St. John's Eagles Football '07

The St. John's Prep offensive line, from left, includes Nate Brakeley, Andrew Valeri, Chris Dieselman, Zak Kline, Andrew Knowlton and Andrew Dieselman.  » Linsey Tait, Staff Photographer

Improved offensive line has Prep thinking about title

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Thursday, November, 08 By Matt Jenkins
Staff writer

The St. John's Prep offensive line went from making news quite often in the beginning of the season to hardly ever being heard from.

And that's a good thing, according to football coach Jim O'Leary.

A loaded early season schedule and an inexperienced offensive line had the Eagles looking like a longshot to contend for the Catholic Conference championship in early October. Improved confidence from on-the-job training has the 'O' line playing much better the second half of the schedule, and its performance the past four weeks has allowed the Prep to play for a league title Saturday afternoon (1:30) against unbeaten B.C. High at Cronin Field.

After earning their stripes against teams like Everett, Brockton and Dracut, the six linemen who have occupied the five positions on the Eagles' line have gone from inexperienced to invisible, allowing the playmakers | tailback Derek Coppola and quarterback Scott Darby | to shine.

"The offensive line was all new, but they've improved every single week. Scott and Derek we knew about (coming into the season)," O'Leary said, his team now 5-4 overall and 2-0 in the Catholic Conference. "Now, the line is quietly going about its business, and we'll go as far as they go.

"They do it in relative obscurity when things are going well, but not from (the coaches). They don't get their names in the paper every game, but when one of those running backs or wide receivers does something it's because they did their job."

O'Leary has a hard time pinpointing a specific key to Saturday's game, mainly because B.C. High (9-0 overall, 2-0 in the Catholic Conference) is so well-balanced. The other Eagles have won in a variety of fashions, scoring over 30 points per game and allowing less than 10. B.C. High also doesn't have one specific offensive weapon that the Prep defense can focus on.

That's what makes the performance of the Prep's offensive line so important this weekend. Zach Kline, Nate Brakeley, Andrew Valeri, Chris Dieselman, Andrew Dieselman and Andrew Knowlton will be called upon to keep the Prep offense on the field, while the B.C. High offense sits dormant on the sidelines.

"It always comes down to the line, but we need to not turn it over and not beat ourselves," O'Leary said. "In the fourth quarter if we can still be there, then we'll have a ballgame. We need our special teams to play well and make them work the full field."

B.C. High features three running backs that are among the top 10 scorers in Division 1. Kyle Ewanowski leads the team with nine touchdowns, while Brian Sullivan and Mitch McClune have eight apiece.

Bill Kiley is a very capable quarterback for the visitors, and Tom Conley is an excellent weapon at tight end.

"The thing that is most impressive is that you can't take one thing away from them," O'Leary said. "Sometimes you play teams that you say, 'If we stop this kid, we can win.' It's not like that with them. Defensively they are a very good team, also."

With each passing week, the Prep is looking like a more well-balanced team as well.

Darby, the senior quarterback, has struggled throwing the ball at times this year, but the last couple of weeks he has been more reliable. Coppola, meanwhile, is looking more like the back that ran for over 1,000 yards last fall.

The constant all season has been the Prep defense, which is allowing just over 15 points per game. Linebacker Mike Papagni and Brakeley, a lineman, have been strong in the middle of the Prep defense, which plans on making B.C. High work hard every possession.

"We've been doing that all year. Even in the Everett loss (35-7), we gave them short fields and made them work," O'Leary said. "We pride ourselves on that. They've kept us in the game."

The Prep will play without Patrick Higgins, who is still recovering from a concussion, and the Eagles haven't fared that well at Cronin Field this season. St. John's is just 1-3 at home.

All the numbers and stats point to the Prep being the underdog, but that means nothing to O'Leary and the Eagles.

"B.C. High is the No. 2 team in the state and they're undefeated," O'Leary said. "But in some of the games we've won, we've shown character. We've made some strides and now we have the opportunity to play an undefeated team who has kind of been going through everyone."

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