LOWELL — Five months ago, St. John's Prep head football coach Brian St. Pierre had a feeling that for his team to reach its championship potential, they'd need senior Sanitago Quiceno on the field.
Friday night in a tense state semifinal battle with rival Central Catholic, St. Pierre had another gut feeling — and as it happened, this one concerned Quiceno, too.
Facing 4th-and-6 midway through the third quarter just inside Raider territory, St. Pierre sent out the punt team. It was a fake, however, with Quiceno taking a direct snap up the far right sideline for a 12-yard gain and a momentum-swinging first down.
"I knew my guys would block for me. It was about grit and getting past those chains," said Quiceno. "We've run that play in practice all season for moments like this."
With the fresh set of downs, the Eagles needed six more plays for senior Carson Browne to take the lead with the first of his three second half TDs. Quiceno's conversion kept alive a drive that wound up a backbreaking 16 plays, 72 yards and 6:11.
After being tied 7-7 at the halftime, the Prep seized control on that march and never looked back on the way to a 28-7 win that sends them to the Division 1 Super Bowl against defending champion Springfield Central (most likely on Dec. 3 at Gillette Stadium).
"We needed to grab the game. With the ball in that area it was a gut feeling," St. Pierre said of the fake punt call. "Santi's the most underrated player on our team. For him to make that play was poetic justice."
As big as the fake punt was, the way Quiceno played at cornerback was even more important. The Eagles (9-2) lost two-way stud Jesse Ofurie to injury in the second quarter and the Raiders seemed determined to test the Prep's secondary with deep shots from that point forward.
Safety Lucas Verrier knocked down two of those center field shots, but one up the sidelines found Mike Ryan for a 44-yard TD that tied it up at 7-7. In the second half, however, Central Catholic's passing game was a mere 4-for-16 and did not complete a pass more than 10 yards downfield.
The coverage work of Quiceno, who goes 5-foot-10, 180 pounds with exceptional length and quickness, was a big part of that. Several times he was left on an island with a talented Raider receiver and used his impeccable technique to knock the ball away in contested catch situations.
Those were the sorts of plays St. Pierre envisioned last summer when he implored Quiceno to move from receiver, the Prep's deepest position, to defensive back.
"He'd be four or five in our receiver group because we have some really unique people this year. He's good enough to start at receiver for a lot of teams. He understood that," the coach noted. "Santi never played corner prior to this year but he was too good a player, too good a kid, and too hard of a worker for us not to have him on the field."
A Revere native, Quiceno is a natural battler. St. Pierre calls him "a competitive son of a gun" who has no problem stepping up to incredible talents like Ofurie (who's committed to Rutgers), Joenel Aguero (All-American going to Georgia) or Stephon Patrick (several D1 offers).
St. John's goes "good on good" in practice a lot, St. Pierre says, in order to challenge their players, even if it means sometimes they're not at 100 percent physically.
"D-back is one of the hardest positions on the field. Just look who I'm guarding ... Jesse, Joenel, Steph. I'm going against the best of the best, the best in the state, in practice," said Quiceno. "Those guys push me everyday. Working with them has allowed me to build up my best techniques."
You can hardly blame Central Catholic for hunting for single coverage and trying to take advantage. But you have to credit Quiceno for refusing to give the opposition a game-changing big gainer.
In fact, once St. John's got the lead, it was Quiceno and his defense that decided momentum was never changing hands. Central Catholic ran only three offensive plays the entire third quarter (as opposed to 22 for St. John's) and never had a chance after Browne scored his second TD with 11:43 left.
"These games are all about momentum. We had it and didn't want to let their offense drive down and turn it into a back-and-forth game," said Quiceno. "It was our defense's job to prevent that from happening."
The Eagles did. Besides big plays in the secondary, St. John's got several loud hits from linebacker Matt Callahan in addition to batted balls by Mason McSweeney and Marquise Avery.
"You hold Central Catholic to seven points, that's pretty good defense," said St. Pierre. "A lot of credit has to go to coach (Chris) Tolios and his staff."
After allowing a scoring drive and some 160 yards in the first half, the Eagles were simply suffocating in the second half; after the break the Raiders had 50 net yards and never crossed midfield.
"It was calm and controlled," Quiceno said of the halftime adjustments. "It was an even game, not like they were ahead. We just had to stay clam."
Now, the Eagles are headed to the Super Bowl for the third time in the last five seasons and tenth time in program history. It'll be the first time since 2019, when this year's seniors were wide eyed freshman learning the ropes on the sidelines as St. John's won the second of back-to-back state titles.
"Freshman year was surreal, but I've always said my favorite (championship) ring would be the last one because I'll be out there contributing," Quiceno said.
You can contact Matt Williams at MWilliams@salemnews.com and follow along on Twitter @MattWilliams_SN