LOWELL — Johnny Thomas took his helmet off and smiled as he reached the sidelines, his night’s work done with 4:00 left in St. John’s Prep’s Division 1 semifinal win over Andover.
Thomas doesn’t usually show much emotion, but having just authored one of the most dominant 14-minute stretches of football ever seen in these parts, he more than earned the curtain call and the roar of the Prep faithful on hand at Cawley Stadium.
The Eagles entered the second half deadlocked, 0-0, with Andover. Thomas essentially said, “I’ve got this,” and imposed his will on the Warriors to the tune of 208 rushing yards, 182 of them in the second half.
“It felt like the job was done,” Thomas said of his exit. The Peabody native quickly turned his attention to Saturday’s Super Bowl against Brockton, adding, “But the job’s not done. We’re going back to work.”
Thomas worked overtime last night, touching the ball on 21 of the Prep’s first 22 offensive snaps of the second half. He scored all three St. John’s touchdowns and accounted for 225 of the Eagles’ 301 total yards.
He rushed for 59 yards on the Prep’s first scoring drive, plunging in from a yard away. He did himself one better on the next possession, accoutning for all 90 yards on a methodical scoring drive that made it 14-0 and essentially put the game away.
“Once Johnny gets going, he’s pretty hard to stop,” said Prep senior Lucas Bavaro, who had a second half interception.
Andover knew Thomas was coming in the second half and the Warriors still couldn’t stop him. The 5-11, 195-pound battering ram pounded the rock into the heart of the defense and frequently came out of the pile with extra yardage.
Once, an Andover tackler had him by the jersey and nearly pulled the No. 1 off his back. Thomas just kept rumbling.
“Johnny fights. He never stops running,” said Eagles senior QB Jack Sharrio. “We knew if we got him the ball he’d do what he can do, and the line was unbelievable.”
The Eagles probably wanted to run some clock when they got the ball back after Thomas sacked Andover’s C.J. Scarpa near midfield with 5:38 to play. Instead, Thomas broke free up the middle for a 48-yard scoring run, putting the exclamation point on a performance that cements his place as one of the best players in the Bay State.
“It was all zone and outside zone. The cutback lanes were open and I tried to bust through them,” said Thomas, who leads the North Shore with 1,742 yards rushing and 15 TDs this fall.
The win was the 200th for Eagles head coach Jim O’Leary, who has led his team to the playoffs more times than any other local coach. He’s guiding the Prep to the Super Bowl for the sixth time, also a high among area coaches, and is just the second area coach to ever win 200 games at the same school.
O’Leary, 61, is 200-105-2 in his 29th season at the Prep. He’s won nine Catholic Conference titles and he’s enjoyed 22 winning seasons. Last night’s win also marked his fifth 10-win team.
“This just means I’m old,” said the always affable O’Leary. “Its always about the kids, but I am glad I won the 200th with this group.”
Because of the size of most local public high schools, and the demise of Peabody and Gloucester, St. John’s Prep stands as the lone example of big-time high school football on the North Shore. O’Leary plays every big program, giving local fans the chance to see the best of the best. It’s easy to cast stones suggesting the Eagles should win every year because they draw talent from so many communities, but its much harder to do it when the road to the Super Bowl runs through places like Xaverian and Andover.
“It feels great to be a part of the 200th win,” said Thomas. “Coach O is a great coach and I’m happy for him.”
The Eagles were in a fight last night, no question about it. Andover held them to just 76 yards at halftime, and if not for some supreme coverage by Michael Fawehinimi and two missed field goals might have taken the lead.
There was no panic by the Eagles at halftime. They knew if they got the ball to their quiet, composed star running back, they’d be fine.
“There was no screaming going on or anything like that,” said Thomas. “We knew what we had to do.”
Now, just one game stands between the Eagles and the immortality of becoming the school’s third ever Super Bowl winning team. Thomas, who ran for 240 yards and three scores against Brockton earlier this season, is not satisfied with simply moving on.
“I’ve been to a Super Bowl, and it wasn’t the greatest experience,” he said, referring to the Prep’s loss to Everett in 2010. “This one, I want to make it a great experience.”
Matt Williams is the assistant sports editor of The Salem News. You can contact him at 978-338-2669, MWilliams@salemnews.com and follow him on Twitter @MattWilliams_SN.