Boston High School: Mike McGillicuddy

Recap: No. 2 BC High 4, No. 12 St. John's (S) 4

February, 15, 2014
Feb 15
12:52
AM ET
MARLBOROUGH, Mass. – It’s no secret that these are desperate times for the St. John's Pioneers.

With the regular season down to a few precious days, St. John's is pulling out all the stops in an effort of convincing the powers that be within the Super 8 tournament selection committee that they should be one of the 10 teams represented later this month.

On Friday night, the 12th ranked Pioneers made a strong case for themselves after grinding out a 4-4 tie against No. 2 BC High at New England Sports Center.

"I'm very pleased with the effort tonight," said St. John's head coach Mike Mead, whose club has now recorded ties in its last four contests "This was a playoff-like game. It gets you tournament-ready and that is what this last week of the season does for us. I think this result will definitely open some eyes. We are a team that is playing very well at the right time of the season. We can control only what we can control. If we are meant to be in the Super 8 then great. But if we're not then we're not."

The Pioneers travel to Coyle-Cassidy Saturday night before hosting Xavier (Conn.) on Monday before wrapping up the regular season Wednesday at Xaverian.

St. John's (9-4-6), which is still postseason bound (Division 1 North tournament) even if the Super 8 does not come calling, knows it probably should have came away victorious on Friday.

Kevin Quinlivan's rebound score coming at 13:08 of the third period pushed the Pioneers in front, 4-3. With a little more than a minute to go, the Eagles pulled goaltender Brandon Payzant for the extra attacker. It paid off. With only 58 seconds remaining, junior Pat Kramer blasted a shot from just inside the blue line. The puck appeared to tip off the stick of teammate Tim Larocque and sneak through the leg pads of Pioneer goalie Mario Pizzeri for the equalizer.

Officials credited Kramer with the goal but Larocque had positioned perfectly in front of Pizzeri to redirect the shot.

Throughout the course of this contest, BC High (12-1-4) held a distinctive edge offensively, out-shooting St. John's 38-21. But due to Pizzeri's performance, the Eagles were not able to pull away.

"They did a better job taking care of the puck then we did," BC High head coach John Flaherty said. "We had more chances but we didn't capitalize. Mario is a very good goalie and we knew that coming in. We knew that team would come ready to work because they need to. They know what is at stake for them. We knew that and shame on us for not responding. I'm happy that we pulled the tie out but what led up to that needs to be fixed."

Every time BC High took the lead, St. John's always seemed to have an answer. The Eagles went up first at 7:33 of the opening frame after Larocque sent a saucer pass over to Aidan Foley in front of the St. John's crease. The senior flipped a shot over Pizzeri's left shoulder giving his club a 1-0 lead.

At times, the Pioneers appeared to be puck watching instead of attacking the Eagles once they moved inside the offensive zone. However, Pizzeri (34 saves) was there to bail his club out on numerous occasions.

With just over two minutes remaining in the opening period, St. John's finally started getting its offense to click. Garrett Lehan, skating inside the Eagle zone, let go of a shot that caromed off of Payzant's pads. Alertly, junior forward Dan Barlok was positioned perfectly to pick up the rebound and send it into the net, knotting the game at 1-1 heading into the first intermission.

BC High, a 5-2 winner over St. John's back on Jan. 29, continued its offensive prowess for much of the middle period. The objective was simple enough – shoot as many pucks towards Pizzeri as possible and try to create traffic in front. The Eagles did just that but could not get anything past the senior.

"That was one of the most enjoyable games that I've ever played in," Pizzeri said. "I think we are a different team than the first time we played them. Our goal coming into this game was to make a statement and show the rest of the state that we deserve to be in the Super 8 tournament. I think tonight we did just that."

At the 9:39 mark, and with St. John's short a man after a too many men on the ice penalty, BC High regained the lead following a blast by Kramer's from the perimeter. However, the Pioneers late period magic would arise once again.

Off an errant shot that landed behind the Eagles net, Payzant went back to retrieve it, unknowing to him, that a pair of St. John's forwards were closing in on him fast. After losing control of the puck, the sophomore tried in vain to retreat back inside his crease. But he was a little late in doing so as Mike McGillicuddy was able to lift a backhand an open left side of the net at 12:14 to even things at 2-2.

For as much offensive output that BC High was demonstrating throughout, the only thing that mattered was the scoreboard. The Pioneers knew they were being out-played, particularly inside the defensive zone. But heading into the locker room deadlocked after 30 minutes certainly had to be a confidence booster.

That feeling didn't last long though. Just 37 seconds into the third, forward Steve DeForge muscled his way between two St. John's defenders and, with bouncing puck dancing on his stick, he managed to tuck a shot underneath Pizzeri's right arm and give the lead back to the Eagles 3-2. Things remained that way until Quinlivan's rebound tally midway through the period. A few moments later, St. John's let a golden opportunity to pad the lead slip through its fingers after Barlok broke in alone on Payzant (17 saves).

Aiming for the left side the net, the junior's hard wrist shot, instead, rang off the left post. As fate would have it. That missed chance would come back to haunt the Pioneers once BC High came back to tie the game in the waning seconds to no fault of Pizzeri.

"As I've said before, Mario does everything he can for us," said Mead. "He's a great leader. We aren't going to win many games 8-0. We're going to win games 3-2, 4-3, et cetera. It all starts on how Mario plays for us.”

Recap: No. 11 Cathedral 6, No. 7 St. John's (S) 1

January, 10, 2014
Jan 10
3:36
AM ET
WEST SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- These kids really are alright.

Before the start of the season, there were some who wondered aloud if Springfield Cathedral would be able to cut it with so many underclassmen on its roster. Carrying just one senior and dressing nine freshman and a pair of eighth-graders, there was concern as to whether or not the Panthers could handle the rigors of a extremely-difficult Division 1 schedule.

Just a couple games shy of the season's halfway point, Cathedral is answering those critics with ferocity. Following Thursday night's 6-1 trouncing of Catholic West Hockey Conference foe St. John's (Shrewsbury) at the Olympia Ice Center, the Panthers seemed poised for a third straight appearance in the Super 8 tournament.

After sluggish start against the Pioneers, Cathedral took control of things over the final 30 minutes. The Panthers scored a pair of second period goals and added three more in the third to put this one to rest. With the victory, No. 11 Cathedral improves to 7-1-1 and wins the conference title with a mark of 3-0-1.

No. 7 St. John's, which came into the tilt riding a four-game win streak, fell to 5-2-1 (1-1-1).

Junior forward Peter Crinella's pirouette goal, coming at 5:20 of the middle frame, proved to be the difference.

The Pioneers struggled mightily all night lone inside the offensive zone. The Panther forwards and defensemen tag-teamed to knock St. John's off-course when it had the puck on its collective sticks, constantly being tied up. The Pioneers could only muster just 13 shots on Cathedral senior goaltender John Liquori.

Meanwhile, the Panthers riddled goalie Mario Pizzeri for 31 shots, including 23 over the final two periods.

"Coming into this game we were treating it like a playoff game," Cathedral head coach Brian Foley said. "It's still early in the season but it was two ranked teams going at one another. This was a very important game for us and we treated it as such. Our kids have been working very hard. Tonight I think we played more of a complete game, especially in the second and third periods."

With the Panthers clinging to their one-goal lead, sophomore Johnny Leonard gave them a little breathing space at 13:38 of the middle frame after coming down the right half board before cutting in front and ripping a hard wrist shot by Pizzeri to make it 3-1 going into the second intermission. Just prior to Leonard's tally, St. John's senior Mike McGillicuddy broke in free on Liquori with a chance to tie the game but the solid netminder stoned him.

The way Pioneers were being bottled up by Cathedral after the first two periods, you had the feeling a two-goal advantage appeared safe. But for good measure, the Panthers never took their foot off the gas pedal. Just 21 seconds into the final period, Crinella bagged his second goal with a one-timer off a feed from D.J. Petruzzelli.

"We knew St. John's was a great team and they were older than us," said Crinella, who leads the team with 15 goals. "They play very physical. We've got a lot of young guys and day-by-day we continue to get better. We have great chemistry. We can always get better but I think we're doing pretty good right now. Everyone is contributing which is so important."

Seven minutes later, freshman Kyle Kazeroid scored his first career goal, taking a Tim Zmuda pass from behind the net and rifling a shot past Pizzeri to make it a 5-1 contest. Petruzzelli would close the book on this one at 9:42, putting back a shot that caromed off the crossbar.

Last month, when the two powers met in Worcester, Cathedral took a two-goal lead into the closing period only to watch the Pioneers storm back with a pair of goals to tie them 3-3. For the Panthers, that game felt more like a loss than a tie. This time around, they were determined not to let up no matter the score.

"We had a tough game tonight," St. John's head coach Mike Mead said. "When your basically outshot by a 2-to-1 ratio on the road against a very good team it's tough to win like that. Our kids never quit and battled to the end but unfortunately this wasn't our night. I thought Cathedral was better-prepared for this time than last time. They didn't under estimate us this time. They were more aggressive. We didn't match their aggressiveness and we didn't match their intensity. They were better-prepared than we were and I've got to do a better job preparing our kids for games like this."

Panther freshman Riley Prattson staked his team out to a 1-0 lead at 8:07 of the first period with a quick shot in front that eluded Pizzeri. But just over a minute later, Patrick Storer knotted things for the Pioneers. Catching Liquori down in a butterfly position, the junior was able to slip the puck past Liquori's out-stretched left leg.

"I thought defensively, as a team, we did a much-better job protecting our goalie tonight," Foley said. "Only allowing 13 shots, our forwards and defensemen really did a good job. When John was tested, he came up with some pretty big saves. You begin to sense now that our whole team is starting to mature, and tonight was kind of a barometer for us. There is some fulfillment that maybe we are getting better."

Recap: St. John's (S) 5, Archbishop Williams 2

January, 5, 2014
Jan 5
3:22
AM ET
CANTON, Mass. -- Prior to the start of Saturday night's non-conference tilt versus Archbishop Williams, Mike Mead, the first-year coach of St. John's (Shrewsbury), voiced his concern regarding the fact that his Pioneers had not played in a week and were about to square up against a highly-formidable opponent on the road.

Obviously his team felt differently. St. John's converted three first-period turnovers into goals and added two more scores in the middle frame to come away with a 5-2 triumph over the Bishops at the SportsPlex.

"The kids played very well tonight," said Mead, his club improving to 4-1-1. "All four lines played well together, [goaltender] Mario Pizzeri and all of our defense played well also. We were aggressive. We had our legs underneath us and we jumped on the puck well. We hadn't played since last Saturday so we were fresh."

The Pioneers stuck to an up-tempo style for the first two periods before converting back to a slow-down, defensive-minded final 15 minutes in an effort to maintain their lead. St. John's dictated the action from the opening face off, displaying an aggressive, in-your-face style that seemed to catch Archbishop Williams a little off-guard.

With the forwards causing all kinds of chaos inside the Bishops' defensive zone, that would eventually lead to turnovers – something uncharacteristic from the Bishops. At 6:14 of the opening period, the first of many turnovers, led to the Pioneers' first score. Junior forward Pat Storer stole the puck and broke in on Archbishop Williams netminder Matt McCaughey, beating the junior with a shot over his left shoulder.

But a little more than a minute later, forward Eric Keefe tied matters, pushing in a rebound past Pizzeri (30 saves).

The pace remained fast and furious throughout the period. With St. John's playing a man down, once again Archbishop Williams got careless with the puck resulting in Pioneer junior Kevin Quinlivan taking it just outside the right circle and beating McCaughey to go up 2-1 at 7:46.

"St. John's came out and played hard," Bishops coach Derackk Curtis said. "They back-checked and there were times when we got the puck to their blue line and they'd have all five guys back. They worked hard, blocked a lot of shots and were physical. The first period we kind of shot ourselves in the foot by not executing."

Once again, Archbishop Williams was able to answer the St. John's score with one of its own after Pizzeri couldn't snag a rebound that ended up on the stick of Nick Menzel, who pushed it into the back of the net at 13:58 knotting this contest at 2-2. But any momentum gained was gone in an instant. With just 40 seconds remaining in the period, Danny Barlok, another junior, stole an errant pass deep in the Bishops zone and slipped a shot past a shell shocked McCaughey to send St. John's into the first break ahead 3-2.

The Pioneers refused to take their foot off the gas pedal during the second. At times, Archbishop Williams (3-2-1) was seen standing around and watching St. John's make crisp passes around them without putting much pressure on the forwards. That was clearly evident midway through the frame when Chris Stalmok, a sophomore forward, was allowed two attempts just in front of the crease without being pushed out. Stalmok's second try found its way underneath McCaughey's pads giving the Pioneers a two goal advantage.

"We felt we let (Archbishop Williams) hang around in the first period so we wanted to come out and make sure we were ready for the second period," Mead said. "The boys responded and played very well in that second period. One of the things we focus on the fore-check and focus on cycling the puck down low and it seemed to work tonight."

With Archbishop Williams still playing back on its heels, another St. John's rush up the ice proved costly. A shot by Storer was stopped by McCaughey (30 saves) but the puck rolled off to his right to forward Mike McGillicuddy, who promptly backhanded it top-shelf to extend the Pioneers margin to three goals at 1:58.

"This is a huge win against a team like that," said McGillicuddy, a senior. "They are a Super 8 contender every couple of years and it was good to have that kind of lead on them going into the third period. It's nice to have a gap like that. In the third period we were focused on playing defense and not let them come back. A lot of goals do come off mistakes and if we can keep getting turnovers like we did tonight hopefully it will lead to a few more goals for us."

For the remainder of the game, as McGillicuddy stated, St. John's game plan was to blanket the defensive zone and force Archbishop Williams to shoot from the outside for the most part. The Bishops did send 12 shots Pizzeri's way in the period, but the senior stopped all to preserve the victory.

"We never really got going," said Curtis, his club having now lost two straight. "Sometimes when you are in those types of games one or two mistakes can really cost you. Tonight we made more mistakes then they did."

Recap: No. 11 St. John's (S) 2, No. 12 Marshfield 1

December, 27, 2013
12/27/13
10:57
PM ET
FRAMINGHAM, Mass. -- Clinging to a one-goal lead heading into the final period, St. John’s (Shrewsbury) knew full-well Marshfield would throw everything but the kitchen sink at them over those last 15 minutes.

The No. 11 Pioneers were dead on in terms of their prediction. The No. 12 Rams opened up their offense in the frame, attacking the Pioneer zone with reckless abandon.

But when he needed to step up, St. John’s goaltender Mario Pizzeri did – meeting the challenge head-on. Pizzeri, a senior, was nothing short of brilliant, especially over the closing period, stopping all 11 shots he faced to preserve the Pioneer’s 2-1 victory in the opening round of tonight’s Silverback Hockey Classic at Loring Arena.

“That was a complete 45 minute game out there by both teams,” said Pizzeri, finishing with 28 saves. “I thought Marshfield kept most of their shots to the outside. I was seeing them pretty-well, but I still need to work on my rebound control a little more.”

St. John’s (2-1-1) will face Framingham in tomorrow night’s championship game beginning at 7:50 p.m. Marshfield (2-2-0) will take on Catholic Memorial in the consolation tilt starting at 5:50.

“Mario played very well,” Pioneers head coach Mike Mead said. “He really stood tall. Marshfield kept coming at us. We bent a little but didn’t break. We’re still continuing to learn as we go. We just want to get a little better with each game and hopefully a little tougher as well.”

The Pioneers grabbed an early 2-0 lead after dominating all but the final 20 seconds of the opening period, putting up 14 shots to the Rams’ five. Mike McGillicuddy, skating all alone along the right boards, put St. John’s up 1-0, launching a laser beam past Marshfield goaltender Connor Lemiuex just 33 seconds in.

The Pioneers continued to set up camp inside the Rams’ defensive zone and would add to their lead five minutes later when senior defenseman Bryan Nelson sailed a hard wrist shot through traffic that Lemiuex (30 saves) never saw.

It appeared as though St. John’s would head into the first intermission with its two-goal lead intact. But with 20 seconds remaining, an errant Rams shot deflected off the glass behind Pizzeri and landed onto the stick of junior Will Cole just in front of Pizzeri. The forward easily slipped the puck into the net to narrow the deficit to 2-1.

“Our kids played hard,” Marshfield head coach Dan Connolly said. “Mario [Pizzeri] played unbelievable for them in net. He made some big saves but Connor made some big saves for us too. We never gave up and had a couple of chances to tie it in the third but overall I thought our whole team played well tonight. We just couldn’t get the win.”

Both teams played evenly over during the middle frame, with each landing 13 shots on net but nothing to show for it. Marshfield’s offensive effort certainly looked to be much better in the period, but the Pioneers did a nice job clogging up the neutral zone and slowing the Rams rush up the ice. Likewise, Marshfield was performing admirably by taking away some of the passing lanes St. John’s had used effectively in the initial frame.

“We need to play more even-keeled out there,” Pizzeri said. “When you score two goals you should want to score two more. You don’t want to sit back and play just defensive because the other team can just start piling it up. That’s what they started doing in the third.”

Defense does it for Mansfield

December, 7, 2013
12/07/13
8:56
PM ET


FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Mansfield made a living off of their vaunted and talented offense this year, but it was the defense that won them the Division 2 state championship against St. John’s (Shrewsbury) on Saturday afternoon.

The biggest focus for Mansfield coach Mike Redding coming into the game was game-planning for St. John’s dual-threat quarterback Andrew Smiley, an offensive player of the year candidate who has torched opposing defenses this year with his feet as well as his arm.

“Oh man, he’s a great athlete, we knew we had our hands full with him and Combs running the zone read, they do that so well and they keep you honest with the four great receivers,” Mansfield coach Mike Redding said.

Smiley has found his deep core of receivers early and often this year, especially junior Davon Jones and seniors T.J. Kelley and Mike McGillicudy. On Saturday though, Jones and McGillicudy were only able to pull in a combined three catches for 22 yards. Smiley, who threw two interceptions and scored a rushing touchdown, was able to muster just 80 total yards.

“The goal was to try to get six in the box to handle the run game, we tried to double Davon Jones because he’s an exceptional athlete. Then we got away from that and we got seven in the box because of the run game and to mix it up,” Redding said, “we played man, we played zone, we mixed in some blitzes. If you stay with any one thing their coordinator and their guys will eat you alive. They hit us now and then and we bent a little at times but never broke, never gave up the big one, and really played tough in the red zone.”

Michael Hershman, who has been playing the majority of this year with a sports hernia, picked Smiley off in the second quarter to help the Hornets stay in it after five first half turnovers—which resulted in a 14-7 halftime lead for the Pioneers. Mike Barresi intercepted a Smiley pass of his own early in the third quarter, initiating an 89-yard drive that brought the Hornets back to 14-13.

“To have five turnovers and only be down seven, we felt good about things at halftime. I thought the big thing in the third quarter was if they scored next then we were in trouble. We were trying to get a stop, we had to get the next one, then Barresi makes the pick and we punch it in. It’s a whole new game, you’ve got your confidence back, you’ve got momentum,” Redding said.

St. John’s was held scoreless after halftime—managing just over 100 total yards in the final two quarters. Shane Combs finished with 100 yards on 14 carries on the afternoon for the Pioneers, one of the lone bright spots for St. John’s in the second half.

“We’ve thrown the ball very well, but tonight it was defense and it was running the football. Bottom line, to win championships you have to do both of those—our O-line did a great job blocking and we threw a little bit, but we just didn’t have to,” Redding said, “to shut them out in a half, I don’t think they’ve been shut out all year, just an unbelievable defensive effort. Mark DeGeronimo just made this young defense so good over the course of the year—it won us a championship today.”

Smiley, a Navy lacrosse commit, received high praise from Redding after the game for his play this year, as well as a very bright future waiting for him:

“The thing I’m most proud of playing against a guy like that who goes off to Navy to play lacrosse, he’s gonna serve his country. It’s so neat to compete against young men like this who are great athletes and will be doing even bigger things after high school.”


Tale of the Tape: St. John's vs. Mansfield

December, 5, 2013
12/05/13
2:09
AM ET
Ahead of Saturday's six MIAA Football State Championships at Gillette Stadium, today we are bringing back our "Tale of the Tape" series to break down each participating team's matchups headed into the game.

In the Division 2 Final, ESPN Boston High Schools editors Brendan Hall and Scott Barboza take a closer look at Central champ St. John's and South champ Mansfield, respectively.

MIAA Division 2 State Championship
ST. JOHN'S (9-3) vs. MANSFIELD (12-0)
at Gillette Stadium, 1:30 p.m.


When St. John’s has the ball: Be prepared for a blitzkrieg. In these playoffs, the Pioneers are averaging 49.7 points per game -– including 51 or more points in all three of their Division 2 Central contests –- and an unheard-of 482.5 yards of offense, both bests among teams playing on Saturday. Much has been made over the past two years of the Oregon-like offense they’ve installed, looking to push a hyperactive tempo that is nearly unmatched across Massachusetts, and at the forefront of this offensive renaissance has been quarterback and Navy lacrosse commit Andrew Smiley (170-for-245, 2,368 yards, 28 TD, 4 INT; 97 carries, 866 yards, 12 TD). A true dual-threat quarterback, he has perfected the zone read, and demonstrated the ability to make difficult throws in tight windows throughout the state tournament. Smiley left the Thanksgiving matchup with St. Peter-Marian with a shoulder injury, but he is expected to play on Saturday.

A critical part of the Pioneers’ passing game is predicated on finding weak spots in the defense and sitting in the holes, creating a short but fluid rhythm that allows them to keep the chains moving and therefore play fast. In accomplishing this, they may package any number of screens and route combinations on the backside of zone read plays. It’s hard to ascertain who is truly the key receiver in the passing game: Mike McGillicuddy (46 catches, 817 yards, 10 TD), master of the underneath routes; senior T.J. Kelly (30 catches, 502 yards, 6 TD), a prominent basketball forward who can take the safeties deep off the ball; or junior Davon Jones (46 catches, 634 yards, 7 TD), a freakish athlete with a 40-inch vertical, who high-points balls like few others in the state.

Arguably the most crucial element, however, has been their ability to run the ball effectively in these playoffs – and not just with Smiley, who can pull the ball and slip through the first line of defense with his lacrosse-bred running skills. Junior tailback Shane Combs (149 carries, 1,143 yards, 15 TD), a Notre Dame baseball commit, has been incremental in these playoffs, going over the century mark in all four playoff games for a total of 524 yards and 10 touchdowns. As the season has progressed, Combs has transformed from fleet-footed to bullish, a tough downhill runner who can keep his legs churning after first contact.

When Mansfield has the ball: Wednesday's state championship breakfast at Gillette Stadium was dominated by the news that Hornets tight end Brendan Hill, their leading receiver on the season, will miss the game after an ACL injury suffered on Thanksgiving Day against Foxborough. While the loss of an All-State caliber receiver is never a positive, Mansfield still has dangerous targets on the outside to choose from. However, instead of spreading out the ball distribution, an increased number of targets (and the Pioneers' defensive scheming) will shift to Mike Hershman (37 catches, 645 yards, 6 TD) and Kyle Hurley (21 catches, 311 yards, 4 TD).

Leading us to the real X-factor of Saturday's game, which is what does Miguel Villar-Perez have left in the tank? The Hornets' leading rusher (890 yards, 11 TD) has been hobbled in recent weeks and was again banged up during their Thanksgiving game. Also, a dependable pass-catcher out of the backfield and in the slot, Villar-Perez has given Mansfield its dynamism on offense and, with Hill already out of the picture, its imperative that Mansfield maximize his snaps despite perhaps playing at less than 100 percent. If not ready to go, expect a greater dose of senior running back Chris Buchanan out of Mansfield's heavy sets.

Yet, for all the seeming uncertainty now surrounding the Hornets leading in, the constant has been senior quarterback Kyle Wisnieski. Throughout the season, Wisnieski has completed passes at clip of greater than 65 percent, including a very strong postseason run. The supremely efficient passer has also held on to the ball, with a touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio of greater than 5:1 (27 TD, 5 INT).

When St. John’s is on defense: Judging from the scores this fall, one may get the impression this is a suspect defense. All but one opponent has put up double-digits on the Pioneers; nine have reached the 20’s, and three have eclipsed 30. But some of that may be due in part to the type of offense the Pioneers run. With such quick offensive drives, that leads to more possessions for the opposition, which has often led to shootouts this season.

But that isn’t to take away from what has been an athletic unit. At the forefront is the junior Jones, a three-year starter who has gone over 100 tackles for the second straight season (108 tackles, 7 INT, 5 TFL, 3 forced fumbles). Often playing as a high free safety, Jones covers a lot of ground in the deep field, and has developed a reputation as a violent hitter. Occasionally, the Pioneers will split the deep field with Jones and Smiley (3 INT), who made one of the playoffs’ most acrobatic feats with a one-handed interception to ice the Central/West semifinal win over favored Springfield Central.

In the front seven, the Pioneers aren’t overbearing, but they are definitely quick, led by linebackers Patch Ryan (105 tackles, 2 INT, 2 forced fumbles) and Alex Pappas (108 tackles, 8 TFL, 2 sacks). Keep a special eye on defensive end Jeff DeMango (68 tackles, 12 TFL, 8 sacks, 6 passes deflected), who demonstrates exceptional hand skills that are usually good for a batted pass or two.

When Mansfield is on defense: The Hornets' success on defense stems from its interior line, with a couple of underrated pluggers in Andrew Horstmann and Dhruv Patel. Their inside gap responsibilities will be put to the test with Combs and Smiley working the option game. But recent history sides with the Hornets, who held Barnstable's Hayden Murphy to just 21 rushing yards in the teams' Div. 2 South playoff game. Also, on the line, Steve Zieselman has enjoyed a strong senior season, earning Hockomock League All-Star honorers as a dependable two-way contributor, as well as John Keefe (56 tackles).

Junior linebacker Q'Ra Guichard has quietly led the Hornets in tackles (58 solo) to date, but last year's returning top tackler Alex Ruddy has caught up with 56 tackles, despite missing several games to start the season.

Not only will the loss of Hill set back Mansfield's passing game, the Hornets also lost their top pass rusher. Hill leads the team with 7.5 sacks.

Hornets senior Mike Barresi could draw the coverage assignment on Davon Jones, as Barresi leads the team with six passes defended.

Quick hits from last weekend, looking ahead

November, 12, 2013
11/12/13
1:13
AM ET
Some quick thoughts from last weekend’s second round of MIAA State Championship football playoffs, and looking ahead to this week’s sectional finals:

1a. Springfield Central’s Valdamar Brower and Leominster’s Dave Palazzi were my two front-runners for Coach of the Year headed into Friday, but Barnstable’s Chris Whidden has to be firmly in any discussion from herein, following Friday’s impressive stifling of Natick. At the beginning of the year, Whidden righted the ship before it even began to sink, making conditioning a high point of emphasis following their season-opening 37-9 whupping at the hands of archrival Dennis-Yarmouth. The Red Raiders came out of their bye week and proceeded to take down two Catholic Conference teams, BC High and Xaverian, in back to back weeks.

Last week, Whidden installed a Cover 2 defense –- a look they’ve never run all season long –- in three days to combat the wizardry of Troy Flutie. In what some would consider a shrewd move, Whidden opted not to match up his top defensive back (Derek Estes) with Natick’s most dangerous target (Alex Hilger), instead sticking a linebacker on Hilger and sagging the corners into zones. Whidden is a smart, smart coach, who knows how to quickly evaluate his opponent’s strengths and weaknesses and devise a flexible gameplan to counter. This was a team that some thought would not compete as well as they did a year ago, when they reached the D1A Super Bowl, yet here they are, two wins away from a return to Gillette Stadium.

We’re three years into the Whidden era, and I’ve already lost count of how many wins the Raiders have had over Top 10 opponents. By now, this is no fluke. The guy can flat out coach.

1b. All that said, this Friday’s D2 South Final could be Whidden’s best challenge yet. Long-time Mansfield coach Mike Redding is a chess grand master, but he’s never had a king piece quite like Brendan Hill. The 6-foot-6 junior already holds a Division 1 FBS offer (UMass), leads the Hornets in receiving (43 catches, 631 yards, 7 TD) and lines up everywhere on the perimeter, from tight end to slot receiver to split end. Back in Week 6, King Philip held Hill to his lowest receiving total of the season (3 catches, 43 yards) in a 20-7 loss to the Hornets, and they mixed up their coverage quite a bit on him – rolling coverages, pressing, bumping and passing him along to another zone.

But here’s the thing. If they decide to deploy special coverage on Hill, I think the Hornets are that kind of team that would use him as a decoy to open up other parts of the field for two of their other most dangerous targets, Michael Hershman and Miguel Villar-Perez. Just a great matchup here between two of the best schemers across the state. Expect some funky stuff.

2. Crazy stat line of the week, singles division: In two playoff games, Doherty wide receiver Alfred Adarkwah has four catches for 122 yards and four touchdowns. That’s right, literally every touch this postseason for the lanky 6-foot-4 senior has been for a score.

During the summer, coaches and players over on Highland St. hinted that the Highlanders had been experimenting Boston College-bound athlete Isaac YIadom and Adarkwah on the same side of formations during passing leagues, to positive results. For the most part, that hasn’t been the case. Rather, leaving Adarkwah on an island opposite Yiadom’s side of the formation has yielded dramatic results (see: Quabbin, first round). And here’s the dilemma: the moment you shade off of Yiadom, the threat of him ripping off a big gain increases threefold.

Monday film sessions at Doherty are called “Moss Monday” for a reason. When talking about players who have elevated their stock for All-State consideration with their playoff performances, Adarkwah is certainly in the discussion.

3. Crazy stat line of the week, pairs division: In two playoff games, Plymouth South’s Dylan Oxsen and Plymouth North’s Christian Carr have combined for 1,128 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns. Apart, they are the state’s two top playoff rushing leaders, with both scoring seven times and Oxsen holding a 26-yard edge. That alone should be reason enough to go see these two teams square off. Now put the Division 3 Southeast title on the line, and factor in the intensity of his heated cross-town rivalry (Romano Field was over capacity in the first meeting in September, a 4 p.m. start), and this has the makings of something special.

4. Leominster is going for an unprecedented sixth straight win over rival St. John’s of Shrewsbury, dating back to the start of 2011, when the two teams meet on Friday at Doyle Field for the D2 Central title, but I don’t think this is such a shoe-in for the Blue Devils. How quickly people forget that, after a dismal first half, quarterback Andrew Smiley lit up the Leominster defense in the second half with a slew of screen passes, with Mike McGillicuddy the primary benefactor. If they get off to a good start in the screen game, and stay committed to it, I think an upset is in play here for the Pioneers.

5. Another reason to love the new playoff format: four teams from the Hockomock League and three from the Atlantic Coast Leagues are playing for district titles this weekend. Under the former system, Hockomock Kelley-Rex runner-up Attleboro would not be playing for a D1 South title on Friday night, nor would Davenport runner-up Stoughton (D3 Southwest), while Kelley-Rex champ Mansfield (D2 South) and Oliver Ames (D3 Southwest) would be still in play. Meanwhile, ACL champ Plymouth South (D3 Southeast) would be playing while Plymouth North (D3 Southeast) and Dennis-Yarmouth (D4 South) would be sitting at home. Up North, we have an All-DCL D2 Final (Lincoln-Sudbury vs. Waltham) and an All-Middlesex D3 Northwest Final (Woburn vs. Melrose). Honestly, what’s not to like about that?

6a. I’ve asked to several coaches playing non-playoff games about their approach, and whether they try to get underclassmen experience or let the seniors finish out their glory. Most of them said the same thing –- you have to balance the two. But the overarching theme I sensed with their talks was that, like a lower-tier college bowl game, there isn’t a lot of pressure so you might as well have some fun.

There’s still some interesting storylines to be played out there. For a football junkie like me, I actually look forward to some of these unique matchups, such as last weekend’s matchup between Somerset-Berkley’s “double wing” scheme and Nauset’s unique “Notre Dame Box” variation of the Single Wing, complete with spinning fullbacks. Elsewhere, Natick’s Troy Flutie needs one touchdown pass to tie the state’s all-time mark, and assuming he’s healthy enough to play, he could very well do it Friday against Needham.

6b. Which brings us to our final crazy stat line of the week, non-playoff division: In two post-qualification games, Pope John Paul II junior quarterback Ryan Barabe is completing 86 percent of his passes (31-of-36) for 488 yards and six touchdowns. That’s right, 86 percent, or 18 points higher than his regular season percentage. I’m on record saying the Lions were snubbed in D6 South, an unfair casualty of second league automatic qualifiers, and I’m wondering if this non-playoff run will help build a case for detractors.

D2 Central: St. John's (S) 56, Marlborough 20

November, 9, 2013
11/09/13
6:12
PM ET
SHREWSBURY, Mass. -- St. John's senior quarterback Drew Smiley threw for three touchdowns and added a pair on the ground as the Pioneers (7-2) routed visiting Marlborough (7-2) 56-20 in Saturday’s Division 2 Central semifinal.

The Pioneers started things quickly, forcing the Panthers into a three-and-out on their opening drive, before explosive athlete Davon Jones (4 catches, 92 yards; 5 kick returns, 155 yards, TD) returned a punt 45 yards for the game's first score. The Pioneer defense forced another Panther punt moments later, but this time it would be Smiley (12-of-14 passing, 205 yards, 3 TD; 4 carries, 70 yards 2 TD) scoring for St. John's, keeping it himself for a 58-yard touchdown run on the Pioneers’ first play from scrimmage.

Less than two minutes in, St. John's led 14-0. It was a stark contrast to the first time these teams met.

"We've been talking all week about winning the moment," Pioneers coach John Andreoli said. "We came out last time (against Marlboro) and did not have a good first half, and I think we were relaxed today. We were well prepared, and we had confidence in our reads and in our mechanics. Our kids played to their ability, and it was a complete game for us."

The Panthers answered with a Will Cowdrey one-yard touchdown run, but Smiley responded with an 11-play, 90-yard drive that took up just over two minutes of game time before he found junior running back Shane Combs (15 carries, 100 yards, 2 TD; 2 catches, 3 yards, TD) for a 15-yard passing score.

Smiley would punch in a one-yard score on the next St. John's drive before Pioneer linebacker Patrick Ryan intercepted Panther quarterback John Rumney, setting up another Smiley touchdown pass, this one a 44-yard strike to leading receiver Michael McGillicuddy (2 catches, 50 yards). Three plays later, linebacker Anthony Moroski picked off another Rumney pass, running it back inside the Marlborough 20, and setting up Smiley's final touchdown of the day to senior T.J. Kelly.

St. John's led 42-7 at that point.

"Last time we played Marlborough it was pretty windy, so we couldn't really throw it," Smiley said. "So this time we tried to open it up and throw it around a little bit. Then, (on the zone read) it opened up room for Shane, and when they committed to him I just kept it and had space."

Marlborough scored on the following drive, after senior receiver Matt Thall drew back-to-back pass interference calls, and the Panthers threatened to pull within 21. But, with a first and goal at the Pioneer one-yard line, Rumney was stopped for a four-yard loss by senior defensive end Jeff DeMango, then forced into two incompletions by the stingy Pioneer secondary. The half ended with St. John's leading 42-14.

The second half started with a bang for St. John's, as Combs took the first play from scrimmage for a 55-yard rushing touchdown. Rumney answered with a 23-yard passing touchdown to Jose Caquias, but Combs' 15-yard touchdown to start the fourth quarter pushed the score to 56-20 in favor of St. John's, and brought the Pioneer backups into the game.

"I think our offensive line really set the tone," Combs, a recent Notre Dame baseball commit, said. "From the get-go they were coming off the line and pounding (Marlborough) back, and by the end of the game they didn't want to line up against us. All the credit to the O-line for pushing them back all day."

Next up for St. John's is a highly anticipated rematch of their season opener against rival Leominster. The Blue Devils defeated the Pioneers 33-22 at home the first time around, and the Division 2 Central final will also be played at Leominster's Doyle Field.

Coach Andreoli and his team know it won't be easy. After all, the Pioneers have yet to defeat Leominster with head coach Dave Palazzi at the helm, but St. John's is still relishing the second chance it's getting.

"They're the defending champions, they're undefeated," Andreoli said. "We know it's going to be a challenge, but we're just going to try to line up and win every snap. I think it's a great opportunity for us to have a great week and go up there and play our best game.

"This season was my first indoctrination into the Leominster-St. John's rivalry," Combs, a transfer from St. Louis, said. "The first game I was amazed by the energy of this rivalry. Right now it comes down to preparation, and I know we have a chip on our shoulder, and we're going to out-prepare them."

St. John’s will face Leominster in the D2 Central final Friday at 7 p.m., at Doyle Field.

Recap: No. 21 St. John's (S) 35, Marlborough 20

October, 26, 2013
10/26/13
11:22
PM ET
SHREWSBURY, Mass. -- Marlborough did everything right in the first half. The Panthers dominated time of possession, and outside of a 73-yard Drew Smiley to Mike McGillicuddy touchdown pass, they were in total control against St. John’s (Shrewsbury), holding a 13-point edge.

But, as we know, it takes two halves to win and Marlborough learned that lesson the hard way. The No. 21 Pioneers reversed roles over the final 22 minutes, scoring 28 unanswered points to post a 35-20 victory this afternoon at windy Pioneer Field.

"The first half we were like 'Dawn of the Dead' out there," St. John's coach John Andreoli said. "But in the second half we played our butts off. The kids never quit and we ran the ball with some authority in the second half. Defensively we dug in and gave our offense a chance to go back to work. Marlborough is a good football team but at times we shot ourselves in the foot in that first half by turning the ball over or having penalties on first down. We had to flush the first half and needed to come out and play hard in the second which we did."

What went so well for the previously undefeated Panthers (6-1) in the opening half turned into a house of horrors following intermission. After managing a paltry 106 yards of offense in the first half, St. John's (5-2) started to find its groove offensively and finished the game with 343 yards.

Unable to successfully move the ball early on, the Pioneers began to gain traction midway through the third quarter. Holes in Marlborough's defense began to widen and Smiley, a senior, was starting to find receivers getting open in the secondary.

The start of St. John's turnaround came midway through the third. On their second possession, the Pioneers drove 81 yards behind hard-charging junior running back Shane Combs (8 carries for 79 yards). That would lead to a 1-yard Smiley dive over the goal line, narrowing the deficit to 20-14 with 1:52 remaining in the quarter.

Marlborough's offense, which conjured up 205 first half yards but only 64 the rest of the way, failed in its attempts to move the ball against a rejuvenated St. John's defense. The Panthers' continuing efforts of keeping the Pioneers offense off the field eventually would backfire.

Early in the fourth quarter, Marlborough managed to reach the Pioneers 37. Facing a fourth-and-5 Marlborough opted to go for it. Quarterback John Rumney was stopped in his tracks for no gain, thus turning the ball back over to St. John's. Rumney, a senior, threw for 106 yards on 12-of-28 passing. He also led his team in rushing, gaining 72 yards on 14 carries.

"We thought we had a play there," Panthers coach Sean Mahoney said. "We didn't want to give their offense the ball back. Offensively, their offense was starting to click at that point.

“Defensively, I felt our kids got worn down a little bit. We threw the ball fairly well in tough, windy conditions but so did they. We weren't able to run the ball and that was a big difference. When we needed to run it we weren't able to. We battled them but we needed to convert on a couple of third and fourth downs in the second half and we didn't."

With the ball back in the hands of the St. John's offense, a 23-yard completion by Smiley to T.J. Kelley set up Smiley's 37-yard scamper down the left side line into the end zone. Jack Coveney's PAT put St. John's ahead to stay 21-20 with 3:38 to go.

"Our coaches told us we needed to come out with more intensity in the second half," said Smiley, who completed 9-of-16 passes for 147 yards, a touchdown, and rushed for 106 yards on 21 attempts, finding the end zone three times. "That first half was the worst half of football this team has played. We came out of halftime and played with a lot more intensity. We knew we could pound the ball and finally got it going in the second half. The way we played in the second half is the way we need to play throughout the entire upcoming playoffs."

While the Panthers, suddenly anemic, offense continuing to struggle, the Pioneers got the ball back on Marlborough's 28. Needing just one play, Smiley darted around left end for the score to put his team up 28-20 with 2:32 left. On the Panthers' next possession, Rumney was blindsided by defensive end Jeff DeMango, which resulted in a fumble that was recovered by Mike Duquette on the Marlborough 1-yard line. Running back Brad Sylvester closed this contest out with an easy plunge over the middle to make it a 15-point contest.

"When our offensive line started to get off the ball we and started to gain some confidence," Andreoli said. "Shane [Combs] was getting some tremendous yards after contact and that really got us going. Then we were able to use the wind in the fourth quarter and started to throw the ball and move the ball down field. I think the field position game really came into play for us in that fourth quarter."

McGillicuddy's early touchdown catch staked St. John's out to a 7-0 lead.

The Panthers answered two series later after Rumney hit receiver Matt Thall for a 9-yard scoring reception. Marlborough had to settle for just the six points after the following PAT sailed wide. With Thall, who also plays linebacker, given the assignment to shadow Smiley, the senior did an outstanding job containing a serious running threat. After its first score, St. John's offense did little the remainder of the half.

Marlborough took advantage of that by grabbing a 13-7 lead at 6:44 of the second quarter on Jose Caquias' 6-yard sprint around left end. Following another Pioneer four-and-out, the Panthers set up shot at their 48. A Caquias option pass to Alec Deveau netting 50 yards set the stage for Rumney's 2-yard run at 4:57, pushing the margin to 20-7. St. John's would have the ball three more times before the half was completed but could do nothing with it.

Mr. Football Watch: Week 5

October, 8, 2013
10/08/13
5:45
PM ET
Here is our latest "Mr. Football Watch" following Week 5 of the 2013 season. Statistics can be sent to editors Brendan Hall (bhall@espnboston.com) and/or Scott Barboza (sbarboza@espnboston.com)

THE CONTENDERS*

Troy Flutie, Sr. QB, Natick
Boston College commit completed 14 of 27 passes for 228 yards and four touchdowns, and added 47 yards on the ground, in a 28-0 shutout of Norwood.

Brendan Hill, Jr. TE, Mansfield
Caught four passes for 76 yards and a score in the Hornets’ 49-42 win over Attleboro.

Hayden Murphy, Sr. ATH, Barnstable
Ran for 115 yards and three touchdowns in the Red Raiders’ 35-14 win over New Bedford.

Neil O’Connor, Sr. QB/S, Leominster
In just one half of football in the Blue Devils’ 34-0 shutout of Wachusett, accounted for 201 yards of offense and capped things off with a nifty 90-yard interception return to the house.

Mike Panepinto, Sr. RB, Needham
Ran for 135 yards and three touchdowns in the Rockets’ 34-12 win over Framingham.

Rufus Rushins, Jr. RB, Bishop Fenwick
Carried 24 times for 233 yards and four touchdowns in the Crusaders’ commanding 42-20 rout of Cardinal Spellman.

Andrew Smiley, Sr. QB, St. John’s (Shrewsbury)
In the Pioneers’ 49-21 win over Nashoba, completed 23 of 29 passes for 335 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions, and added 67 rushing yards.

Cody Williams, Sr., Springfield Central
Monmouth commit completed 13 of 18 passes for 202 yards and two touchdowns, and added 118 yards and a third score on the ground, in the Golden Eagles’ 19-7 win over Longmeadow.

Ju’an Williams, Sr., Springfield Central
Caught five passes for 96 yards and a touchdown in the Golden Eagles’ 19-7 win over Longmeadow

Kyle Wisnieski, Sr. QB, Mansfield
Completed 19 of 28 passes for 311 yards and three touchdowns in the Hornets’ 49-42 thriller over Attleboro.

Isaac Yiadom, Sr. WR/DB, Doherty
Recorded a touchdown catch, his second of the year, in the Highlanders’ 40-12 rout of Worcester South. Through four games he is averaging 30.9 yards per catch, and has recorded 37 tackles on defense.


FIVE ON THE RISE

Bo Berluti, Sr. QB, Westwood
Accounted for 255 yards of offense and three total touchdowns in the Wolverines’ 43-41 double-overtime epic over archrival Holliston. But it will be his gutsy 25-yard, fourth and goal TD pass in the second overtime that will go down in folklore.

Derrell Fernandez, Sr. RB, Weymouth
Carried 225 times for 264 yards and five touchdowns in the Wildcats’ 42-18 win over Brookline.

Mike McGillicuddy, Sr. WR, St. John’s (Shrewsbury)
The elusive slot receiver caught nine passes for 113 yards in the Pioneers’ 49-21 win over Nashoba.

Tom Rodrick, Sr. LB, Leicester
The UConn commit recorded 12 tackles, a sack, and blocked field goal in the Wolverines’ 15-6 win over Auburn.

Alex Valles, Sr. RB, Danvers
Carried 24 times for 211 yards and three scores in the Falcons’ 20-12 win over Revere.


TOP STATISTICAL LEADERS IN MASSACHUSETTS

Rushing
Brooks Tyrrell, Jr., Marblehead – 889 yards, 9 total TD
Johnathan Thomas, Sr., St. John’s Prep – 748 yards, 8 total TD
Mark Wright, Sr., Auburn – 760 yards, 8 TD
Olan Abner, Sr., Bedford – 733 yards, 7 TD
Christian Perez, Sr., Northeast – 725 yards, 8 total TD

Passing
Dylan Kierman, Sr., Quabbin – 1,230 yards, 19 TD
John Rumney, Sr., Marlborough – 1,086 yards, 14 TD
Matthew Jeye, Sr., Holliston – 1,072 yards, 11 TD
Troy Flutie, Sr., Natick – 1,035 yards, 17 TD
Andrew Smiley, Sr., St. John’s (Shrewsbury) – 955 yards, 11 TD

Receiving
Zach Elkinson, Jr., Holliston – 405 yards, 7 TD
Brian Daly, Sr., Marblehead – 395 yards, 8 TD
Dan Henrickson, Sr., St. Peter-Marian – 380 yards, 5 TD
Isaac Yiadom, Sr., Doherty – 371 yards, 2 TD
Mike Bombard, Sr., Chicopee Comp – 369 yards, 3 TD

Dual Threat
Dylan Kierman, Sr., Quabbin – 1,230 passing yards, 284 rushing yards, 21 total TD
Troy Flutie, Sr., Natick – 1,035 passing yards, 316 rushing yards, 18 total TD
Matthew Jeye, Sr., Holliston – 1,072 passing yards, 167 rushing yards, 14 total TD
Andrew Smiley, Sr., St. John’s (Shrewsbury) 955 passing yards, 169 rushing yards, 16 total TD
Cody Williams, Sr., Springfield Central – 851 passing yards, 254 rushing yards, 13 total TD



*Not including teams who were idle last weekend.

Player of the Week: St. John's (S) Mike McGillicuddy

October, 1, 2013
10/01/13
1:03
AM ET
In one of the more dramatic, or miraculous endings to a MIAA football game in recent memory, St. John's of Shrewsbury's Mike McGillicuddy delivered his team from a potential upset at the hands of Fitchburg on Saturday.

After a last-minute touchdown gave the Red Raiders a 15-14 at Pioneer Field, McGillicuddy fielded Fitchburg's squib kick and promptly raced 65 yards for the touchdown with no time remaining on the clock in a 20-15 victory.

For his heroics, McGillicuddy was named our ESPN Boston Player of the Week for Week 4.

Editor Brendan Hall caught up with McGillicuddy during Monday's workout:



Along with McGillicuddy, here are our top performers for Week 4, all game-winners:
  • Mike McGillicuddy, St. John's (Shrewsbury): Ran for "walk-off" win with 65-yard kickoff return for touchdown with no time remaining vs. Fitchburg.
  • Dereck Pacheco, Barnstable: Connected on a 32-yard field goal to lift the Red Raiders to a 15-14 upset win over then No. 1 Xaverian.
  • Sal LoBrutto, Wakefield: Kept the Warriors unbeaten with a 22-yard field goal in an overtime victory over Melrose.

Leftover quick-hit thoughts from the weekend

September, 30, 2013
9/30/13
12:38
PM ET
Some leftover quick-hit thoughts from last weekend's action of football:

1a. If St. John's Prep running back Johnathan Thomas -- who left the second half of Saturday's game against Everett with a knee injury -- is out for any extended period of time, the Eagles might be in trouble. Much of the offense funnels through Thomas, and with plays like this it's easy to see why. In my 10 years covering high school football in Massachusetts, I have no problem saying he is the best I've ever seen.

If there's a silver lining, it's that this could open things up for two promising juniors on the perimeter, receiver Owen Rocket and tight end Jake Burt. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Burt has a high ceiling of potential, even drawing comparisons to Prep legend Jon Loyte, and has been a matchup problem in the short to intermediate passing game thus far. Rocket is a smooth route-runner, able to weave in and out of traffic and exploit coverage holes.

You obviously cannot replace a special kid like Thomas, but perhaps this could make the Eagles more unpredictable.

1b. It now bears asking. If Thomas -- who seemed to be running away with the ESPN Boston Mr. Football award at his current clip -- is out for the considerable future, is the race for title of the state's best player wide open again? Lots of names to consider here, most notably Springfield Central quarterback Cody Williams, Natick quarterback Troy Flutie, Leominster quarterback Neil O'Connor, Plymouth South running back Dylan Oxsen, and Millis/Hopedale two-way lineman Jon Baker.

2. An historic year for Mansfield continues to get better, as they ascend to the No. 1 spot in our statewide poll for the first time in our four seasons of coverage. As impressive as the North Attleborough win was, the upset of Baltimore-area powerhouse Dunbar continues to strengthen with the passing weeks. As Dave Redding points out on Mansfield football's website, (www.mansfieldfootball.org) since losing to Mansfield on Sept. 6, the Poets have won three straight outscored their opposition 136-18.

3a. If you missed the thrilling conclusion to the Fitchburg-St. John's of Shrewsbury battle on Saturday afternoon, you missed one of the best endings to a high school football game in years. Fitchburg quarterback Darius Flowers hit Manny Payton for a 16-yard touchdown strike with 13 seconds to go, then tailback Julio Gonzalez ran in the two-point try to give the Red Raiders a 15-14 lead. The ensuing kickoff, a high-hopping squib, was then returned 65 yards to the house by Mike McGillicuddy for walk-off 20-15 Pioneers win.

I'm not sure Fitchburg has endured a special teams heartbreak like that since the 1994 Division 1 Super Bowl, when North Middlesex pulled off a Boise State-esque fake punt for the 50-yard game-winning touchdown run, a play forever known in Central Mass. folklore as simply the "Norman Special".

3b. If there's anything to take away from that game, besides the incredible gumption of McGillicuddy, it's that much like Barnstable in Division 2 South, Fitchburg is not a team you want to draw in the first round of Division 2 Central action. Their defensive front four is impressive, and they controlled the line of scrimmage against St. John's for much of the afternoon.

4. There's a lot of talk early in the ISL season about running backs and linebackers, but keep an eye on Belmont Hill junior quarterback Harry Kraft. He had a field day on Saturday in a 38-11 win over Groton, completing 17 of 27 passes for 250 yards and four touchdowns, and running in a fifth score.

5. A year ago, I mentioned the Cape & Islands area as an area of particular interest for under-the-radar talent, with a number of prospects earning Division 1 roster spots: Nantucket's Terrel Correia (UMass), Nauset's Derrick and Nathan Holmes (Rhode Island) and Dakota Girard (Brown), Mashpee's Jordan Keli'inui and Zak Orcutt (UMass), Dennis-Yarmouth's Joe Tyo (UMass) and Barnstable's Nick Peabody (Princeton), Andrew Ellis (UMass) and D.J. Crook (Penn State).

The Cape appears to be brewing again. Barnstable receiver/cornerback Derek Estes is one of the state's breakout stars of the first half of the season, making back-breaking plays on both sides of the ball in upsets of BC High and Xaverian. Two of his teammates, running back/safety Hayden Murphy and quarterback Kristian Lucashensky, deserve some praise for the way they've improved since the season-opening rout by D-Y.

Further down Route 6, keep an eye on two prospects from the lowest classification of MIAA football, Division 6. Defending D5 Super Bowl champ Upper Cape Tech is looking good with its flex offense, and at the forefront is Jon Dumont, who had 26 carries for 216 yards and four touchdowns in Saturday's win over Nantucket. At Pope John Paul II, they might have one of the most unheralded 2015 prospects in quarterback Ryan Barabe. Through four games the 6-foot-4, 175-pound Yarmouth resident is among the state's most efficient passers, completing 68 percent of his throws for 776 yards and eight touchdowns to just one interception. A good chunk of the Lions' plays involve option routes for their receivers, which to me demonstrates a lot of maturity when you consider Barabe's completion percentage.

Recap: No. 8 Leominster 33, No. 12 St. John's (S) 22

September, 14, 2013
9/14/13
12:15
AM ET
LEOMINSTER, Mass. -- Over the past two seasons, the St. John's defense has provided no answers in how to stop, or even slow down, Leominster's vaunted dual-threat offense. The Pioneer coaching staff have been often left scratching their heads in trying to develop new concepts to keep the Blue Devils out of the end zone.

After Friday night's 33-22 season-opening defeat at Doyle Field, it appears as though St. John's still hasn't gotten it right and another trip back to the drawing board seems imminent.

Leominster's offensive unit punched the Pioneers square in the mouth, accumulating 397 yards while managing to sustain several drives after converting key first downs. The victory marks the Blue Devils' fifth straight over St. John's dating back to 2011. Included among those triumphs are a pair of Super Bowl titles. The Pioneers, as was the case in the previous meetings, had trouble tackling and in their coverage schemes. Neither worked.

Senior quarterback Neil O'Connor, having not played the position since his freshman season, looked truly at ease. The former wide receiver completed 18 of 24 passes for 195 yards and a touchdown. He proved just as effective on ground, scoring three times, finishing with 71 yards on 12 attempts.

"This is a great win because it is always a battle with them," said O'Connor, who like many others was battling cramps in the muggy conditions. "This is the funnest team to play other than (Thanksgiving rival) Fitchburg. We always come out for every game and try to play Leominster-type football. Tonight was a great atmosphere under the lights before a packed house at our own field. This win certainly gets us rolling now. I had never played quarterback in an atmosphere like this so I just tried to block it all out and focus on what we needed to do."

Having lost a couple of key personnel to graduation, nonetheless, the Blue Devils still returned a solid nucleus on both sides of the football. Likewise, St. John's had strong weaponry at key positions, primarily on the offensive side.

The Pioneer defense had issues trying to shut down Leominster's pistol formation. At times, they looked dazed and confused on whether or not to key on the run or the pass. In several cases their decision in choosing what to defend wound up costing them on the scoreboard.

"Overall defensively we had a couple of third down situations where we didn't stop them," Pioneers coach John Andreoli said. "(O'Connor) made a couple of tremendous athletic plays and we missed quite a few tackles and Leominster made us pay for it. In a game like this against a team like that you cannot make mistakes and we did."

After coming up short on their first series, the Blue Devils were given a short field on their next one. St. John's punter Shane Combs mis-handled the snap and was dropped for a 16 yard loss giving Leominster the ball on the Pioneer 21. Four runs by O'Connor set up running back James Gurley's four-yard toss into the end zone giving the Blue Devils a 6-0 lead. St. John's senior quarterback Drew Smiley (18 of 35, 194 yards) answered the score with one of his own, darting into the end zone on a seven-yard carry. Following the PAT, the Pioneers led 7-6 early in the second quarter.

The remainder of the half, however, belonged to Leominster. O'Connor danced his away out of an apparent sack, turning it into a 15 yard scoring run. Jarell Addo's follow-up conversion catch had the Blue Devils back in front 14-7. After getting the ball back, the Pioneers quickly gave it away after Combs fumbled it over to the Blue Devils, putting them in great shape on the Pioneer 48. With just 30 seconds left in the quarter, O'Connor threw an 18 yard strike to receiver Jake Allain (six catches, 78 yards) over the middle to increase the Blue Devils lead to 20-7 going into the half.

Realizing the offense they were using over the first 22 minutes wasn't working, St. John's opted to go with much safer pass patterns for its heralded signal-caller. The Pioneers discovered the screen pass could be an effective weapon to get them back in this tilt. Senior receiver Mike McGillicuddy, who did not catch a pass the entire first half, was St. John's primary receiver of choice throughout the second.

McGillicuddy finished with eight receptions totalling 90 yards. He inched St. John's closer after hauling in a seven-yard pass from Smiley on the team's first drive to begin the third quarter, making it 20-14. But Leominster always had an answer. Marching 80 yards on the ensuing possession, O'Connor finished it off with a 1 yard dive with 3 minutes remaining in the quarter to hoist the Blue Devils lead out to 26-14.

St. John's got the ball back and were starting to find holes in the Leominster defense. Moving the ball to the Blue Devil 13 and facing fourth down, Smiley, who was continuously forced outside the pocket by a hard-charging Leominster front line, lofted a ball into the end zone that was picked off by Allain. Moments later, to start the fourth, the Pioneers again drove deep into Leominster territory but this time they capitalized as Smiley found junior Devon Jones on a 26 yard scoring reception. Smiley then added the conversion run to suddenly bring the Pioneers to within four at 26-22 with 7:44 to go.

But once again the Blue Devils found a way to storm back. Methodically moving the ball down field, and showing great poise, the objective to chew time off the clock and tack on more points to put this out of reach appeared destined. Leominster did just that. Aided by a critical pass interference penalty, the Blue Devils took advantage as O'Connor, upon seeing the Pioneer defense taking away the inside gaps, ran an option-keeper outside the right tackle and rumbled 24 yards untouched into the end zone to seal the deal for Leominster.

"We knew St. John's likes to run spread on offense," said Blue Devils coach Dave Palazzi, his club holding the Pioneers to 246 yards, only 42 in the first half. "We just felt we needed to play our game and focus on the whole field. Our 11 guys did a great job out there on defense. It was a great performance on both sides of the ball. We had a great game plan on both sides. I cannot say enough of the effort they put forth tonight."

Johnson honored: Longtime Leominster baseball coach was honored before Friday night's game. Johnson who accumulated 725 victories, recently stepped down from the position. Johnson was three Division 1 state championships with the Blue Devils in 1986, 1988 and 1996. He is a member of the Massachusetts Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame, Fitchburg State University Hall of Fame and will be inducted into Leominster's inaugural Hall of Fame class this weekend.

Light remembered: St. John's players wore stickers on its helmets with the initials "DJL" in honor of Daniel Jonathan Light who passed away this past summer from ALS. Light is the father of former Pioneer standout quarterback Dan Light, who is now playing defensive back at Fordham University.

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