FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Those Xaverian players who stood on the sidelines at Gillette Stadium two years ago and watched Central Catholic lift the Division 1 State Championship trophy may have felt uneasy about the way the 2015 state title game began.
The last team to beat Xaverian back in 2013, Central Catholic came out aggressive in a much awaited rematch, as sophomore quarterback Bret Edwards completed two long touchdown passes to put the Raiders up 14-13 by the end of the first quarter.
But there would be no painful sense of déjà vu for the Hawks.
Xaverian came storming back to grab the lead by halftime before stonewalling the Raiders offense throughout a dominant second half to seal a 44-14 victory and second consecutive state championship.
“[Central Catholic] has a very explosive offense, and they challenged us like we haven’t been challenged all year,” admitted Xaverian head coach Charlie Stevenson. “We had to step up with our coverage and adjust to the speed of the game. Once we were able to do that we turned the tide.”
The Hawks have now won 24 consecutive games during an unprecedented stretch of success. They also avenged a 33-14 loss to the Raiders two years ago by defeating their rivals in impressive fashion on the very same field.
Air Raid: The Hawks didn’t just win. They proved that they are capable of dominating in every phase of the game, as they actually matched Central Catholic’s aerial attack to seize the momentum early in this contest.
After Edwards hit Central Catholic wide receiver Michael Mercuri Jr. for a 47-yard touchdown to open the scoring, Xaverian immediately responded with a 49-yard kickoff return from senior Peter Thorbahn.
Taking advantage of the short field, the Hawks matriculated the ball into the red zone before senior quarterback Michael Pina (8 of 14, 199 passing yards, 2 TD) hit junior tight end A.J. Ryan on a beautiful touch throw to the back corner of the end zone.
On the following drive, Pina found Thorbahn (3 receptions, 88 yards) for a 47-yard gain on a post route to set up the Hawks’ second touchdown, as the two teams seemed poised for a shootout.
“It was extremely important for us to respond right there,” Pina recognized about those first two drives. “If we didn’t come back and score, who knows what would have happened the rest of the game.”
When Xaverian’s defense set up the offense in favorable field position late in the first half, Pina delivered again with a deadly dime to Coby Tippett (3 carries, 22 yards; 1 reception, 48 yards, 3 total TDs) that resulted in a 48-yard score to put the Hawks up 21-14 before the break.
“[Pina] played fantastic tonight. We thought that our receivers matched up well against their cornerbacks and we were able to exploit that,” said Stevenson.
He added, “Once we got our offense rolling it really made it tough for [Central Catholic], because they haven’t really been behind all year. So they started to press a little bit, which opened up opportunities for us.”
No Let-Up: Xaverian put its foot to the gas pedal by expanding the lead to start the second half.
Hawks running back Devon Piccinin (11 carries, 101 yards) broke a 59-yard run on the first play from scrimmage to set up a field goal, and senior captain John Dean (8 carries, 26 yards, 2 TD) punched in a short touchdown on the following offensive possession.
Meanwhile, the vaunted Xaverian defense stifled a Central Catholic offense that came into this contest averaging 34.5 points per game during a 9-game winning streak.
The Raiders managed just 104 yards from scrimmage during the second half, and their most promising drive ended in disaster when Tippett picked off a pass to the flat and returned it 88 yards to seal the 44-14 victory.
After logging a touchdown reception, a rushing touchdown in the fourth quarter, and a defensive score off a turnover, Tippett clearly proved his importance to the Hawks as an all-around playmaker.
“[Tippett] just knows how to make plays on both sides of the football, and I certainly couldn’t ask for a better player to lead our team this year,” Stevenson effused.
Experienced Dynasty: When players see action at Gillette Stadium to conclude three consecutive seasons, they are naturally more prepared for the biggest stage in high school sports, and that experience seemed to help Pina execute when the Hawks needed him most.
The senior took over the full-time starting job in Week 5 after rotating series with junior Matt Cronin to start the season, and never looked back.
“I always envisioned this moment, and worked hard to get to this spot,” Pina said. “It means everything to be a part of this championship. Xaverian has a great tradition over the years with a lot of great teams, and it’s awesome to be a part of it.”
Aside from the three huge passing plays he produced in the first half, Pina converted on third down with a 28-yard completion to Ryan, and set up the Hawks’ final offensive touchdown of the evening with a 33-yard pass to Thorbahn on fourth down.
While he saw action as a long snapper, fullback, and linebacker during the Hawks 38-29 victory over Everett in the 2014 state final, Pina said, “It was completely different playing quarterback this year. But my past experiences as a special teams ace and even on the sidelines as a sophomore helped ease my nerves, so that I was able to just go out and play.”
With stellar performances from all his teammates, Pina was able to play well enough to bring Xaverian a second consecutive state title, and seal the Hawks third championship over the past seven seasons.
“Anytime you can win back-to-back championships it’s a great accomplishment,” Stevenson recognized. “It’s a very tough playoff format and difficult to even make it back to this game, but to win it two years in a row is a testament to the work ethic of our players and coaching staff.”
Perhaps the opposing coach put it best. Central Catholic head coach Chuck Adamopoulos said, “Sometimes you just have to tip your half to the other team. [Xaverian] is the best team out there, they showed it tonight, and they deserve to be the champs.”
The best team all year turned out to be the best all-around team by a wide margin in the ultimate game of the 2015 high school football season. There is no denying that the Hawks are clearly in the midst of a golden age of performance.