By Jean DePlacido
---- — WESTWOOD — St. John’s Prep is moving on to the playoffs, thanks to a stifling defense and a big reception by Alex Moore. Everything was on the line as so often happens when Catholic Conference powerhouses St. John’s Prep and Xaverian meet in the traditional Thanksgiving battle to determine not only the league champ which one goes on and which goes home.
The Eagles got the job done with a 9-0 shutout victory, but it wasn’t pretty. Turnovers ruled the day with each team throwing a pair of interceptions, and turning the ball over on fumbles three times apiece.
The 9-1 Eagles will face 10-1 Andover, the Merrimack Valley Conference champion, in the D-1 playoffs on Tuesday (Time and site TBA).
The Eagles had lots of scoring opportunities in the first half, driving deep into Hawk territory time and again only to come up empty. They took the lead on a safety in the opening quarter. Johnathan Thomas, who was the workhorse with 119 hard fought yards on 24 carries, gained 44 yards on the first play of the game to set the Eagles up at the Hawks 27-yard line, but the drive stalled, and Xaverian took over at its own 8.
The Prep’s smothering defense kept them bottled up, forcing a punt from the end zone, and as he hurried to get the ball away Kyle Darrow’s knee touched down for a safety. That 2-0 lead turned out to be all the Eagles would need.
St. John’s got the ball back after the safety, and Thomas returned it 51-yards to set them up again. The Eagles threatened but couldn’t punch it in. On their next drive the Eagles had a first-and-goal at the Hawks 6-yard line, but once again came up empty when 6-foot-3, 285 pound Michigan bound Maurice Hurst Jr. recovered a fumble on the snap. Hurst and Shayne Kaminski clogged up the middle for the Hawks making it difficult for Thomas and Moore to run inside.
“Honestly, I hoped we’d be able to score on a couple of those opportunities,” said Prep coach Jim O’Leary. “We knew they would be tough in the box so we had to be patient. We were able to pound the ball, but we didn’t get in. I knew if we stayed patient we’d break a few later on.
“That was a great testament to how they play. This was a hard hitting game; everything gets magnified because it’s Thanksgiving. Our guys were very excited. Defensively we played hard; we put them in a hole, and made them go long distances.”
Late in the first half Moore, who always seems to make a couple of big plays in every game, intercepted an Austin DeCarr pass after the Xaverian QB was pressured by defensive ends Tucker Mathers and Anthony Bongiorno. That set the Eagles up at the Hawks 23-yard line, but Prep QB Jack Sharrio was intercepted in the end zone to end yet another threat.
Moore gave his team a little breathing room in the final minute of the third quarter. The key play of the game started when Gerald Kahari ended Xaverian’s best scoring chance of the game by picking off DeCarr’s pass that was intended for Joe DeNucci at the goal line. Kahari stepped in front and made a shoestring catch at his own 5-yard line.
Two plays later Sharrio lofted a sideline pass to Moore, who caught the ball at his own 30, avoided a tackle, and raced up the right sideline for a 95-yard TD. Stephen Camarro tacked on the extra point to stretch the lead to 9-0 and make it a two possession game.
“Jack made a great throw over my outside shoulder,” said Moore. “It was one that either I was going to catch or nobody would. Their kid tackled me high, and I managed to stay on my feet, break loose, and use my speed. This one wasn’t easy because they were so tough on defense, especially Mo (Hurst).”
After getting off to a slow start Xaverian had won three in a row and had a perfect record in league play.
“We played good defense except for that one time when Moore took off,” said Xaverian coach Charlie Stevenson after his team finished at 4-7 and 3-1 in the conference. “We just don’t have enough offensive tools to get things going. There were a lot of turnovers today by both sides. I thought we did a real good job on their premier players, but we couldn’t get any consistency on offense.
“We were not able to keep the pressure off our quarterback and protect him against a very strong defensive team. That hurt our passing game, and we couldn’t run the ball against St. John’s.”
Xaverian’s final scoring chance came late in the fourth quarter after St. John’s had fumbled, but DeCarr was hit hard by Mathers, and Bongiorno recovered for the Prep at the Hawks 14-yard line. In the final minute O’Leary brought in all his seniors, who don’t play regularly and the Eagles took a knee twice to run out the clock.
One of the seniors, who was on the field for the first time all season was F.J. Murphy, a returning starter at defensive tackle. Murphy suffered a torn meniscus on a scrimmage before the season started, but has been with the team the entire season as manager. O’Leary told his players after the game one of the things he was most thankful for on this day was having Murphy suit up and be on the field when the game ended. Murphy went home with the game ball.
“Being able to be out there means everything to me,” said Murphy, who wants to play in college. “I’m not ready to come back yet, but I could be out there when we took a knee. Those are my guys; they’re like my family and have supported me all along.”
Stevenson presented the Brother Drinan trophy to the Eagles. It will remain with the team until next year’s game. The players passed it around, taking turns and kissing it the same way the Stanley Cup is treated by hockey players. For the second time in a row the Eagles left the Hawk Bowl with a win.
St. John’s Prep 9, Xaverian 0
at The Hawk Bowl, Westwood
St. John’s Prep (9-1) 2 0 7 0 — 9
Xaverian (4-7) 0 0 0 0 — 0
SJP-Safety, punter’s knee touched down in end zone
SJP-Alex Moore 95 pass from Jack Sharrio (Stephen Camarro kick)
RUSHING: St. John’s Prep — Jon Thomas 24-119, Jack Sharrio 5-2, Alex Moore 10-(18); Xaverian — Shayne Kaminski 2-8, Joe DeNucci 1-8, Hunter Taute 5-6, Dana Pagliuca 2-0, A.J. King 1-0, Harry Walsh 3-(-1), Austin DeCarr 6-(-10).
PASSING: St. John’s Prep — Sharrio 7-10-175-1-2; Xaverian — DeCarr 10-19-113-0-2.
RECEIVING: St. John’s Prep — Moore 2-96, Lucas Bavaro 2-36, Anthony Bongiorno 1-15, Gerald Kahari 1-15, Thomas 1-13; Xaverian — King 2-37, Pagliuca 4-33, DeNucci 2-21, Mike Barbieri 1-13, Kaminski 1-9.
you ought to know "Our goal was for our defense to score more points than their offense," said Prep captain Lucas Bavaro with a big smile on his face as players lingered to enjoy the thrill of victory. "We got off to a great start with the safety, and had our best defensive game of the season." "We're going bowling," yelled Prep two-way end Anthony Bongiorno when the team took a knee to listen to coach Jim O'Leary after the game. He had two big fumble recoveries and caught a pass. Bongiorno said Xaverian's defense was the best the Prep had seen all year. Prep senior defensive back Gerald Kahari said he couldn't see Xaverian QB Austin DeCarr throw the ball, but he did see that it was sinking down and dove to pick it off at the Prep 5-yard line late in the third quarter as the Hawks threatened to take the lead. Two plays later Alex Moore caught a 95-yard TD pass to give the Eagles a little breathing room. Prep senior defensive end Tucker Mathers caused two fumbles when he pressured DeCarr (and also sacked the QB twice). "We wanted to get to him, make him uncomfortable throwing, and just keep the pressure on all the time," said Mathers. Catholic Conference Player of the Year Hawks running back Hunter Taute gained only six yards on five attempts, mainly because junior middle linebacker Sean Smerczynski, who was in double figures for tackles, gave the Hawks fits trying to get the running game going along with outside linebacker Chris Newton, who had a big game. "We've got to go back to work tomorrow so go kiss your mothers, and be thankful for all your parents do for you," said O'Leary, who was greeted by loud cheers from the team. "This is what we wanted, and we're moving on because of great defense and offense when we needed it."