Saturday, November 4, 2017

St. John's (Shrewsbury) Edges Doherty in D3 Central Semifinal

By John McGuirk (@patsfan1313)

Worcester, Mass. - The opportunities were there for Doherty. For an inner-city school destined to prove it belongs in the conversation when talking about the elite programs in Central Mass, the Highlanders were hanging in with the elite of the elite during the first 22 minutes.

But St. John's (Shrewsbury), a team blessed with tremendous depth and talent, took its game to the next level over the course of the second half, able to finally break free for a 32-21 victory in the Division 3 Central semifinal played Friday night at Assumption College.

Top-seed St. John's (9-0) moves on to the final where it will face No. 2 Shrewsbury (8-1) next Saturday at a site yet to be determined. The Colonials easily disposed of Shepherd Hill 33-7 in their semifinal contest. St. John's and Shrewsbury met back on October 6 in a game won by the Pioneers 46-35. A year ago, however, the Colonials bested St. John's in the Division 2 semifinal round.

With Doherty, a fourth seed, matching the Pioneers' effort throughout the opening half, it appeared as though it might have a shot of pulling off a huge upset. The Highlanders (7-2) were able to run and throw the ball effectively against a vaunted St. John's defense, and only trailed 24-21 heading into the break. But all of that changed once the teams came out of the intermission.

"Doherty is a tremendous team," noted Pioneers head coach John Andreoli. "They play hard and they have athletes. They were moving the ball and moving the chains consistently. But we were able to step up and make plays when we had too, both individually and as a team."

On Doherty's first two possessions to begin the final half, it was still able to move the ball and pick up large chunks of yardage. On the Highlanders first attempt of the half, they marched to the St. John's 16 before turning the ball over on downs. Moments later, after recovering a Steven Bucciaglia fumble, Doherty was on the move again _ this time reaching the 15 before running back Tajon Vassar was smothered for a 12 yard loss on fourth down.

Getting the ball back, the Pioneers methodically moved down field, setting up camp on the Highlanders' 9. On fourth down, Bucciaglia threw an incomplete pass in the end zone, giving the ball back to the Highlanders. However, two plays resulted in minus-8 yards pinned them back to the one. Now In punt formation, Doherty head coach Sean Mulcahy opted to have his punter run out of the back of the end zone for a safety with 2:55 left to make it 26-21. An Eamonn Dennis 48-yard return on the ensuing free kick helped set up Colin Deso's 5-yard touchdown run to put this one away.

On Doherty's final drive, as time ticked down, defensive back Jameson Carroll intercepted Noah Callery to end any comeback hopes.

"We prepared very well this week because we knew Doherty would come out and play us tough," Deso said. "In the second half we really started to click more. Once our offense gets going it just keeps rolling. For me, it's all about the guys up front. If they aren't doing their jobs then I'm going to get tackled 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage."

Offense took center stage in this affair as St. John's racked up 419 yards while Doherty finished with 370. Bucciaglia was serviceable, passing for 256 yards on 14 of 24 attempts. The senior also rushed for 80 yards and three scores. The Highlanders were paced by Vassar, a junior, who ran for 109 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Callery, a freshman, completed 11 of 23 passes for 142 yards, including a touchdown.

Bucciaglia gave St. John's the early lead with an 11-yard jaunt into the end zone on its opening possession. But Doherty quickly retaliated thanks to Vassar's 53-yard dash up the middle to move in front 7-6. On the Pioneers' next possession, they marched 64 yards, keyed by a 39-yard reception by Jay Brunelle, to retake the lead on a Bucciaglia 1-yard dive over the goal line. But back came the Highlanders. Showing no signs of intimidation, they engineered a 73-yard drive capped off by a 44-yard Callery to Jon Forson swing pass resulting in a touchdown to push them back on top 14-12 with still 2:13 remaining in the initial quarter.

However, the lead was all but brief as a 44-yard grab by receiver Coleman Drugotch paved the way for Deso's 4-yard scamper into the end zone to send St. John's into the second quarter ahead 18-14. Deso, a junior gained 67 yards on 6 carries. The offensive fireworks continued on St. John's next series. Three Bucciaglia completions, netting 52 yards, led to his 1-yard carry into the end zone giving the Pioneers a bit of breathing room now up 24-14 with 7:45 showing before halftime.

However, with less than two minutes to go, Doherty made it a one score game following Vassar's 2-yard run moments after Herman Acheampong rumbled 20 yards to put the Highlanders in prime scoring position.

Although Doherty had its opportunities on its first two possessions to start the second half, each resulted in disappointment as it was unable to complete its mission. Certainly, when you play a club like St. John's those types of situations cannot result in zero points if you expect to win. The Highlanders had two more chances later to convert but failed in their quest, again coming up short on fourth down.

"Overall, that team gave us all we could handle tonight," said Andreoli. "But we were able to respond and it was a heck of a high school football game. I'm proud of our kids because Doherty is a tough team to prepare for because they do a lot of good things. They can hurt you in a lot of ways and Tajon is quite a player for them. We were able to move the ball effectively in the second half and credit our defense for stopping them four times on fourth down in the half."

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