SHREWSBURY, Mass. -- St. John's senior quarterback Drew Smiley threw for three touchdowns and added a pair on the ground as the Pioneers (7-2) routed visiting Marlborough (7-2) 56-20 in Saturday’s Division 2 Central semifinal.
The Pioneers started things quickly, forcing the Panthers into a three-and-out on their opening drive, before explosive athlete Davon Jones (4 catches, 92 yards; 5 kick returns, 155 yards, TD) returned a punt 45 yards for the game's first score. The Pioneer defense forced another Panther punt moments later, but this time it would be Smiley (12-of-14 passing, 205 yards, 3 TD; 4 carries, 70 yards 2 TD) scoring for St. John's, keeping it himself for a 58-yard touchdown run on the Pioneers’ first play from scrimmage.
Less than two minutes in, St. John's led 14-0. It was a stark contrast to the first time these teams met.
"We've been talking all week about winning the moment," Pioneers coach John Andreoli said. "We came out last time (against Marlboro) and did not have a good first half, and I think we were relaxed today. We were well prepared, and we had confidence in our reads and in our mechanics. Our kids played to their ability, and it was a complete game for us."
The Panthers answered with a Will Cowdrey one-yard touchdown run, but Smiley responded with an 11-play, 90-yard drive that took up just over two minutes of game time before he found junior running back Shane Combs (15 carries, 100 yards, 2 TD; 2 catches, 3 yards, TD) for a 15-yard passing score.
Smiley would punch in a one-yard score on the next St. John's drive before Pioneer linebacker Patrick Ryan intercepted Panther quarterback John Rumney, setting up another Smiley touchdown pass, this one a 44-yard strike to leading receiver Michael McGillicuddy (2 catches, 50 yards). Three plays later, linebacker Anthony Moroski picked off another Rumney pass, running it back inside the Marlborough 20, and setting up Smiley's final touchdown of the day to senior T.J. Kelly.
St. John's led 42-7 at that point.
"Last time we played Marlborough it was pretty windy, so we couldn't really throw it," Smiley said. "So this time we tried to open it up and throw it around a little bit. Then, (on the zone read) it opened up room for Shane, and when they committed to him I just kept it and had space."
Marlborough scored on the following drive, after senior receiver Matt Thall drew back-to-back pass interference calls, and the Panthers threatened to pull within 21. But, with a first and goal at the Pioneer one-yard line, Rumney was stopped for a four-yard loss by senior defensive end Jeff DeMango, then forced into two incompletions by the stingy Pioneer secondary. The half ended with St. John's leading 42-14.
The second half started with a bang for St. John's, as Combs took the first play from scrimmage for a 55-yard rushing touchdown. Rumney answered with a 23-yard passing touchdown to Jose Caquias, but Combs' 15-yard touchdown to start the fourth quarter pushed the score to 56-20 in favor of St. John's, and brought the Pioneer backups into the game.
"I think our offensive line really set the tone," Combs, a recent Notre Dame baseball commit, said. "From the get-go they were coming off the line and pounding (Marlborough) back, and by the end of the game they didn't want to line up against us. All the credit to the O-line for pushing them back all day."
Next up for St. John's is a highly anticipated rematch of their season opener against rival Leominster. The Blue Devils defeated the Pioneers 33-22 at home the first time around, and the Division 2 Central final will also be played at Leominster's Doyle Field.
Coach Andreoli and his team know it won't be easy. After all, the Pioneers have yet to defeat Leominster with head coach Dave Palazzi at the helm, but St. John's is still relishing the second chance it's getting.
"They're the defending champions, they're undefeated," Andreoli said. "We know it's going to be a challenge, but we're just going to try to line up and win every snap. I think it's a great opportunity for us to have a great week and go up there and play our best game.
"This season was my first indoctrination into the Leominster-St. John's rivalry," Combs, a transfer from St. Louis, said. "The first game I was amazed by the energy of this rivalry. Right now it comes down to preparation, and I know we have a chip on our shoulder, and we're going to out-prepare them."
St. John’s will face Leominster in the D2 Central final Friday at 7 p.m., at Doyle Field.