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Recap: No. 8 St. John's Prep 27, No. 2 Central 12

9/20/2014

DANVERS, Mass. – From an outsider’s perspective, things can’t be much better than they’ve been at the start for No. 8 St. John’s Prep.

The Eagles have now collected three straight wins against Top 10-ranked opponents to start the season, following Saturday’s 27-12 win over defending Division 1 state champion No. 2 Central Catholic.

But Eagles first-year head coach Brian St. Pierre sees it a little differently.

“We’ve majored in making it difficult,” the Prep alum said after his team’s home opener.

After a relatively lackluster first half, the second half provided crescendos and dips in momentum in just about each play.

The Eagles (3-0) defense was the fulcrum for the victory, forcing five Central turnovers in the second half, including three interceptions.

“We were giving up yards early, but they just kept playing and they kept getting the ball for us,” St. Pierre said of his defense.

After Prep tallied the first score of the game on a 74-yard touchdown run by Cody Harwood (14 carries, 149 yards), the Raiders (2-1) responded before the first half was out with a resounding 10-play, 63-yard drive. Michael Milano hit Steven Jackson on an inside slant for a 6-yard touchdown with 13 seconds to play in the half.

Central parlayed the offensive momentum into their opening possession of the second half. Milano (14 of 26, 158 yards; 12 carries, 83 yards) willed the Raiders downfield with several well-executed inside draw plays, including a 32-yard touchdown run with 7:54 remaining in the third. A botched snap on the ensuing two-point attempt kept the Raiders’ lead at 12-7.

After going three-and-out on its ensuing possession, Prep leaned on its defense to get the ball back and, perhaps, reignite the offense.

Sophomore corner Hayden Rockett undercut a route for the first of four Eagles’ picks in the second half with 4:48 to play in the third. Two plays later, Prep regained the lead on Oliver Eberth’s 11-yard out to tight end Jake Burt. Another failed two-point conversion kept the Eagles’ lead at a single point.

Eagles senior safety Art Churchwell provided the next spark, pocketing his first of two takeaways in the game. Churchwell’s interception set up another Prep touchdown drive, coming on another Eberth touchdown pass to Owen Rockett – this time from 57 yards out – for a 20-12 lead at 10:47 of the fourth quarter.

Churchwell was at it again on the next Central possession, recovering a fumble.

While the Eagles were unable to cash on their third straight takeaway, they’d soon have the ball back again with 6:35 remaining in the game on a John Churchwell interception. Prep then salted away any Central comeback bid with a plodding 10-play drive (with a punt and another fumble recovery mixed in the middle), capped with Harwood’s second touchdown run of the day from 22 yards out.

“I think that was one of the most frustrating games I’ve ever coached in because the turnovers just killed us,” Central head coach Chuck Adamopoulos said.

Fearsome twosome: When Eberth transferred to St. John’s Prep, he inherited a pretty good surrounding cast. The Eagles offensive line has been steady throughout the early season in both pass protection and in run support. Harwood has continued producing.

And, of course, there are his top targets: wide receiver Owen Rockett and tight end Jake Burt.

“It’s amazing, defenses are playing us to pass. They’re playing our guys Owen [Rockett] and Jake Burt right now,” St. Pierre said. “They’re putting guys on them, they’re accounting for them, so we’re picking our spots.”

The combination has pushed opposing defenses to pick their poison. In the early going, both Bridgewater-Raynham and Brockton chose to key on Burt – the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Boston College commit. That’s translated to fewer pass targets for Burt – who’s receiving bracketed coverage for the most part – but great opportunity for Rockett to work in space, both underneath and on intermediate and long routes along the boundary.

“Teams key on [Burt], so that opens things up for other players – Rockett, Michael Calascibetta and James DiBenedetto,” Eberth said. “[On the touchdown] and on that fourth down, he’s old reliable. He can go up and get the ball, he can go down and get the ball. He can do anything.”

On Saturday, Prep fans saw perhaps the most balanced offensive attack the Eagles have shown to date. Eberth was more than efficient, completing 8 of 14 for 114 yards. Rockett and Burt had balls delegated to them with balance, with the wideout and tight end hauling in four catches for 84 yards and three catches for 29 yards, respectively.

“The last few weeks I think they’ve game-planned for me a little more, drawing a little extra attention to me,” Burt said. “And then Cody Harwood has stepped up and made plays.”

But what Burt adds to Prep's offense is more than just a big target.

"What goes maybe not seen [but] is obvious is what he does for us in the run game," St. Pierre said. "There’s not a better tight end blocking in the run game in Massachusetts, hands down. He does a tremendous job for us. He is just a great player. He’s very unselfish, does what the team asks him to do. People are keying him – and they should, he’s a very good player."

Harwood once again eclipsed the 100-yard rushing mark as well, creating further balance in St. Pierre’s offense.

It’s a question that opposing defensive coordinators will have to consider as the Eagles go screaming toward a playoff berth.

It’s also something that Central, at least on Saturday, couldn’t overcome.

“What’s hard this year is because of the inexperience in our secondary with two new starters it makes it hard for us to just take one guy and put him on someone,” Adamopoulos said. “Last year, we could do something like that, but I think that’s harder this year.”