Much to the delight and relief of the St. John’s High School football team and its fans, the Pioneers second trip to a Massachusetts state football final was not, in the words of Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, déjà vu all over again.
The Pioneers, who seemed to rely on its offense all season by running up video game-like scores, needed three big defensive plays in the fourth quarter to hold off comeback-minded North Attleboro, 35-33, Friday, Dec. 1 at Foxboro’s Gillette Stadium.
The win was St. John’s first in a state title final and came in its second trip to the big game. In 2013, the first year the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) the Pioneers lost to Mansfield, 28-14, in the Massachusetts Division 2 Championship
With the win, St. John’s completed its undefeated quest, finishing 13-0. For North Attleboro the loss was just its second of the season. The Red Rocketeers won 11 games this year.
St. John’s scored early and often through the first three quarters and led, 35-20, heading into the fourth quarter.
The Pioneers started the scoring on its opening drive, taking a 7-0 lead on a 10-yard pass from senior quarterback Steven Bucciaglia to classmate Coleman Drugotch and an extra point off the foot of Noah Moselhy.
After a North Attleboro touchdown on the ensuing drive tied the game, 7-7, junior Colin Deso put St. John’s ahead, 14-7, late in the opening period, blasting up the middle and into the end zone from four yards out.
The Pioneers needed just 14 plays to score 14 points.
“We knew it was going to be a game where they scored points and we scored points,” St. John’s coach John Andreoli said. “They have a great offensive scheme and a great quarterback and some terrific skill players. The first five possessions in the first half, ended in a touchdown for one team or the other.”
North Attleboro tied the game, 14-14, in the second quarter, but the Pioneers took a 20-14 lead into the locker room at halftime, senior Peter Oliver scampering into the end zone on a three-yard touchdown run late in the period.
Oliver, who missed the seven games leading up to the state final after breaking the fibula in his left leg just above the ankle against Wachusett, wasn’t expected to play against North Attleboro.
“Last Tuesday (three days before the game) I ran one play in practice and the ankle felt pretty good. On Thursday I went and got an X-ray and the doctor told me it would be OK if I went in for a few plays,” explained Oliver, who played five plays, ran the ball on every play and finished with 28 yards and the aforementioned touchdown. “The doctor cleared me Thursday morning to play in the game. He didn’t give me a specific number of plays I could play. He said I couldn’t go in a lot, that I could play a few plays.”
Just getting in the game, and then scoring a touchdown were, obviously, the highlights of the state final for Oliver, who’s headed to Harvard next year to play football for the Crimson.
“It was special, just getting in the game, and then to score, it was unreal; it was so cool. The TD run was only three yards but it was still really cool,” Oliver said, acknowledging that the experience was everything he dreamed it would be when he was going through countless hours of grueling physical therapy. “Honestly, it was all a blur. It still feels like a dream. I don’t know. All I remember is the bright lights and the cheering when I was in the end zone and having all my teammates around me.”
Bucciaglia, who completed 16-of-18 passes for 214 yards, put the Pioneers ahead, 26-14, in the third quarter when he connected with sophomore Eamonn Dennis for a 15-yard scoring strike. Bucciaglia then ran for the two-point conversion to extend the St. John’s lead to 28-14.
“It was really about being in sync with our receivers,” Andreoli said about Bucciaglia’s performance against North Attleboro. “They played a lot of zone coverage against us early in the game so our receivers did a really good job of sitting in holes where the defense gave us throws and Steven makes those throws. In the second half we saw a little more man coverage when they started to blitz their inside linebackers. When we got them in coverage zero our guys made the adjustments and he made some really good throws.”
After North Attleboro cut the St. John’s lead to 28-20 midway through the third quarter, Bucciaglia pushed the Pioneers’ lead to 15, 35-20, with 1:39 left in the third quarter, hitting sophomore Jay Brunelle, who had gotten behind the entire Red Rocketeers’ defense, with a long pass that ended up being a 74-yard catch-and-run touchdown.
“That was a spectacular play and it came on a third-and-12,” Andreoli said. “We caught them in man coverage and Steven read a run-through with Jay Brunelle and hit him in right in stride for a 74-yard touchdown pass which gave us a two-score advantage.”
North Attleboro refused to go quietly into that good night, however, scoring twice in the fourth quarter. Brendan McHugh (three touchdowns) caught a 15-yard pass from Nicholas Ranieri, to pull North Attleboro to within 35-26, but the two-point conversion rush following the touchdown failed. Nathan Pierce pulled the Red Rocketeers to within two, 35-33, with 24 seconds left in the game, scoring on a 14-yard pass from quarterback Chad Peterson.
St. John’s recovered the ensuing North Attleboro onside kick, however, and Bucciaglia took a knee on the Pioneers’ first play following the kick to run out the clock.
“There were plays that we made down the stretch that were impact plays,” Andreoli said. “Late in the game we had two sacks by senior Ian Schade, and then junior Joe Katinas knocks down a two-point conversion attempt. Those are the plays you need to make to win a championship and we were fortunate to get those plays.”
Liam Doran led the St. John’s defensive effort with 17 tackles while Isaiah Keegan was in on 15 stops. Andrew DelBrocco had a hand in 14 tackles, Owen Ryan 11 and Jameson Carroll 10. All five players are seniors.
The Pioneers running game played a key role in the win, too, with five ball carriers combining to gain 170 yards on 17 carries. Deso led the charge with 67 yards on two carries while senior Danny Byers added 40 on five carries. Oliver gained 28 yards on five carries, Bucciaglia had 26 on 3 carries and Dennis gained nine yards two carries.
“Overall everybody contributed in the running game,” Andreoli said. “And up front we had guys that were playing both ways in the second half, guys like senior Neal Nasuti and Ian Schade and Fedi (senior Federico Ernst). So, really, we did what we had to do to win the game; everybody stepped up big-time.”
Andreoli said there is no debate about whether the 2017 edition of the St. John’s football team is the best-ever in school history.
“It’s the only team that won a state championship and went undefeated in 13 games,” Andreoli said. “If that constitutes being the best team, then it has been in my 14 years here.”