DANVERS — The Central Catholic football team committed five costly turnovers in their first loss to St. John’s Prep back in September, which had the Raiders thinking they could win this Division 1 North semifinal if they took care of the ball.
The Eagles defense decided to prove that first onslaught was no fluke.
St. John’s had four turnovers this time with three interceptions, a fumble recovery and bruising running by Cody Harwood and Dillon Preston, leading to a 42-7 playoff win over the rival Raiders on a festive and chilly Saturday at Cronin Field.
The Prep’s defense starts two sophomores and a half-dozen juniors — and the group is peaking at the right time. They’ve allowed just 21 total points in their last three games and have blanked their opponents in seven of eight playoff quarters.
“It’s a pretty young defense,” said junior Jacob Yish, who had an interception and forced a fumble Saturday. “We’ve been doing a lot of ball drills in practice, working on being aggressive. We’re definitely more aggressive than we were at the beginning of the year.”
Now 8-1, the Eagles have won five straight and face the only team that’s beaten them, Everett (8-1), for the Division 1 North title next Friday on the road.
“They’re a great team. It’ll be a tough challenge for us, but we want to get to the Super Bowl and to do that we’ll have to beat the best,” senior tight end Jake Burt said.
The Eagles were ahead by two scores Saturday when junior Nathaniel Vance came up with a juggling interception to quell a Central drive in the first half. On their next drive, Yish forced a fumble that senior Brandon Kahari recovered; then Yish intercepted Raider QB Mike Milano, making it three straight possessions with a turnover for St. John’s.
“We love when the defense gets that ball back, and they’ve been doing it all year,” said Burt. “There are a lot of guys getting better at the right time.”
That third turnover, which Yish took all the way to the Central 5-yard line, set up a Harwood score as the Eagles took a commanding 21-0 lead at halftime.
An interception by Jacob Shairs finished an impressive day for the Eagles’ defense, which also got solid run stopping games from Sean Fallon and Jack Lambert.
“We’ve learned a lot. A big part of it is Art Churchwell stepping in and kind of running the defense at safety,” Yish explained. “We’ve learning which coverages we’ll call against different formations and gotten used to playing them. It’s from film, a lot of reps in practice and getting confidence.”
Interestingly, the 34 points St. John’s allowed at Everett in September are the most they’ve given up to any opponent this fall. The Eagles will want to improve on that if they’re to wrest the Division 1 North crown away from the Crimson Tide.
“We’re playing the right way,” St. John’s head coach Brian St. Pierre said. “We know Everett will be ready for us.”
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.