By Mike Grenier
DANVERS — Tommy Gaudet attended St. John's of Peabody, but when he graduated from eighth grade there was no chance that he would move on to Peabody High as a student-athlete.
He didn't dislike the high school or the kids who went there, but for family reasons he was ticketed for St. John's Prep.
"My brothers Gary, 22, and Stephen, 20, both went to St. John's Prep, so from the time I was in fourth grade I kind of knew I'd be coming here," Gaudet said during a break at St. John's Prep football practice yesterday.
Even though there was no last-minute suspense about his high school decision, he still hears about it from his friends who play for Peabody High, who will be gunning for a big upset when these two Division 1 rivals meet in the season opener Saturday at St. John's Prep (1:30 p.m.).
"They're talking a little smack over there, saying they're going to beat us," Gaudet, a junior quarterback, said matter-of-factly. "I played Peabody Pop Warner with those kids, so I know them. That's just a good competitive attitude on their part."
It should be very competitive and emotional Saturday — for both teams. St. John's Prep, which is favored, is coming off two consecutive losing seasons (5-6 and 4-6), which is an alien concept in Eagle Nation.
Meanwhile, Peabody has been burdened by five straight losing seasons and has had an especially rough time against St. John's Prep. In their last five meetings, St. John's has beaten Peabody by an average margin of 32-5.
Both teams are hungry to get off on the right foot. The Peabody Tanners have made strides under third-year coach Scott Wlasuk, and even a narrow victory over St. John's Prep would give his team instant credibility and a tremendous amount of confidence. But with an untested quarterback in Gaudet and a green team overall, St. John's Prep needs it, too.
"Yeah, it's been a while since we've beaten them," said Wlasuk, alluding to the 1993 Super Bowl where Peabody rolled to a 36-0 upset. "It would do our program wonders if we come out of there with a win. It's a huge day for our kids personally and a huge day for our program.
"We're ready to turn the corner in the rebuilding process," he added. "I feel that we've got a great group of kids this season, but it's never easy against St. John's Prep. You look at their (losing) record in the last couple of years and I think it's deceiving. They're such a good program that they go out of state for opponents; I think that speaks highly of them.
"But I told our kids it's about time we win one against them. It won't be the end of the world if we don't, but we'd like to get it. Win or lose, I expect us to play more competitive than we have the last couple of years."
Gaudet has zero experience as a varsity quarterback, yet St. John's would appear to have an edge at the skill positions because of Tyler Coppola, who had a combined 720 yards and five touchdowns as a rusher/receiver last season as a junior. Coppola is also an important factor on special teams.
"He led us in just about everything," St. John's Prep coach Jim O'Leary said of Coppola. "We'll spread it around, but we believe he can carry the load for us.
"We have a long tradition with Peabody. When Niz (referring to Ed Nizwantowski) was coaching there, we'd also scrimmage them and get more people at that scrimmage than a lot of teams get at their games. We don't get a whole lot of opportunities to play teams from the North Shore, so we appreciate it. With our exotic schedule, it's good to cross over and play them. They'll be excited to play us. It's opening day and there'll be a lot of emotion on both sides."
Peabody will come in with a lot of unproven talent. Quarterback Jason Hiou threw just two passes as an understudy last season and the top returning pass catcher, Brian DeAngelis, had nine receptions for 117 yards. Brady Doyle (237 rushing yards last season) will be much more active this season, and everyone at Peabody is excited about Nat Gaye's potential at running back.
"Gaye started at outside linebacker and was our third-leading tackler last season. And, looking back, I kind of regret not giving him the ball more on offense," said Wlasuk.
"Overall, I'm confident in the athletic ability of our skill position guys. Hiou is a very intelligent kid at quarterback and DeAngelis committed himself by getting into the best shape possible after the basketball season and should have a big year."
Gaudet had the advantage of getting pointers from NFL quarterback and former Prep standout Brian St. Pierre, who graciously spent part of his summer instructing the Eagles at informal workouts. He's looking at the Peabody game — and the whole season — as a huge opportunity. Slated to be the backup this season, he moved up the depth chart when last year's starter, Chris Coady, transferred to Buckingham, Brown and Nichols.
O'Leary is trying not to put too much on Gaudet's shoulders as a first-time starter. He wants him to "manage the game." In other words, don't expect the Eagles throw the ball 20 or 30 times.
"I'm going to do what I can to help the team," said Gaudet. "I want to help Tyler and the other running backs do what they do best."
No matter how much he's asked to do, Gaudet wouldn't mind having the bragging rights of a winner when he goes home to Peabody.
LET'S GET IT STARTED
Who: Peabody at St. John's Prep
When: Saturday, 1:30 p.m.
Where: Cronin Field, St. John's Prep
Last year's outcome: St. John's Prep, 32-7