SHREWSBURY, Mass. -- While these two Central Mass. powers have traditionally slugged it out the past few years in preseason scrimmages, Saturday marked the first official regular season meeting between St. John's of Shrewsbury and Shepherd Hill since 1981.
After a sluggish first half, No. 19 St. John's was finally able to break free late from the No. 12 Rams, and come away with a hard-fought 19-8 triumph at Pioneer Field.
"It was kind of the game we expected to see," said St. John's head coach John Andreoli, notching his 100th career win in 12 seasons here. "We still made a lot of mistakes that we have to correct. We turned the ball over a couple of times inside the red zone and I think we had nearly 85 yards in penalties in the first half which hurt us. On the positive side, defensively, in the second half, we were able to stop them three out of four times on fourth down. The second half is tough in the heat but I feel we did what we had to in order to get this win."
The Rams kept things interesting for a while, as they took a one point lead, 8-7, into the break. But the Pioneers used the free time to regroup and eventually take control of the second half, scoring a pair of touchdowns to come out on top.
After a scoreless third quarter, in which St. John's blew a great opportunity to jump in front after a bad exchange between center and quarterback inside the Shepherd Hill 5 yard line, the Pioneers still had the wherewithal to remain on task. Early in the fourth quarter, St. John's got the ball back inside Shepherd Hill territory. Sophomore running back Peter Oliver capped a six play drive by busting through the middle of the Rams stingy defense for a 15 yard scoring run with 8:56 to go to make it 13-8.
On the ensuing kickoff, Nick Barton pooched a kick that senior Joe DiVerdi proceeded to make a solid hit on the returner, forcing a fumble at which DiVerdi recovered on Rams 33 yard line.
"Nick dropped it into a nice open area and we got the ball back," said Andreoli. "Possessions are critical in a game like this when you are playing against a team that can control the ball and run the clock. Joe made a great hit on that play and we end up getting the ball back. That was the key play of the game."
Off the fumble, St. John's ran for a couple of short gains by running back Travis Terry before quarterback Tim Cassidy connected with MacBrien Nikongchu for a 14 yard completion, moving the ball to the 17. Two running plays ensued to give St. John's a third and three from the 10. Cassidy, who last season played behind lead signal-caller Shane Combs, opted to take matters into his own hands. Setting up in the shotgun, the senior took the snap and darted cleanly up the middle across the goal line to stake St. John's to an 11 point advantage with 6:51 to go.
From there, the Pioneers defense took over, forcing the Rams into turning the ball over twice on downs to come away victorious.
"At the half, coach Andreoli and coach (Chris) Moriarty told us to keep pushing the ball down their throats until they can stop us," said Cassidy. "They had a lot of two-way players so I think they were getting tired. I think one of the biggest things was our ability to keep that determination and we kept dominating up front. Our offensive line played amazing today. They allowed us so much yardage running the ball and it opened up the passing game as well. Once we got up on them we knew what was working and so we kept going to it. We are one of the best conditioned teams in the state and that works to our advantage."
St. John's finished the afternoon with 324 yards of offense. Shepherd Hill amassed 296 yards, with the brunt of it coming from its patented double-wing set.
Late in the first quarter, the Pioneers raced out to a 7-0 lead. A pair of 13 yard completions from Cassidy (10 of 21, 156 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) to Cam Lucey and Michael Corinna, respectively, set the stage for Lucey's 32 yard scoring reception with 3:54 showing.
On its ensuing possession, Shepherd Hill was able to sustain a drive covering 64 yards before senior back Scott Ambrosia, on a reverse, bolted in from 14 yards out. Ambrosia, who finished with 35 yards on the ground, added the conversion run giving the Rams an 8-7 lead just 37 seconds into the second quarter.
But St. John's came right back. Having reached the Shepherd Hill 16 yard line, Cassidy was picked off in the end zone by Josh Gelb and keep the Rams' on top for the time being.
With no more scoring in the opening half, St. John's began the third quarter by forcing Shepherd Hill to turn the ball over on downs. Setting up on their own 20, the Pioneers offense methodically drove the ball down the field. Key runs by Oliver (17 carries, 90 yards) and Cassidy (19 carries, 72 yards) allowed the Pioneers to reach the Rams 4 yard line. Facing a third and goal, center Griffin Cooney's snap to Cassidy, in the shotgun, was off target. Cassidy was able to get one hand on the ball but could not contain, watching in vain as corner back Devin Pietz fell on it and thus spoiling another scoring chance.
"Overall, I couldn't he happier with our guys and how they played," said Shepherd Hill head coach Chris Lindstrom, who is always gracious in defeat as he is in victory. "We didn't have a lot of time to practice some things with our special teams. We are very basic with our special teams. But it was a great game by both and I was very proud of our guys and the effort.
"We knew what was coming from them in regards to their kicking game and what they like to do but we just didn't have a lot of time to work on it and that's my fault. We looked at today as this being a bowl game and next week (at home vs. No. 5 Leominster) we see that as another bowl game as well. We have a great schedule and we are looking forward to it."
In spite of the turnover, the Rams failed in their quest to seize momentum, and were forced to punt the ball back to St. John's. That is when the everything shifted in the Pioneers' favor as they rediscover the end zone twice on their next two possessions to pull away.
"Overall, it is a good, physical start to our first game," said Andreoli, whose club travels to Catholic Memorial next Saturday.