By Matt Jenkins
---- — For more than 2,500 days, beginning in 2003, there was one undisputed, unmistakable truth regarding North Shore high school boys lacrosse.
That year, Beverly High completed its ascent to the top of the Massachusetts lacrosse world, shocking a dynasty-in-the-making and putting this corner of the commonwealth on the sport’s grid.
The Panthers of ‘03 were a dazzling combination of grit, hustle and skill. Their 22-1 record was loaded with wins over state heavyweights like Lincoln-Sudbury, Malden Catholic, and a pair over Duxbury, including an 8-7 victory over the then-defending state champion Dragons in the Division 1 final.
They were the best. No discussion. No debate.
On that day — June 9, 2003 — a dynasty began to take shape, only it wasn’t Beverly. Remaining at the top of the heap proved to be difficult for the Panthers. While the title didn’t propel the program to sustained dominance, the ‘03 Panthers’ legend continued to grow with each passing year as Duxbury rolled to state title after state title, winning six in a row.
For 2,564 days, Beverly’s title team was the best the North Shore had ever seen. No discussion. No debate.
Then, on the 2,565th day, a new North Shore team emerged.
St. John’s Prep, a program that chased the success of the Beverly teams early in the 21st century, began making a move toward state contender around 2008.
The Eagles turned in a tremendous season in 2009, going 19-3 and ending Duxbury’s in-state winning streak at 99 games with a 12-10 regular season victory on the road in early May. The Green Dragons got revenge with a one-goal win in the state final.
St. John’s got better by one game in 2010, finishing 20-2 and breaking through on June 16, dropping Duxbury, 12-11, in overtime to capture the Division 1 state championship, ending the Green Dragons’ six-year reign.
Now, three years after St. John’s won its title, it’s time to have a discussion.
Let the debate begin.
The Great Motivator
Disappointment can be a great motivator, and both Beverly and St. John’s Prep took symbolic steps back before moving forward.
The Panthers, who had seemingly been on the brink of a breakthrough for a few seasons, took Duxbury to the final seconds of the 2002 championship game. Trailing by one goal, Beverly turned to the North Shore’s all-time leading scorer, Craig Boaman, in hopes of extending the season. His shot missed wide, however, and the Panthers marinated in that sting for a full offseason.
Beverly had been climbing the ranks, but was still looking for respect from the traditional South Shore powers. The loss left a storm brewing inside a tight group of teammates that expected to win.
“We went in (to high school) knowing or expecting to be successful by the time we left Beverly High. We weren’t soft-spoken. I remember saying sophomore year that we were going to win a state championship by the time we leave,” Beverly’s Larry Kline, the team’s goalie, said. “That was drilled in us from youth league.
“We were good as a group, and that collaboration carried us through high school. The pride of wanting to succeed and represent Beverly High lacrosse, and playing the way we knew we were capable of, made us successful.”
St. John’s Prep was a little less outspoken about its strength in the years leading up to its championship. There was, however, internal confidence. How could the Eagles not believe in themselves with an excellent core of players like James Fahey, Jeff Dube, Mark Macdonald, Colin Blackwell and Garrett Campbell, to name a few?
The Eagles knew they had to bite before they started barking because at that time Duxbury was completely entrenched in its dynastic run. They believed they were ready to overtake the Green Dragons in 2009, especially after ending Duxbury’s in-state win streak. But just like Beverly seven years earlier, they suffered a heart-stomping defeat in the state championship game.
St. John’s had multiple chances late in that ‘09 title game. Campbell stepped in the crease to eliminate a scoring opportunity and Blackwell caught a long pass in front of the net in the dying moments, but couldn’t get a shot off. The 13-12 setback was a punch to the gut.
“I think when I got there freshman year we were kind of in the building phase. I think we laid the foundation and it really started to set in my junior year,” said Campbell, now heading into his senior year at Harvard. “Losing by one my junior year, I think that gave a lot of younger guys extra motivation: ‘We got here and we can do it again.’ We didn’t lose that many players ... and we really capitalized when we got back there.”
Two for the ages
In the summer of 2009 The Salem News ranked Beverly’s 8-7 title-clinching win over Duxbury as the greatest North Shore high school game over the previous 20 years, and rightfully so. The game had everything: a bursting-at-the-seams Hurd Stadium, the two best lacrosse teams in the state, and a fantastic finish.
It was estimated that more than 6,000 fans squeezed into Hurd that afternoon, and every one of them got their money’s worth. Beverly held a tight lead through most of the first half and began to get separation in the second half, leading 8-5 in the fourth quarter.
Duxbury mounted a comeback and Tom Levesque cut Beverly’s lead to one with 33 seconds left. Levesque had an opportunity to tie in the final seconds, but Kline knocked the ball away to preserve the victory.
“It continues to grow historically,” former Beverly coach Peter Ginolfi told The Salem News in 2009. “Duxbury has won every state championship since that game, and had one more before. It would have been eight straight if we had not won that one.
“Each year, that win gets a little bigger.”
A win for the ages. Who knew at the time that seven years later St. John’s and Duxbury would stage a game that was just as good, if not better?
Instead of fighting for statewide acceptance like Beverly was in 2003, St. John’s was fighting for the rest of the state. A few years into Duxbury’s title run it had become the Green Dragons against the field.
“Duxbury has been a great measuring stick for Massachusetts,” St. John’s coach John Roy said. “It’s almost like Tiger (Woods) in golf; everyone was trying to get to that level.”
The Eagles believed they were ready in 2010. For the second straight year St. John’s defeated Duxbury in the regular season, but the Green Dragons shocked their challengers in the first half of the title game rematch, opening a 7-3 advantage.
St. John’s was the team that mounted a comeback this time, slowly pecking away in the second half. Momentum clearly favored St. John’s by the time it knotted the game at 10-10, but then disaster struck.
“I stepped in the crease again,” Campbell, the Prep’s all-time leading scorer, said recalling a play with less than a minute to go. “At least I got a shot off in my senior year and hit the post. Looking back I think, ‘What an idiot.’”
Duxbury took an 11-10 lead with 18 seconds left when Seamus Connelly scored. It looked like Duxbury’s championship streak would continue, but Campbell would be heard from again.
The Prep had one more chance and everything was riding on the faceoff following Connelly’s goal. Macdonald, just like he had done so many times before, quickly pushed the ball forward off the faceoff. Blackwell, playing the wing for the first time that year, scooped the ground ball and broke for the net.
The Duxbury defense was late to slide and Blackwell fired a shot that hit the right post and squirted back through the crease to the left side of the net. Campbell swatted the ball off the ground, like a one-timer in hockey, into the net with seven seconds remaining in regulation.
St. John’s goalie Nick Triano then made a critical stop in overtime, cleared the ball to defender James Fahey and The Salem News Player of the Year for 2010 carried the ball in his long pole the rest of the way, depositing the game-winner.
“I jumped higher when we tied it than when we won. Tying at seven seconds, you gotta be kidding me. I went nuts, as everybody did,” Roy said.
“When James is running down I’m thinking, this is going in. He’s scoring this goal. I was almost ready for it. At that point I was wondering what end I should go to. Do I pile on James or go to Triano?”
After all they had been through, the Eagles knew overtime was their time.
“Once Nick made that great save, James was already on the outlet,” Campbell remembered. “He had scored like four goals with the same play. I’m thinking he’s either shooting or passing to me and either way, we’re scoring.”
Roy remembers the losses. Three straight years, from 2002-04, Beverly bounced the Eagles in the state tournament quarterfinals. The Panthers also beat St. John’s in each of those regular seasons.
At the time, Roy was trying to build a program. He had athletes all over his lineup back then, but very few of them grew up with a lacrosse stick in their hands. It seemed the Eagles were chasing two teams — Beverly and conference foe Malden Catholic.
The veteran Prep coach, now heading into his 20th year on the job, had every reason to hate Beverly, a city with an established youth program that had his team’s number.
But Roy remembers more than just the losses. He remembers that win.
“It was an excellent game and great to see them win. A North Shore team representing,” Roy said. “As much as I disliked Beverly it was nice to have the state title on the North Shore. I was rooting for Beverly even though they were our enemy. We respected them as an opponent and I remember being glad to be at the game, seeing the stands full at Beverly to watch lacrosse. It was really something because it was emerging, the growth of lacrosse on the North Shore.”
Campbell, a Beverly native, remembers being at the game, too. He was only 12 years old, but he remembers the makeup of that Beverly team.
“I didn’t know them personally, but Larry Kline was one of those goalies who nobody knew what was going on with. He’d be running out of the net and Duxbury was a typical fundamental lacrosse team. The kids from Beverly were out knocking people o ver and playing hard-nosed, in-your-face lacrosse,” Campbell said. “Duxbury was the all-star team that got beat by the blue collar team that outworked them.”
Kline, for the most part, agrees with Campbell’s scouting report for Beverly. They were tough and well-coached with Ginolfi on the sidelines.
“We were a tough, blue collar team with a couple of finesse kids sprinkled in spots where we needed them,” Kline said. “It’s easy to jell when you’re a close group off the field. Whether that always breeds success, I don’t know; for us it did.
“We were loose, pretty competitive and a driven bunch. In youth lacrosse legitimately we might have lost one game and we carried that attitude in high school. It worked to our advantage.”
Players like Kline, then a junior, senior captain Chris Bernard, and sophomore faceoff specialist J.P. Wioncek were the hard hat types. They were the players who were willing to do whatever it took to find victory. Then the Panthers had guys like Jeff Kaylor, Eddie O’Reilly, Mike Sciamanna and Peter Lauranzano, the skill guys who were shifty and creative on offense. Together they were the nucleus of a team that helped advance the game of lacrosse on the North Shore.
The lacrosse boom likely would have happened on the North Shore whether Beverly won the title in 2003 or not, but there’s little doubt that the Panthers helped speed that process.
It’s a maturation process that makes the comparison between these two teams difficult.
Beverly had a lot of skilled players in 2003, but the level of talent was a bit different in 2010.
In 2003, more often than not athletes without great stick skills were limited to defensive positions, where speed and toughness could be used as an advantage.
If you take a look at St. John’s Prep’s defensive players in 2010, it’s a very different situation. Fahey, defenseman Chris Coady and long-stick midfielder Jeff Dube were three of the most skilled players on the St. John’s roster. Fahey and Dube were each named All-American that year.
The Eagles could match Beverly in offensive talent with Campbell, Matt Scalise, Bobby Gallahue, Blackwell, and Jimmy O’Connell. And they still had their grinders, like Macdonald at the faceoff X.
“Those Beverly teams in my opinion were excellent. They were well coached, had good players and it was very difficult to beat them. They were usually the ones that eliminated us from the playoffs,” Roy said.
“However, if we go to 2010 in my opinion, with the evolution of lacrosse I just think the quality of lacrosse was better in 2010 than it was in 2002 and 2003. The culture has changed so dramatically even in a seven- or eight-year span. The quality of Eastern Massachusetts lacrosse is higher.”
Overall, it’s hard to question whether or not the level of skill in Massachusetts lacrosse has improved. What’s hard to judge is heart and toughness. And Beverly had a lot in those departments.
“The competitor in me wants to say, yeah I do think we’d beat them. Anyone would say that, but I do believe it,” Kline said. “That group at Beverly, the majority of us were on the same select team. We traveled a lot and played some of the best teams in the country.
“I think we had the talent, but I know that we worked hard. If you have the ability and you work hard you’ll have success at any level. There are no doubts that group would have worked five years earlier or five years later against the Prep."