WORCESTER – A season that started with so much promise for St. John’s running back Peter Oliver quickly turned into heartbreak when, early in the Pioneers’ Week 4 55-21 win over Wachusett, the Harvard University-bound senior suffered a broken ankle when one of the Mountaineers fell on Oliver during a scrum-like tackle.
While St. John’s has certainly missed Oliver’s production, the undefeated Pioneers (12-0) have soldiered on and at 5 p.m., Friday, will face Eastern Mass. champion North Attleborough for the Division 3 state championship at Foxborough’s Gillette Stadium.
The 6-foot, 210-pound Oliver was off to a great start in 2017, having followed up an impressive junior season (102 carries, 721 yards, 7.1 yards-per-carry, seven touchdowns) by rushing for 387 yards and four touchdowns on 31 carries, a 12.4 yards-per-carry average. Oliver, on the young season, had also already caught three passes for 158 yards – an eye-popping 52.6 yards-per-catch – and a pair of scores.
This year, in a 33-3 win over Catholic Memorial Oliver scored on a 78-yard touchdown pass catch-and-run on a ball thrown by fellow senior Steven Bucciaglia.
Oliver had his best game of the abbreviated season against Springfield Central in Week 2 helping lead the Pioneers to a 62-39 win by rushing for 215 yards and three touchdowns (6, 38 and 44 yards) on a dozen carries, which computes to an impressive 17.9 yards-per-carry. He also caught an 83-yard scoring strike from Bucciaglia against Springfield Central (St. John’s also defeated the Golden Eagles, 52-33, in the Central/West Division 3 state semifinal game on Nov. 18).
In a 34-14 win over Leominster in Week 3 Oliver scored on a 49-yard run.
“Initially it was really tough,” Oliver said of the injury and, more importantly the premature end of his senior season and his St. John’s gridiron career. “But after a while a lot of the football wisdom that is around me – my dad (longtime Holy Cross strength and conditioning coach Jeff Oliver), coach A. (St. John’s head coach John Andreoli) and coach (Matt) Pedone – started to sink in.
“They all told me that there are other ways to be a leader on a team – like going to practices and helping the younger guys out,” Oliver said. “So I’m finding enjoyment – not the same enjoyment as if I were playing – in helping my teammates, especially the running backs.”
A three-year varsity tailback for the Pioneers, Oliver – who rushed for 423 yards and two touchdowns as a sophomore – said he would provide advice to fellow running backs Dan Byers, Colin Deso and Eamonn Dennis.
“I’m trying to help out by coaching up some guys on a few things by giving them pointers and by suggesting a different way to do things,” Oliver said. “I also try to help on the sidelines to get the guys excited about the game, maybe if there just not into it. Also, when we’ve got a big lead I make sure we’re all staying strong behind the defense and the offense.
“I’ve learned to accept it,” Oliver said of his role as an advisor rather than a player. “At the beginning it was really, really tough. It got easier as the season went along but now that we’re going to be playing for the state title, I really want to be out there.”
Bucciaglia said that despite how hard he knows it is for Oliver to stand on the sidelines and watch his teammates’ run to the Division 3 state final, his teammate has stayed invested and engaged in what the Pioneers are trying to accomplish this season.
“Peter is a first-class kid in every aspect of what he does. For him to be there for us is awesome. We told him right when he got hurt that we were going to play for him and that’s what we’re doing,” Bucciaglia said. “Peter is just a great teammate and a great leader. He does so much for us every day in practice, especially when he is giving the other running backs tips. He’s a three-year varsity player. He is always giving guys tip on ways to get better.”
Oliver said another piece of football wisdom his father, Andreoli and Pedone gave him centered on his demeanor.
“They talked to me a lot after the injury about always staying positive, not letting the negative emotions that I’m feeling rub off on my teammates,” Oliver said. “They told me to always put on a positive outside face.”
Andreoli said that while Oliver hasn’t been on the field for St. John’s for about two months, he has continued to make the Pioneers better on a daily basis.
“He certainly has,” Andreoli said. “One thing we talk about every day – and it’s not just in football, it’s in the way we approach things in the school and in life, too – is that everybody has a role that’s important. In order for an organization to be successful, everybody’s got to be the best in their role that they can be.”
“Sometimes those roles change. In Peter’s case it did. He went from being a starting tailback to a guy that comes to practice every day and supports his teammates that have stepped in behind him because of his injury,” Andreoli continued. “He hasn’t missed a day. The only time he hasn’t been around is when he is getting rehab on his foot. He’s approached his rehab with the same tenacity as he did when he was running the ball in the first three games of the season.”
Oliver said that while he is disappointed he won’t be able to play against North Attleborough in the state final, he is excited about the fact that he will be going to Harvard in the fall and playing for Crimson coach Tim Murphy.
“I have always loved Boston and I have always wanted to go to school in Boston ever since I was young,” Oliver said. “I really like the idea of all the different types of people that I’ll meet at Harvard and the opportunities that I’ll have there. I have always wanted to study chemical engineering; Harvard offers bio engineering, which is almost the same thing, so that’s what I plan to study. I’m really excited to be going there next fall.”
At practice earlier this week on the turf field at Holy Cross, the excitement the St. John’s team had to be playing in the state final was visibly noticeable.
“It’s definitely the biggest game of our lives, but we are treating it like any other game,” said Bucciaglia, who has completed 191-of-267 passes for 3,377 yards and 42 touchdowns this season. “We know there is more on the line but with our preparation we’re are treating it like every other game. We’re coming into these practices up here at Holy Cross and we’re practicing hard and there is a lot of intensity. It’s fun to practice up here. It’s been a great experience.”
Andreoli said he and his team knows that its facing a tough opponent in the 11-1 Red Rocketeers.
“Donny Johnson is a great coach and they’ve got a great program down there,” said Andreoli, who confirmed the Pioneers have not played North Attleborough during his tenure as St. John’s coach. “When you look at them on film you see that they have as good an offensive and defensive line as we’ve seen all season.
“They’re physical and the can run the ball downhill at you. They’ve got a quarterback in Chad Peterson who is smart, can throw the ball with accuracy and can run,” Andreoli said. “They’ve got a kicking game, too. They’ve got all three phases going.”
Andreoli said the Pioneers need to be cognizant of some of the off-the-field adjustments that will be need to be made that are every bit as important as the on-the field adjustments St. John’s will make during the game.
“In Gillette, we’re playing in a big venue with 10-minute quarters (the Pioneers usually play 11-minute quarters) with just three timeouts per half, so the game is going to go fast,” Andreoli said. “We’re going to need to manage that; you really can’t afford to let any time get by where you’re not being efficient on offense, and you’ve got to keep your defense off the field.
“I think it’s the kind of game that we’re well-suited to handle,” Andreoli said. “We’ve got an offense that can score points and they’ve got an offense that can control the clock. So, it’s going to be a good matchup.”
The game, the way championship games often do, may come down to the play of both team’s defense – can the St. John’s defense keep the North Attleborough offense off the field, and can the St. John’s offense score close to the 46 points a game they average on the Red Rocketeers’ defense?
“Hopefully we can get a stop and score (a trademark of St. John’s this year) and our offense can be productive,” Andreoli said. “”It’s all about making sure that we execute one play at a time and we all do our job. I think if we can do that, hopefully we’ll walk away with a win. “One thing is certain, though, it’s going to be a heck of a game.”