By Jean DePlacido
---- — LOWELL — All season long the stingy St. John’s Prep defense has held its opponents at bay. The Eagles faced their toughest test of the year in the Division 1 playoff semifinal against Andover last night at Cawley Stadium and it was a bend, but do not break effort that held the Golden Warriors scoreless in the first half on three trips to the red zone.
Johnathan Thomas took over in the second half with three touchdown runs and 208 yards rushing on 28 carries, as the Eagles came away witha 21-0 win.
The win was the 200th for Prep coach Jim O’Leary, and after the game his players held up numbers reading 200 as the happy team gathered around their coach as parents took a team picture.
St. John’s is going back to the Super Bowl for the second time in the last three years, and will have a rematch with a Brockton team they defeated earlier in the season, 27-12.
“I never know what my record is,” said O’Leary. “I don’t keep track of those things, but the kids have been talking about it. It’s not about me, it’s all about the kids, and much more important that we won this game to move on to the Super Bowl than any number for me. My 201st will be more important. I hope it comes on Saturday night, but I am glad I reached this milestone with this group of kids.”
Andover’s first drive stalled at the Prep 22-yard line when quarterback C. J. Scarpa was rushed by Anthony Bongiorno on fourth down, and his pass fell incomplete. The next time they had the ball, Oliver Eberth’s 29-yard field goal attempt was wide left. St. John’s took over on its 20, but on the first play fumbled and Andover recovered.
Once again the defense dug in, and on fourth-and-one at the 5-yard line Scarpa couldn’t hit his favorite receiver Will Heikkinen in the end zone. Scarpa was 16-26 for 163 yards with two interceptions. Connor Powers picked one off right before halftime, and Lucas Bavaro had another in the second half.
“This win means a lot to us,” said Prep quarterback Jack Sharrio. “We struggled in the first half, but turned it on in the second. Johnny was amazing; our whole line was amazing. At halftime we meet with our position coaches, and they told us to play St. John’s Prep football in the second half. Our defense had bailed us out so many times; then we got it going.”
Andover attempted another field goal on the opening drive of the third quarter, a 31-yard try by Eberth that was short. The Eagles answered with an 80-yard drive on nine plays, and Thomas had all but one of them. He ran the ball seven times for 59 yards, capped by a touchdown from a yard out. Stephen Camarro kicked the first of three extra points, and the Eagles were on the board with 3:31 left in the third quarter.
Andover answered by driving to the Eagles’ 12-yard line before Alex Moore stripped the ball from Heikkinen after he had made a nice catch. That set up the next score with St. John’s driving 90 yards on eight rushes by Thomas and a 19-yard Thomas reception from Sharrio. Thomas broke up the middle for a 19-yard TD. The final touchdown by Thomas was a nifty 47-yard run with 4:48 remaining in the game.
“The defense made some big stops,” said Thomas. “They were our hearts in this game.”
Defensive ends Tucker Mathers and Bongiorno put a lot of pressure on Scarpa, who was held to 44 yards passing in the second half and sacked twice by Mathers.
“They were cutting us all the time in the first half, but we were able to get there in the second half,” said Mathers. “Bongo helped me get to the quarterback. Stopping their special teams was huge. Their kicker missed those two field goals, and gave us momentum. Johnathan is a beast, and he was running over two or three guys every time.”
Bavaro, who was in on several big hits along with inside linebacker Sean Smerczynski and tackle Corey Jean-Jacques, said watching films of Andover helped him come up with the pick.
“We were in man, and when I watched the film I saw how they like routes with the wheels coming off so I jumped on it. We bend, but we don’t break. Andover has a great offense, but once they were in the red zone we shut them out.”
Jean-Jacques added that the halftime pep talk got the Eagles rolling. “Coach O said we had to step it up. He told us not to be nervous but go out and play with some heart.”
This was the second straight shutout for the 10-1 Prep, and now they are going back to the Super Bowl, which has been the goal all season.
St. John’s Prep 21, Andover 0
Division 1 semifinals
at Cawley Stadium, Lowell
Andover (10-2) 0 0 0 0 — 0
St. John’s Prep (10-1) 0 0 7 14 — 21
SJP- Johnny Thomas 1 run (Stephan Cammaro kick)
SJP- Thomas 19 run (Cammaro kick)
SJP- Thomas 48 run (Cammaro kick)
RUSHING: Andover — Jackson Sylvester 16-151, C.J. Scarpa 6-7; St. John’s Prep — Johnny Thomas 27-206, Ian Kessel 4-22, Alex Moore 7-20, Jack Sharrio 1-6.
PASSING: Andover — Scarpa 16-26-163-0-2; St. John’s Prep — Sharrio 4-8-47-0-1, Michael Geaslen 0-1-0-0-0.
RECEIVING: Andover — Will Heikkinen 7-98, Sylvester 5-38, Zachary Walker 2-25, Cam Farnham 2-8; St. John’s Prep — Thomas 2-19, Moore 1-13, Anthony Bongiorno 1-10.