With years of tradition being honored and a playoff spot on the line, the Hawk Bowl lived up to the hype Thursday, as St John's Prep came away with a 21-12 win over Xaverian.
Both teams had their moments and fought hard, but only one could earn the right to play another day.
"They played their hearts out," said Prep coach Jim O'Leary. "It was a great effort from everyone. Back to work tomorrow to play again on Tuesday."
"I congratulate Prep, they had a great game today," said Xaverian coach Charlie Stevenson. "They beat us fair and square."
After a quick and scoreless first quarter, St. John's Prep (7-4) got on the board to open the second with a 40-yard touchdown run by Tyler Coppola. Connor Shaw's extra point made it 7-0 with 8:41 left in the half.
That also marked the point in the game where Coppola took over. Finishing with 200 yards and two touchdowns, Coppola seemed to get the call on every play. It's not that Prep couldn't throw the ball, they just didn't have to with the way their offensive line and running back were playing.
"We should be able to throw the ball a little bit and we can throw the ball, but it's 10-minute quarters and we want to control the line of scrimmage," said O'Leary. "We rode those senior guys and it's all them. I mean when Tyler gets to the second level, that's him, but those first three, four, five yards against a good football team who haven't been giving up a lot of yards, I'm very proud of how they did that today."
Nate Cyr, Dan Culkeen, Blair Friedensohn, John Mindnich and Ryan Delisle are just a few members of the offense that helped pave the way for Coppola's monster day.
"Tyler of course is a man on a mission," said O'Leary, "but you don't do that without everyone in front of you playing hard for you."
The offense was able put together some crucial drives that ate up a lot of clock and put points on the board, which made life very difficult for Xaverian (8-3).
"We weren't able to stop them running the football, so we didn't get that many offensive opportunities," said Stevenson "When you shorten the game, that's tough to overcome."
"We just trying to get them so they're not comfortable in their defense and make them [wonder] what we're doing next," said O'Leary. "[Tyler] went right, left, weak side, strong side, we flipped our tight end, so we were just trying to make it hard for them."
When the Hawks offense got their chance they were able to march downfield on the backs of Chris Tamasi and Joe Colton, but turnovers became a problem.
Dillon Gonzalez ended a Hawk drive with an interception on the 20-yard line in the second quarter, but two plays later Xaverian forced a turnover of their own as Kevin Ihlefeld recovered a fumbled handoff in the endzone for a safety, making it 7-2 with 3:41 to go.
"Our defense came out here and we played tough," said O'Leary. "We bent a little bit, but my young secondary made some plays. They could have had a couple picks, but they had some knockdowns and made plays."
Xaverian's defense made some plays of their own to keep the team in the game. With two minutes left in the half, the Hawks forced another fumble when Coppola was hit hard enough to knock the ball loose and Nick McDaniels recovered at the 22. Xaverian moved it into the red zone, where Jules Murphy converted a short field goal to make it 7-5 at the half.
The Eagles received the ball to start the second half and moved it methodically down the field on quarterback keepers and solid running by Coppola, who would cap off the drive with a 23-yard touchdown to put Prep ahead 14-5.
The home team finally broke through with their own long drive, but faced a fourth and one on Eagles 10-yard line. Quarterback Chris Calvanese took the snap and ran outside for the first down, then threw a perfect lob pass to Colton in the front corner of the endzone to make it 14-12 at the end of the third quarter.
"We made some good plays offensively with Joe Colton and Chris Calvanese," said Stevenson. "Our kids played hard, but it was their day today."
Xaverian really seemed to take over the momentum at that point, as the team got the ball right back when a short kickoff was bobbled and recovered on Prep's 30-yard line, but they were unable to advance the ball and missed a field goal to give the ball and the momentum back to the Eagles.
"We played good, solid defense," said O'Leary. "We held the MVP of the league (Colton) to however many yards, but he wasn't a huge factor. They know what we're doing, they've scouted us nine times and we've scouted them, so it comes down to kids making plays. We made a few more today."
"I'm very proud of our team, and the way they play," said Stevenson. "They played hard all year long and played hard today, but things just didn't go our way. That's football."
The offensive line cleared the way for Coppola as they put together a steady, six-minute drive capped off by a Tommy Gaudet touchdown on a great fake handoff that allowed the quarterback to roll outside for a three-yard score.
Mike Warren set the Hawks up in great field position with his 43-yard kickoff return to the offensive 37, but a few untimely penalties quickly made it fourth and 23 and a desperate Calvanese threw into traffic and was picked off by Alex Moore to end any chance of a comeback.
"It was a great year," said Stevenson. "I'm proud of our team, we overcame a lot of obstacles to finish 8-3 and I'm really proud of our seniors in particular and I wish them the best as they move forward."
The Xaverian seniors who played in their final game Thursday include captains Colton, Tamasi, Ihlefeld, Harry King, and Mike Muir, as well as Nick McDaniels, Derek Reddy, Robert Cavanaugh, Tom Jenkins, Nathan Schaney, Conor Benton, Hunter Benharris, Zach Bartlett, Warren Feldman, Connor Egan, Matt Rubino, Mike Heinz, Robert Chisholm, Caleb Blackmur, and John Drew.
As if the years of tradition and the Catholic Conference crown wasn't enough to motivate these teams, Prep also had the support of honorary senior captains Brandon and Jared Coppola, triplet brothers of the game's star player. Both were severely injured playing for the Eagles, but made their return to the field for the coin toss.
"Charlie and the staff have the highest respect from me," said O'Leary. "They treated the whole thing with Jared before the game with respect and I can't thank them enough."
The rest of Prep's seniors include captains Coppola, Cyr, and Delisle, as well as Culkeen, Friedensohn, Mindnich, Will Sherman, Pat Shunney, Luis Soto, Nick Pesaturo, Dillon Gonzalez, Mark Macdonald, Austin Pierce, Matt Byrne, Chris Ryan, Mark Assad, Jimmy O'Connell, Kevin Verrochi, Ryan Richard, James Ferguson and Winslow Estevez.
The Eagles advance to the postseason, where they will meet New Bedford on Tuesday for a spot in next Saturday's Super Bowl, after wrapping up the Catholic Conference crown on Xaverian's home turf at the Hawk Bowl.