walpole (Ryan Izzo) or the (Nathan) Scherr kid up at Austin Prep a couple years ago. Kids who are just great high school guys and great productive players, but then colleges go, 'Well, can we get a kid who’s 5-10, 190 pounds and say that his potential is going to be better than the kid that’s 6-1, 215, 220?’"
But if Colton or Tamasi are frustrated by the lack of attention from college coaches, they’re not showing it. At this stage, Colton says he is hearing the most from the University of New Hampshire, while Tamasi is in contact mainly with Ivy League and NESCAC schools.
"(I don’t care about) statistics, anything like that. I just want to win. That’s all I care about," said Colton, who stands 5-feet, 10-inches, weighs 185 pounds and was clocked with a 4.54 40-yard dash time at the UNH camp. "All I care about is having fun, hopefully have a good season, win most of our games and you just take it from there. The colleges, that will all come in later. I’m not really thinking about that."
"I mean, props to those guys (who have offers already). We play Brockton, Everett, BC High, and they all have tremendous athletes," said the 6-foot, 205-pound Tamasi, who ran a 4.57 at this spring’s Northeast Five-Star Showdown. "There’s a tremendous amount of respect on our part for them. I’ve gotten the chance to meet a few kids from Everett and they’re great kids. I wish them all the best up there. I try not to focus on (recruiting). I have my own personal goals that I want to achieve and I’m kind of just doing my own thing and whoever will notice that and take me for who I am, I’m OK with that."
Stevenson, though, doesn’t share the same attitude. In his opinion, Colton and Tamasi are being overlooked.
"Like I said, the (Boston College) level, that’s one thing," Stevenson said. "It’s the level right below that is probably more frustrating to me. I think that high school kids like Joe have become the final stop for those guys. They want to see who’s dropping out of BC, who’s dropping out of UConn, or who’s dropping out of Syracuse, you know what I’m saying? Who’s dropping out of USC, who the heck knows where? They want to see who’s graduating from a junior college. They want to see who’s 20-years old already trying to be a freshman in college.
"So the 17-year old high school senior is their last stop," he continued. "Whether that’s the good way to go about recruiting or not, you’d have to ask the colleges that question. But it’s unfortunate to me, in my opinion, for our game, that the college coaches are becoming a lot like the hockey college coaches. They’re not looking to recruit high school players. I would hate to see our college football coaches become as stupid as the college hockey coaches are. Quote me on that, please. OK, but, who knows? Maybe they will."
Those schools that do end up taking either player will do so in part because each one shows an incredible amount of versatility and thrives on being more physical than his opponent. While Colton gets most of his notoriety from his rushing abilities, he’s also one of the best cornerbacks in the area. Colton’s specialty is jamming receivers at the line and playing physical press coverage.
"I like to play physical," he said. "Coach Fornaro gave me the choice most of the time. If he’s big and you want to get in his grill, you know, go ahead. Most of the time if we’re playing off, I’d probably be playing press. So I think that’s definitely, I think, a strength."
"We're not a traditional Cover-2, Tampa-2, where he’s just the force guy all the time. But he loves the physical aspect of the game," Fornaro said. "But, yes, it makes it easier when, instead of trying to match up one guy to cover their best receiver man-to-man, if we can delay him by maybe throwing the timing off, using Joe to press, or even just press-and-chase, it makes it a lot easier. But he takes that as a challenge. He wants to play against the best guy. But if he had his druthers, I think he’d rather put gloves on, go into a ring and whack around a few rounds with the guy, because that’s the type of kid he is."
Tamasi is an instinctual player on defense who simply always finds himself around the ball.
"Chris is an athlete who plays well in space. He’s a guy that, as I tell our linebacker coach, you don’t over-coach him, because he’s just going to play," Fornaro said. "There were things that happened in that Brockton game, on the plus side for us, where he was able to run to the ball and beat the man who was assigned to block him. In the playoff game they tried something different to neutralize that. It was a different offensive set, but he was able to (make plays) because he is a good athlete and he can run and he has power and he can still make the play."
And when Tamasi gets to the ballcarrier, he does so with authority. Or, as Fornaro said, "Chris comes and he comes with business. There’s a purpose when he gets there."
When asked about this season, each player dutifully toes the company line about not getting caught looking ahead.
"This year, I think it’s play-by-play, practice-by-practice, game-by-game," Colton said. "It’s just work hard, play hard, game-by-game."
"I think as Joe said, we’ve got to take it game-by-game and do what we can do best and just hope that everything turns out the way we want it to in the end," Tamasi said.
As two of the five Xaverian captains, those answers are expected. But everyone outside the program – and even some inside it – will be eyeing a Week 3 rematch with top-ranked Brockton, this time in Westwood.
And maybe if Colton and Tamasi produce in that game like they did at Marciano Stadium, an offer could be just around the corner. At the very least, the potential is there.
XAVERIAN AT A GLANCE
2009: 13-0 (4-0 Catholic Conference), won EMass. Division 1 Super Bowl
Coach: Charlie Stevenson (18th season, 144-44-1)
Players to watch: Joe Colton, Sr., RB/CB, 5-10, 185 lbs (1,600+ yards rushing, 21 TDs); Chris Tamasi, Sr., OLB/RB, 6-0, 205 lbs (92 tackles, 2 INT, 500+ yards rushing, 5 TDs); Kevin Ihlefeld, Sr., DE/OL, 6-0, 205 lbs (68 tackles, 5 sacks, 2 fumble recoveries); Harry King, Sr., OL/DT, 6-3, 280 lbs; Mike Muir, Sr., WR/S, 6-1, 180 lbs (250+ yards receiving, 2 TD receptions).
Strengths: Running backs, Wide Receivers, Secondary, Speed
Weaknesses: Inexperience at quarterback, Replacing Starters on the offensive line.
Outlook: A year ago, the Hawks entered the fall as the consensus No. 1 team and never relinquished the top spot, as they ran the table to win their first Super Bowl crown since 1998. Although Xaverian will have to replace quarterback Alex Phelan (Brown) and three starters on the offensive line, there is enough talent and experience returning to make a run at a repeat. Taking the reins at quarterback will be speedy junior Chris Calvanese (6-2, 180), and he will have two of the more productive runners in the state to hand off to in Colton and Tamasi. Wide receiver is always one of the deepest position groups for the Hawks and will be again this season, as Muir will lead an athletic and sure-handed unit. Tamasi and Ihelfeld were both Catholic Conference All-Stars a year ago, while Colton, Muir, junior safety Ryan Farrell and senior cornerback Nick McDaniels highlight a superb secondary. A Week 3 tilt with Brockton on Clapboardtree Street will serve as a great early litmus test, while late-season showdowns with BC High, Catholic Memorial and St. John’s Prep will decide if another postseason run is in the cards.