FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When Leominster’s Neil O’Connor took the backward toss from quarterback Garrett DelleChiaie, pumped and fired a 44-yard touchdown pass to brother Kevin on Saturday at Gillette Stadium, two things became clear: St. John’s of Shrewsbury didn’t know what hit them; and this was a Leominster team unlike any before it.
Carried to the Central Mass Division I Super Bowl by an unstoppable winning streak and a newfound sense of brotherhood, Leominster reached into places few, if any, Blue Devil teams have explored in capturing their state-record tying 11th Super Bowl title, 21-6, over St. John’s of Shrewsbury.
They turned to the air. They turned to the ground. More than anything, the Blue Devils (10-3) turned to each other in holding off a hard-charging Pioneers team (8-5) that Leominster coach Dave Palazzi admitted had figured out his defense well enough for 261 total yards but only a single score.
In his first year after replacing the legendary John Dubzinski — he of 215 career wins and 25 years on Leominster’s sidelines — Palazzi instituted a culture change in every sense of the phrase. New defensive schemes filled the playbook. What was a run-reliant offense transformed into a pass-heavy attack sprinkled with trick plays. Practices, especially early in the season, bordered on agonizing.
“Them hammering us at practice,” senior captain Jeffrey Cheng said with a laugh. “I felt like I was about to die the first week. They brought it to us, and we accepted the challenge.”
It helped create what players and coaches — however cliché it sounds — repeatedly called a family. Never had the team been as close in past years as they were this year, DelleChiaie said. It was a major reason why it was able to weather an 0-3 start to win 10 straight games, a first for the program since the 1980s.
“I’ve always played on teams where you’re brothers,“ Palazzi said. “You’re family, you care about each other, you pick each other up when you’re down. … Getting these guys to understand that you gotta love one another to play this game (was key).”
As a result, last year’s 4-7 record quickly became a memory, replaced by the program’s third win over Brockton in the last 27 years and pairs of victories over both Fitchburg and St. John’s. Palazzi said he’d be hard-pressed to find a Leominster that’s ever done that in one year.
“These kids, they’ve created their own history big time,” he said.
The title — the program’s first since 2002 — follows three straight winless appearances from 2005 to 2007. It not only made the Blue Devils the latest in a long line of Leominster champions, they’ve also firmly entrenched themselves in a new era of football at the school, adorned with its own coach, accomplishments and style.
That never was more clear than with 1:38 to play in the first when DelleChiaie faked a hand-off, spun and tossed it behind the line of scrimmage to Neil O’Connor. After setting for a moment, he spotted his brother Kevin, a senior, all alone inside the 10-yard line, where he dropped in the ball and likely every heart on the St. John’s sideline.
Neil O’Connor, a sophomore, said the team had never ran that play before in a game. Whether any Leominster ever has is a good question.
“Our play calls are more creative,” he said of this year’s team.
That can be attributed directly to Palazzi, a star quarterback at Leominster and UMass, who once threw for two scores in the Blue Devils’ Super Bowl loss in 1983. This year’s team’s spread style has proven tough to cover throughout the season — once the players finally wrapped their heads around it in late September.
“I’ve said it before: When you don’t know what you’re doing, you don’t get there as quick,” Palazzi said. “… That’s really where we were at our first three games.”
But more than X’s and O’s changed. In fact, almost everything did, including the rules governing the players’ performance in the classroom, DelleChiaie said.
“Coach Palazzi changed my attitude,” said senior running back Geraldo Rivera, who also changed his number (No. 23) for the Super Bowl. “He changed everything.”
Now, in many ways, their lives will change. No longer will Leominster will be trying to climb back to the top. They’ll now try to stay there. And no longer will they wonder what it feels like to be champions. Many on their roster will wonder what it feels like to be one again.
“In 30 years, when we can go back in the gym, maybe when our kids are playing basketball, we’ll see a Leominster High School football banner from our class winning the Super Bowl,” Neil O’Connor said. “If we keep going here, it (the state record for Super Bowl titles) can be a broken. So we definitely have a place in Leominster High School football now.
“We’re going to remember this the rest of our lives.”