BOSTON -- Trailing highly-touted St. John's Prep by a touchdown at the half, Boston College High quarterback Sean Holleran got, in short, "a good chewing" from his head coach Joe Gaff. Players were getting open, looking for a good throw, and the 5-foot-10 junior was not holding up his end of the bargain, including a bad interception late in the second quarter.
"I deserved that chewing," he recalled, with a laugh.
Tied late in the game, before a boisterous home crowd at Viola Stadium, Holleran came through with the throw his coach was looking for, then let his feet do the rest of the work. His orchestration on what would be the game-winning eight-play, 66-yard delivered BC High (4-2) its biggest statement win of the season, a 13-7 decision over Prep (4-3) that improved them to 2-0 in the Catholic Conference and gave them three straight wins since their bye week in late September.
"Sean is the toughest kid as they come," Gaff said. "He took a good chewing at halftime, and he came out in the second half and responded incredibly. He made some choices tonight, giving and not giving the ball, and he made some great runs."
No play was more important on that final drive, perhaps, than the 18-yard strike to junior receiver Geoff Stillman on third and six at their own 38. Stillman, split out wide to the right, ran a slant to hash marks, where Holleran lasered the ball into a tight window. With quick reflexes, Stillman cradled the ball in traffic and ground forward for the first down.
"He came in, the linebacker stepped up and he made a great catch over the middle," Holleran said. "It takes a lot of guts to do that, and he went up and got it. It paid off for us."
That throw to Stillman was followed up with a 16-yard scramble, then a nine-yard option keeper, sprung loose by a sealing block downfield from tight end Connor Walsh but stepping out of bounds at the Prep 19. After a Prep offsides call, Holleran scurried for eight more yards on an option keeper with a fake pitch, then Mitch LaFerriere capped the winning drive with a six-yard plunge with 46 seconds remaining.
"[I was] just reading the defense and going with it, you know?" Holleran said. "Our pass game wasn't really there for us today, we had to get it done on our feet, and that's what we did."
The point-after kick was blocked, but BC High's fortunes took a favorable bounce when Prep's ensuing hook-and-ladder attempt was fumbled on the exchange in the boundary. Ismail Asongwed pounced on the loose ball for BC High, and they proceeded to run out the clock.
With 37 seconds left, a few timeouts to spare and 64 yards to go, the decision could be considered high-risk. Yet the Prep nearly pulled it off, likely marching to paydirt if not for the fumble. Prep head coach Jim O'Leary said he even considered calling a hook-and-ladder to open the game up.
"We had practice that this week, and we actually thought about opening the game up with it," he said. "The first play, we didn't get the yards we needed or something, but it's not a bad call. It looks likes it's going for a touchdown and then he puts the ball in the ground. More than anything else, ball security was the issue tonight. We just can't be turning the ball over like that, on the road, down here."
Brendan Smith led BC High on the ground with 15 carries for 97 yards, while Prep quarterback Mike Geaslen completed 7 of 11 passes for 96 yards and ran in the lone Prep score on a sneak from the one-foot line.
Prep linemen suspended: As if it wasn't snakebitten enough with the loss of Maryland-bound all-world running back Johnny Thomas (knee) for the season, three of Prep's top linemen were missing from tonight's action due to what O'Leary called "school disciplinary action".
Asked if the suspension could carry into the postseason (Prep has a bye next week, the final week of the regular season), O'Leary said, "If we make the playoffs, we'll see. I suspect with those kind of issues, that there's consequences that extend more than one game."
Harnais makes early exit: BC High lost one of its top running backs, senior Robert Harnais, five minutes into the contest on what would have been a sure-fire touchdown. On the first play of BC's second drive, from its own 12, Harnais took a toss sweep around the edge and took off for daylight before blowing a tire around midfield. The play, officially a 48-yard scamper that could have easily been an 88-yard TD, was Harnais' last of the night. He finished with three carries for 54 yards.
It was more than just a simple cramp. Harnais had to be carried off the field by two teammates, putting no weight on either leg. Gaff confirmed it is an issue with his left hamstring, with an unknown timetable.
"Imagine? He's gone on that, that's a touchdown on that," Gaff said. "It's a hamstring issue. Unfortunately, he's worked his body so hard all season and he's been nicked up all year. Hopefully, we'll get him back at the end of the year."
The Walls of Morrissey Blvd.: Coming out of its bye week, after some miserable first-half showings, it's safe to say BC High has cleaned things up on the defensive front. Two weeks ago, in statistically its best performance to date, the Eagles held then-No. 8 Brockton to 112 yards of total offense in a 6-0 shutout victory. Tonight, they held Prep to 135 yards of total offense, including just 39 rushing yards, giving them a total of less than 250 yards allowed combined against two teams ranked in ESPN Boston's Top 10 at the time.
With a front seven led by Steve DiCienzo and Chris Solis, this defense has developed a nastiness at just the right time, with the first round of Division 1 South playoffs two weeks away.
"This is unreal," Holleran said of the defense. "It's taken a lot of pressure off me, I'll tell you that much. It was a couple plays that got it back for us, and second half we put it in."
Check Mate: At 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, Walsh plays a unique chess piece in BC High's slowly-evolving offense. Able to set the edge lined up tight in a three-point stance, or seal an outmatched defender inside or outside for a big gain when split out on the perimeter, he plays a significant factor in the run game. In the passing game, he can be a matchup problem when isolated out wide, either in a double-slot formation or opposite trips, as BC High did tonight.
In the first half, Walsh was split out wide as a split end four times and was targeted twice, with no catches and one drop. In the opening drive of the second half, BC ran exclusively out of a double-slot formation with Walsh at split end, running mostly zone read plays but also targeting the big tight end once with no success.
On the game-winning final drive, Walsh again was put out on the perimeter, and he made several big blocks to spring Holleran loose for first-down gains.
"He's a big body, got great hands and moves really well for a big guy," Gaff said. "We've got some confidence moving him out. You've got Stillman, the tall target, with the big catch down the middle on that last drive, so it's nice to have some big bodies on the outside of Sean, who's not the tallest guy to see some big targets."
Said Holleran of tonight's strategy with Walsh, "We were just looking to hit Prep wherever we could. We saw an advantage on the outside with Walsh, and we tried to get it there. It was there, I just couldn't hit him."
BC HIGH 13, ST. JOHN'S PREP 7
SJP 0 7 0 0 --- 7
BCH 0 0 7 6 --- 13
S - Mike Geaslen 1 run (Josh Hilty kick) 8:20
B - Sean Holleran 1 run (Jack O'Brien kick) 2:56
B - Mitch LaFerriere 6 run (kick blocked) :46