Twenty three years later, St. John’s Prep would forge its own path to a state title, shaking off a midseason loss to Charlestown and winning 13 straight games, ending the Division 1 tourney with a 72-57 trouncing of St. John’s of Shrewsbury at the DCU Center in Worcester.
Without question, the Eagles’ rise to prominence was stunning compared to Salem, which at least had a reputation as a basketball power. St. John’s, on the other hand, had a history of pretty good teams, but except for the 1974 club that made it to the state final and lost to Boston English, the Eagles were never a serious threat to go the distance.
That all changed when Sean Connolly became the head coach and Connaughton, who would develop into the Prep’s version of Brunson, began his daily commute from his Arlington home to the Danvers campus as a freshman in 2007-08.
“I always thought (a state title) would happen from the time I got moved up to the varsity,” said Connaughton, 20, a superior athlete who now plays both basketball and baseball at the University of Notre Dame. “When you look at the guys we were supposed to have my sophomore year — (Andrew) Lutz, Ryan Canty and Brendon Felder, and I was just the fourth guy — coach Connolly must have been drooling at all that talent. But kids transferred and it didn’t happen for us. By junior year I was the only one left and we had to sort of recalibrate.”
The core group of Connaughton, Steve Haladyna, Mike Carbone, Conor Macomber, Freddie Shove, Owen Marchetti, Drex Costello and Isiah Robinson finally broke through two years later with the winningest team in school history, which included the elusive state title.
In many ways, the Prep’s run was as impressive as Salem’s. Playing a more rugged ‘big school’ schedule than the Witches ever had — a win over future NBA No. 1 pick Anthony Davis and his Perpectives Charter School team of Illinois was just one of the highlights — the Eagles won their regular season games by an average of 18.9 points and their tournament contests by 12.7 points per game.