By Jean DePlacido
---- — LAWRENCE — After a first half shootout when both teams traded points, an air-tight St. John’s Prep defense and a whole lot of Johnny Thomas made all the difference in the world for the visitors over the final 22 minutes last night.
Host Central Catholic didn’t score a point over the final two quarters while the Eagles put up 19 points to prevail in a battle of two of the top teams in Eastern Mass., 40-21, before a large crowd at Lawrence Veterans Memorial Stadium.
Thomas had another banner night for the Eagles, rushing for 240 yards and three touchdowns. But it was a huge defensive play by the Maryland-bound standout that drove the nail in Central’s coffin as he had a sensational 107-yard interception return for a touchdown late in the contest. He picked off Raiders quarterback Mike Milano in his own end zone and took off down the left sideline; after appearing to be stopped around the 50, he broke out of tackles and sprinted to the end zone.
“I’ve never seen anything like that — and I’ve been around a long time,” said St. John’s Prep (2-1) head coach Jim O’Leary. “That was something else. We’ve just to keep him healthy.”
A Peabody native, Thomas said he didn’t realize he was in the end zone when he made the pick; he thought he corralled it at the 1-yard line.
“When I realized I was in the end zone, I had to bring it out,” Thomas said. “I wasn’t sure where I was on the field at first.
“This was a great win for us; now we have to get ready for Everett (next week at home). I know we’re going to have a hard week of practice. We’ve got to stay humble.”
Central Catholic stunned the Eagles with an 80-yard, seven-play opening drive as University of New Hampshire-bound D’Andre Drummond-Mayrie barreled into the end zone from three yards out. That touchdown was set up by a 43-yard pass from Milano to Cody Demers.
“Wow. That first series surprised us, but we settled down,” said O’Leary. “We are maturing as a football team, and our defense did a nice job in the second half.”
Owen Rockett, Thomas and quarterback Mike Geaslen all had touchdown runs in the first half for St. John’s before the Raiders scored with 18 seconds left until intermission, tying the game at 21-21. Central threatened to take the lead early in the third quarter when the Prep defense caused a fumble at their own 13-yard line. Immediately they capitalized, driving 87 yards for the go-ahead score on a Thomas 6-yard scamper.
That lead grew to 33-21 midway through the fourth quarter when Geaslen threw a 34-yard TD pass to Logan Mahoney, who caught the ball at the 2 with a defender draped all over him and surged forward for the score. Thomas’ electric interception runback then ended any hopes of a Central comeback.
Brandan Kahari also had a strong game defensively for St. John’s.