Monday, September 1, 2014

CMass Football Preview: The 2014 St. John's Pioneers

Though widely known for its offense, look for St. John's to be greatly improved on defense, led by senior middle linebacker Sam Norton (66).
By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

St. John's has long been one of, if not the, best high school football programs in Central Mass, but the Pioneers had a monkey they just couldn't get off their back: Rival Leominster.

St. John's came into 2013 having lost four straight to the Blue Devils, including a pair of Division I Central Super Bowls. When Leominster took down the Pioneers 33-22 to start the year, it seemed like another CMass season would belong to their nemesis from the north.

Things got even worse in the coming weeks, as St. John's needed a miracle kickoff return from Michael McGillicuddy to survive Fitchburg, and dropped its second in a row to crosstown rival Shrewsbury. The Pioneers then fell into a 20-7 hole against Marlborough.

But then things began to click.

Then-senior quarterback Drew Smiley took his game to another level, leading St. John's on a 28-0 run to close out that game, followed by brilliant performances in the playoffs, including a 51-42 payback win over Leominster that saw him throw for 250 yards and three touchdowns, while adding another 200 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.

The next week in the state semifinals against Springfield Central, a brilliant game from then-junior Davon Jones at receiver and safety kept the Pioneers in things, before then-junior Shane Combs punched it in from 15 yards out to give St. John's a late lead.

Smiley would snag a one-handed interception from his part-time safety role to send the Pioneers to Gillette.

Though it lost to state power Mansfield in the D2 state championship game, St. John's re-established itself as the premier program in Central Mass. Now, expectations are sky-high in Shrewsbury, despite the graduation of Smiley, as the Pioneers look to be stronger on both lines and have athletes to spare on the outside.

Here's what to expect from St. John's in 2014.


The first thing St. John's will have to sort out is its quarterback situation. With the graduation of Smiley, the Pioneers are looking for either running back Shane Combs (also a Notre Dame baseball commit for pitching) or junior Tim Cassidy to step in and fill some big shoes.

Or heck, it may end up being both of them.

During the Pioneers' first scrimmage of the year against Brockton, each quarterback took turns, running two plays at a time, before giving way to the other, and coach John Andreoli hinted that both could be a part of the Pioneers' plans in 2014.

Combs is the bigger, stronger of the two, and clearly the better runner, while the lefty Cassidy appears to be more polished and comfortable in the pocket. Each has a big arm, and don't be surprised to see the two of them in the backfield together, forcing defenses to account for a pair of passers this season.

When Combs isn't lining up at running back, expect junior Terry Travis to get a look. Last season in mop-up duty Travis proved to be shifty and excelled in space, both as a back and kick returner. He may not be as strong as Combs, but Travis could end up being every bit as dangerous.

However the backfield situation sorts itself out, there will be plenty of talent elsewhere for St. John's to succeed running its up-tempo "Blur" offense. The offensive line has drawn rave reviews, particularly for its athleticism. Led by junior Sean Ragan, who has already earned a scholarship offer from the Miami Hurricanes, the Pioneer line could be the best pass-protection line in Central Mass, and its collective quickness should again allow St. John's to excel in the screen game.

But it's not like St. John's can't knock you back with power. Ragan's 280 lbs. and quick feet make him an exceptional zone blocking guard, and a scary sight pulling around the corner.

On the outside, Boston College commit Davon Jones is sure to stretch defenses thin with his outstanding speed and leaping ability. Jones will be at the top of every scouting report this year, but be on the lookout for senior Nick Calvano, who could take McGillicuddy's spot as the Pioneers' possession and bubble screen receiver of choice. Don't be surprised if junior Cam Lucey has a breakout year as well.


The St. John's defense took a major step back in 2012, and didn't look much more impressive to start 2013, but the front-seven grew tougher as the season wore on, and Jones' abilities patrolling the secondary made in increasingly tougher to throw on the Pioneers.

This season the defensive front looks bigger and stronger than it has in recent years, and that new found strength was on display against Brockton. Led by senior MLB Sam Norton, St. John's consistently stymied a Boxer running game that featured massive BC offensive tackle commit Aaron Monteiro.

While Norton was everywhere, the Pioneer defensive line, led by senior tackle Nick Blondin, did an excellent job of both penetrating and setting the edge. It may seem crazy to think that a team known for its offense the past few years could actually be one of the best defensive teams in the region as well, but that's how talented St. John's is up front.

On the back end, we all know about Jones. He is, quite simply, the best safety in the state, and his sideline-to-sideline range allows St. John's to play one high safety where most other teams would have to use two.

Calvano will return at corner, and the Pioneers certainly seem to have enough speed to fill in around their two veterans to produce a stellar secondary. Two guys to keep an eye on will be senior corner Mac-Eddy Paul and junior corner/safety Michael Corinna. Those two could get a lot of time at corner together, giving Calvano some time to focus a bit more on his duties as a receiver and kick returner.

As a rare bonus for the high school level, St. John's also has an established specialist coming back in senior Jack Coveney. The standout kicker converted 49 extra points last season, the most in Central Mass, and was also the region's premier kickoff specialist and punter, often pinning opponents inside their own 20 yard line on punts and forcing touchbacks in kickoffs.

If you've ever seen him kick, you know Coveney truly is a weapon for the Pioneers. With one of the strongest legs in the state, he can flip the field on any St. John's opponent, and almost entirely eliminates the threat of opposing teams' return men.


Expectations were a bit tempered last season because Leominster was loaded, and the Pioneers hadn't defeated the Blue Devils in two seasons. Now, having broken through that wall, and returning a ton of talent and strength up front on both sides of the ball, the sky appears to be the limit for St. John's.

Settling on a quarterback, or finding a two-quarterback system that works, will be coach Andreoli's first major challenge, but with so much talent around the position, St. John's should again be explosive on offense.

The defense looks to be much improved, particularly up front, and returns a plethora of experience and speed in the back end. With outstanding senior leadership coming from Combs, Jones, Calvano and Norton, plus a stated goal of getting back to Gillette, expect St. John's to contend for a state championship in Division II.

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