By Matt Williams
---- — PEABODY — The last time the St. John’s Prep football team was on field turf, they were celebrating a Division 1 Super Bowl championship at Bentley University last December.
Last night on the turf at Bishop Fenwick’s Donaldson Field, the celebration was much more subtle. The Eagles are keenly aware that their New England Championship in the Northeast 7v7 tournament offers no guarantees of success this fall, but still represents a great first step.
The silver bowl style trophy they earned last night by beating St. Paul’s of Connecticut in the final, 16-14, and the assortment of Under Armour gear the players receive for participating are handsome rewards.
“It’s organized backyard football,” said the Prep’s Jake Burt, a 6-foot-4 tight end who’s a force in a 7-on-7 setting because of his reach and ability to ‘box out’ defenders. “I’m out here doing what I’ve always down in backyard football — going up for the ball.”
The Prep was one of 24 teams at Fenwick last night to compete for the New England title. The clubs were divided into six brackets of four, and each team played three games before the top two from each bracket advanced.
St. John’s won its first three games to advance and earn a bye; it then defeated Portsmouth and Chelmsford to reach the final against St. Paul, a team featuring UConn-commit Logan Marchi at quarterback.
“He threw some dimes out there. To go against a team like that, with some good athletes and a great quarterback, we had a bunch of fun out there,” said Johnny Thomas, St. John’s Prep’s Maryland-committed running back, who made some dazzling athletic catches along the sidelines throughout the evening.
Quarterback Michael Geaslen was sharp for St. John’s and, along with Burt and Thomas, Owen Rockett proved to be a versatile threat on both offense and defense.
“He rarely misses; the kid has hands like glue,” said Thomas, jokingly adding, “Owen might have better hands than my friend (and recently graduated Eagles stalwart) Gerald (Kahari).”
The Northeast 7v7 events, sponsored by Under Armour and organized in part by Swamspcott head football coach Steve Dembowski, has grown by leaps and bounds over the last few seasons. The tournament now features three regionals — North (held in New Hampshire), South (held at Oliver Ames) and East (held last Saturday here at Fenwick). The games are typically 20-30 minutes and are contested with a snapper, quarterback and receivers against the defense. One touch signifies a tackle, and the quarterback must throw the ball within four seconds or he’s considered sacked. The officials are regular high school referees.
The benefits to the players are twofold: first, they can practice their routes and timing in the passing games (and their ability to defense the pass on the other side of the ball), and secondly, they can build team chemistry in a competitive atmosphere.
“We look at it as a team-builder. They guys are out playing together — I think they played seven games over two days,” said Bishop Fenwick head coach and athletic director Dave Woods. “They’re together; that’s the biggest thing. They’re running around and even though there’s no pads on, they’re building a relationship between quarterback and receiver.”
Swampscott and Fenwick were the only local teams to qualify for New England’s besides St. John’s Prep. Fenwick was eliminated in pool play and the Big Blue went 2-1, but lost on a tiebreaker and didn’t advance. Around the North Shore, Winthrop advanced to the 12-team playoff but lost, and Lynn English went to the semis before falling to St. Paul’s.
From the Northeastern Conference, eight of the 11 teams (all but Peabody, Beverly and Marblehead) participated in a Northeast 7v7 event, and eight of the 12 from Cape Ann League did, too, along with Pingree.
In all, 64 teams (40 Saturday and 24 last night) were involved in competition on Fenwick’s campus this week; the games were spread between Donaldson Field and the sprawling grass behind Fenwick’s baseball and softball diamonds.
“It’s a ton of exposure and it’s a great thing for the school to be able to host something like this,” said Woods. “This place has been busy.”
The knock on 7-on-7 football is, of course, that there are no linemen, no hitting and no running game. That’s true, but you can’t discount the ability to work on specific skills.
Take Fenwick junior Rufus Rushins, a bruising running back who loves contact. He took all kinds of positives from playing.
“One of the things I’ve heard from some colleges is that they’d like to see me catch the ball some more, so I look at it as a chance to work on that and get better at it,” said Rushins. “Playing really helps with team bonding and helps us develop some chemistry with some of the new quarterbacks. You never know what’s going to happen during a season and who might have to play.”
There was plenty of attention on Reading and Chelmsford, who battled in the East final and again in the semis yesterday. Chelmsford won, setting up a rematch of Saturday’s semi with St. John’s. The Eagles were pleased to win this time around, coming from behind to triumph, 26-24.
“It was close at the end and nice to get them after they beat us Saturday,” said Burt.
“It feels good to accomplish something before the actual season starts,” Thomas added.