LEOMINSTER, Mass. -- Shane Combs is a newbie to this long-budding rivalry between Leominster and his own St. John's Pioneers. But even he couldn't stand to listen any more to the facts, namely that coming into tonight his Pioneers were 0-5 against the Blue Devils under coach Dave Palazzi.
"You have no idea," Combs, a transfer from St. Louis, Mo., exclaimed, from the same turf he had faltered on some two months ago. "Ever since we walked off this field whenever it was -- nine, 10 weeks ago -- we've all been waiting for this moment. We've been listening to the chirping, all the talking, and it was all just motivation. We just put our heads down and hoped to get here again."
And that's prose coming from a newcomer like Combs, who ran for 132 yards and a touchdown in the Pioneers' 51-42 win over Leominster that gave the Pioneers the MIAA Division 2 Central crown, at Leominster's own Doyle field. Just imagine what it's like for quarterback Andrew Smiley (250 passing yards, 194 rushing yards, 5 total TD), who'd been living with this albatross on his chest for four years.
"My senior group, we've never beaten Leominster -- freshman, JV, varsity -- so this is amazing," Smiley said. "We knew it was our time, we knew what we had to do, and everyone executed. Defense played great, o-line gave me tons of time to pass, Shane [Combs] played great, everyone played great. It was perfect."
And in a game of imperfection, but also of track-meet pace, Smiley was brilliant, completing 14 of 26 passes for 260 yards and adding 194 rushing yards, for six total touchdowns.
None was more important, though, than the one at the end to seal it.
After stuffing Combs at the one yard line on fourth and goal, Leominster drove 99 yards the other way for a score, starting with a 48-yard strike from O'Connor to Jake Allain and finishing with a broken play that ended up going for a score anyway. O'Connor fumbled a low shotgun snap, spun and was forced to roll to his left, but he lofted a soft floater to a wide open Mayson Williams for a two-yard score that cut the Pioneers' lead to 37-34.
Smiley responded on the first play of the ensuing drive with a 55-yard scamper down the left side, setting up his own one-yard plunge two plays later, then watched as the Blue Devils responded two possessions later with a 75-yard scoring strike from O'Connor to Allain for a 44-42 deficit. Smiley put that to rest quickly though, calling his number again on the first play of the ensuing drive with sweep around the corner for a 69-yard score and 51-42 advantage.
"We love playing in shootouts," Smiley said. "Those are my favorite."
Said Pioneers head coach John Andreoli, "He gets the command and respect, and he gets confidence in the huddle. When he comes in and says 'We're going to get a first down' or 'We're going to put it in the end zone', guys believe in him. He leads by example. We're fortunate to have him, and the senior leadership on this team that really is the reason we're here today with our championship trophy."
Zip and grind: Whereas in the first meeting between the two Smiley carved up the Blue Devils' defense with an a variety of screens, totaling nearly 150 yards passing on that play alone, this time St. John's went in the other direction. Having gotten away from the screen game the last few weeks, they instead came out looking to exploit the Cover 2 defense that Leominster showed for most of the night with its two excellent safeties, O'Connor and UMass commit Jarell Addo, in back.
Often in a Cover 2, there are pockets 10 to 15 yards down either sideline that are left exposed. McGillicuddy (six catches, 132 yards, TD) and T.J. Kelley (three catches, 54 yards) exploited these zone holes, sitting in them and high-pointing grabs to keep the chains moving.
"We watched a lot of film this week," Smiley said. "We knew what they were running, so we knew what was going to be open, and Coach Mo [offensive coordinator Chris Moriarty] called a great game. There were open receivers, I just had to find them. Our o-line played unbelievable."
Banchs (back) leaves game: Injuries piled up in this game for Leominster, but none bigger than that of fullback/linebacker Matt Banchs, who left in the second quarter with a back injury. After stretching on the sideline in pads for the second quarter, Banchs took of his pads for the second half and sat in uniform, on the sideline.
As a fullback, Banchs has served a role as both a blocker and pass-catcher; one of the Blue Devils' most consistently effective plays this season has been a play action pass with Banchs releasing to the flat, usually ending up with plenty of real estate in front of him for a new set of downs. On defense, however, is where the biggest blow was dealt.
"It's a huge loss," Palazzi said. "He got it twisted up, and he couldn't move. His loss on defense off the edge...nothing against the guys in there, but with Smiley running off the edge, that's where Banchs would have been, and they just took advantage of us a little bit."
Combs the crusher: Combs showed some promise in the preseason as an able body to fill the all-important tailback position in the Pioneers' Oregon-like "Blur" offense, able to lumber for extra yardage on inside zone plays as well as show off some shake and bake, though not as shifty as last year's star, current UMass freshman running back Shadrach Abrokwah.
His first tango with the Blue Devils was a forgettable one, gaining just 19 yards on five carries. But he's become another being in the postseason, running for over 100 yards in each of the Pioneers' three playoff games in the D2 Central bracket. A Notre Dame baseball commit, he demonstrates terrific core strength, and above-average leg power that allows him to keep churning even as he tends to get stood upright after first contact.
That includes tonight, where the Pioneers converted on eight of their first 10 third downs thanks to Combs' motor on short yardage plays. One of the Pioneers' biggest momentum shifts came in their 24-point second quarter, when he took an inside zone handoff and charged 40 yards downfield after shedding two tackles, eventually getting dragged out at the one to set up his own two-yard scoring plunge two plays later for a 24-20 lead with four seconds left in the half.
"He was a quarterback last year [at St. Louis Country Day], and now I think he's one of the best running backs in the state," Smiley said of Combs. "He's a bull back there. Instead of running side to side, he's just running kids over, straight ahead. He's a powerful kid, he's like the strongest kid on our team. He's playing great."
ST. JOHN'S 51, LEOMINSTER 42
SJS - 0 - 24 - 13 - 14 --- 51
LEO - 8 - 12 - 8 - 14 --- 42
L - Matt Banchs 1 run (James Gurley run) 2:27
S - Andrew Smiley 9 run (Pass failed) 10:56
L - Banchs 2 run (rush failed) 9:16
S - Dan Crowley 11 pass from Smiley (Shane Combs run) 6:26
S - Jack Coveney 29 field goal 1:20
L - Mayson Williams 72 kickoff return (rush failed) 1:04
S - Combs 2 run (Coveney kick) :04
S - Nick Calvano 7 pass from Smiley (Combs run) 6:51
L - Gurley 9 run (Neil O'Connor run) 4:46
S - Mike McGillicuddy 46 pass from Smiley (kick blocked) 4:29
S - Smiley 1 run (Coveney kick) 8:41
L - Jake Allain 75 pass from O'Connor (Gurley run) 6:41
S - Smiley 69 run (Coveney kick) 6:23