|BC High linebacker T.J. Rothmann (left) and Xaverian linebacker A.J. Ryan (right) will square off one more time Friday. Photo of Ryan courtesy of Joseph Kelly.|
Ever since the MIAA Football playoff realignment took place beginning in 2013, the unpredictably seen across the state has been uncanny.
These past two weeks alone have caused bewilderment amongst talking heads across Massachusetts. Andover after a relatively disappointing regular season has catapulted themselves into the Division 1 North Final as a number seven seed. Over in Central Mass. meanwhile, St. Peter-Marian proved the benefits of playing a tough schedule knocking off Auburn in the first round.
Yet, when the lights come on Friday night and the Sectional Finals across Eastern Massachusetts get underway, there will be one contest that takes place that should come as a surprise to no one - The one that determines who will represent the South Sectional in the Division 1 State Final.
A playoff meeting between BC High and Xaverian has become the norm. For the third time in four years, and the second time in the Sectional Finals, the two Catholic Conference rivals will meet up with a trip to the state championship on the line.
This matchup is expected to be no different when it comes to keys to success, as both teams rely heavily on their notoriously well-rounded defenses.
But unlike in past years, when the likes of Joe Gaziano, Coby Tippet, and John Dean for the Hawks and Connor Walsh, Steve DiCienzo, and Stephen Timmins for the Eagles made it nearly impossible to single out one player who made those units dominate, this season has undoubtedly been different.
Look no further than the two team’s star middle linebackers in BC High’s T.J. Rothmann and Xaverian’s A.J. Ryan, and you will instantly find their respective teams' winning formulas.
Last December, Ryan began making a name for himself, putting on a clinic on both sides of the ball to help propel the Hawks to a 43-17 win in the Division 1 State Title game over Central Catholic. Not only did the performance put Ryan front center in terms of Massachusetts college recruits, but it immediately made him the clear standard bearer of a Hawks defense that would be without his co-linebacker John Dean or star Coby Tippett come 2016.
All season long Ryan – who played his freshman season out in Colorado – has more than lived up to the expectations placed upon him. After receiving a flurry of Ivy and Patriot League interest in the offseason, the 6’2 235 lb three-year starter began by leaing his defense to a 17-14 opening evening win over Division 1 North finalist Everett.
One week later, however, the Hawks surrendered 22 points to Bridgewater-Raynham en route to suffering their first loss since 2013.
Ryan said the loss brought a bit of a reality check for his team that a state championship was not something to take for granted.
“It was a bit stunning,” recalled Ryan. “Watching that film was extremely difficult when we came in that Sunday. But coach (Charlie Stevenson) simply said it was just a football game and we simply needed to get back to work.’
Since that moment the Hawks defense looks eerily as dominant as they have for the last couple of seasons.
From week three of the season through the first round of the South Sectional playoffs, Xaverian has surrendered just a lone touchdown.
A majority of that has to do with their defensive captain.
Over the last several weeks Ryan has displayed a special type of athleticism out of the linebacker spot, showcasing his ability to get to the outside to stop the rush off the edge, as well as an innate ability to drop back into coverage.
His meticulous film watching gives him a significant advantage when it comes to understanding his opponents' thought process when the big moment comes.
That was never more on display than in the Hawks regular season matchup with BC High back in week seven. On fourth and goal from the one-yard line, the Eagles seemed poised to punch it in and take an early 7-0 lead. In an attempt to fool BC High, Ryan bluffed going to the B gap in hopes that the Eagles would change their play at the line.
The bluff worked, as BC High changed to a fullback dive. Once Rothmann received the handoff it was too late, as Ryan came surging through the A gap unabated for a tackle in the backfield.
Rothmann couldn’t help but be alarmed by Ryan’s high football IQ.
“(Ryan) is one of the best out there because of how well he prepares,” praised Rothmann. “He always seems to know what’s coming, and that’s a trademark of a true leader on the field.”
The Eagle linebacker, for his part, has emerged on the scene in a profound way after largely flying under the radar last year.
Despite being a starter at the position for a second consecutive season, Rothmann was largely overshadowed last year by co-linebacker Stephen Timmins.
Coming into the year, the weight on Rothmann’s shoulders was large. An articulate and studious kid who admits that he prefers a calculus problem to the adulation received from a football game, he was the only Eagle returning starter on defense.
A soft-spoken leader, Rothmann is to his coaches nothing else but a classic ‘lead by example’ type of captain.
“Off field T.J. is a very quiet kid,” said BC High head coach Jon Bartlett. “He has high moral, strong character. He is a great leader who does well academically.”
Once he steps on the field, however, Rothmann turns into a relentless physical specimen showcasing his high motor on blitzes, as well a willingness to lower his shoulder when in the backfield.
He was instrumental in helping formulate the Eagles’ game plan in containing the high-powered offense that Andover brought to Viola Stadium in week one. Between week two and week four of the season, Rothmann was largely responsible for a defense that held its opponents to a mere 15 points.
Offensively, Rothmann has rumbled into the end zone out of the fullback spot for a total of five touchdowns, including two in the Eagles second round matchup against Brockton.
“Once he gets on the field he plays relentless,” said Bartlett. “We have some talented players on the defensive side of the ball. He plays with intensity and he is just a very physical football player.”
Rothmann’s ability to play consistently on both sides of the ball brings out some envy in Ryan.
“It’s clear (Rothmann) has a very high awareness of the game just in general,” said Ryan. “The fact that he is able to play on both sides regularly at such a high level is a true testament to how good he is as a player.”
When these two meet on Friday they will be coming from very different backgrounds with regards to experience on the big stage.
Ryan has been a member of a Xaverian team that is the two-time defending Division 1 State Champions. His teams are a remarkable 30-1 over the past three seasons, and he has never lost a postseason game.
Despite being one of the key returnees, along with the likes of Mekhi Henderson and Cal Flanders from last years team, Ryan has worked tirelessly this season to make it so some of that winning pedigree rubs off on his fellow teammates.
“Its definitely an advantage for us, knowing how to win since we have been there before,” said Ryan. “I do my best everyday, in every practice, to influence my teammates by displaying the hard work and preparation it takes to get to that point.”
But for Rothmann it is a completely different story.
Last year, in his only season as a starter, the Eagles finished 4-3 in the regular season, lost in their first round playoff matchup against Catholic Memorial.
By and large he, with the rest of his teammates, have been learning on the fly what it takes to grab hold of a state championship. They have relied on the history of the Eagles’ coaching staff that claimed state championships in both 2008 and 2010.
Perhaps Rothmann, through the struggles of last year, has already instilled that resiliency in his team. Ever since the Eagles lost their final two games of the regular season to St. John’s Prep and the aforementioned Hawks, in which their defense gave up a combined 55 points, BC High has responded by defeating their first two postseason opponents by a combined score of 79 to 21.
“We clearly did not play our best football,” said Rothmann. “Based on last year we knew that if we did not get it together quickly you know we just would not last very long in the playoffs based on the teams we were playing. The message was simply to ‘move on get focused’ and so far we have done a good job of that.”
So when these two face off on Friday they will not just be looking to clinch a South Sectional Championship, but rather attempting to seize on the opportunity of sending their chief rival home one final time.
The Hawks have beaten the Eagles seven consecutive times, including eliminating them from the postseason three times since 2012, dangling the prospect of revenge in front of Rothmann and his fellow teammates.
On the flip side this final battle gives Ryan a chance to send the Hawks' biggest competition in the section home once again.
“It’s always a huge game when we play them, and we know it's going to be a physical one,” said Ryan. "After we beat them last month I was nearly positive we would play the game. It’s definitely surreal for us seniors that this will be the last time we play (BC High), but we’re lucky to have the opportunity to send them home on our own turf.”
Rothmann sure hopes to find a solution to that potential problem come Friday.