By Jean DePlacido
---- — DANVERS — Life after Johnny Thomas got off to a good start for St. John’s Prep Saturday afternoon.
Junior running back Cody Harwood and sophomore Dillon Preston each scored two touchdowns as the Eagles crushed Malden Catholic, 55-8, at Cronin Stadium in their Catholic Conference opener.
Harwood rushed for 151 yards on seven carries in his first start. He took over at running back a week ago and scored a touchdown against Everett game after Thomas, arguably the state’s top player, tore his ACL. Preston, meanwhile, had seen limited action prior to Saturday.
The Eagles wasted little time getting on the board when speedster Owen Rockett returned a Lancer punt 75 yards for a score with just over three minutes gone. On the Prep’s next possession, Harwood broke loose for a 41-yard touchdown run, which was set up by another nice punt return by Rockett.
“Owen is dangerous every time he touches the ball,” said Prep head coach Jim O’Leary, his team 3-2 overall. “He’s very talented, (and) Harwood and Preston are a nice combination, especially since Dillon is a little different-style back.
“We had been heavily relying on Johnny, but when he’s not here we have to continue to perform well. We need wins to make the playoffs.The young guys picked up the ball and ran with it. I knew they could do it, so it wasn’t a big surprise.
O’Leary was also pleased with the play of his offensive line throughout the contest. “They’re veterans and need to take charge, especially now,” he said.
Riddled with injuries, Malden Catholic (0-5) was forced to start freshman Colin Sullivan at quarterback. The Lancers had trouble moving the ball while the hosts scored on five of six possessions in the first half.
A. J. Carrigan alternated at quarterback for St. John’s with senior Mike Geaslen early on. After Geaslen threw a 7-yard touchdown strike to Jake Burt to give St. John’s 21-0 lead early in the second quarter, Carrigan replaced him and led the Eagles downfield for another score as Harwood ran it in from 25 yards out.
“I felt good today,” said Harwood. “I had great blocking and big holes to make my cuts. Our offensive line got the job done.”
By halftime the Eagles had the game comfortably in hand, leading 34-0 lead after Preston’s 5-yard touchdown. They added another score on the opening drive of the third quarter; a 75-yard kickoff return by Rockett was nullified by a holding penalty, but Harwood, Carrigan and Preston pounded the ball at MC and Preston capped the drive with a 3-yard score.
O’Leary emptied his bench early, and the young sophomores and freshmen who stepped into the lineup responded. Freshman Joe Masterson returned a punt 58 yards for a touchdown, and freshman Declan Burt finished the scoring with a 15-yard run into the end zone.
“Special teams are an important part of the game and present an opportunity for some people that don’t play a lot to get out there and shine,” said O’Leary. “They work hard at it and take pride in it. The good thing is that everybody got to play, and Carrigan needed to get some reps and game experience. Our defense ran to the ball better than the last couple of weeks.
“I don’t like doing that (pointing to the scoreboard) to anybody, especially a (fellow) Xaverian Brothers team. We’ve been on the other end of it (before), and I know they’ve had a lot of injuries. At the same time, you can’t tell the young kids not to play hard when they get their opportunity.”
St. John’s Prep hits the road Friday night to take on Catholic Memorial in West Roxbury.