“We had no weak spots — it was just a solid team,” said Connolly. “I remember thinking after Pat’s junior year (20-3, with a loss to Central Catholic in the North final) that maybe we had a chance to win it the next year. Pat improved a lot and we had all these other kids who were getting better. It was a great group to coach, but we had to find a way to beat Central Catholic. They were always in our way, so we basically tried to emulate them as a tough, hard-nosed team.”
Connaughton paid Central Catholic the highest compliment, saying “they were always the biggest elephant in the room.” St. John’s hadn’t beaten the Raiders since 2001, but St. John’s finally shed that albatross with a 72-70 win at home. Then, with far higher stakes involved, they beat them again in the state tourney, 63-60, in a neutral court game at Lawrence (that really wasn’t a neutral court at all, since Central Catholic plays there every year).
“To be honest, Central Catholic pretty much provided all the motivation we needed that year,” said Haladyna, who now plays for Tufts University. “After we lost to them in the state tourney the year before, we spent the entire offseason preparing to meet them again. Coach Connolly reminded us of how good we could be and we had the hardest practices. They were comparable to college practices, and that was a big shock to me in high school. The big word was accountability.”
It was no surprise that the Prep’s title chase caught the attention of Salem’s 1989 and 1990 teams. Some former Salem players made it a point to check in on St. John’s in the state tourney and in every instance they came away impressed.
As you would expect, they would fall short of saying the Eagles would beat them head-to-head, but the respect for St. John’s was obvious.