Xavier (Conn.) gets best of interstate tilt with St. John's

MIDDLETOWN, Conn. -- After two games, Xavier was still in dire search of an identity.

Upon entering Saturday's tilt versus St. John's of Shrewsbury, the barometer, after a 1-1 start to the season, measured zero. However, those readings will most-likely change following its convincing 31-15 victory over the Pioneers at Larry McHugh Field.

The Falcons punished St. John's defense for 324 yards -- 225 coming in the second half -- to lift their record above .500. After opening the season with a solid victory over Norwich Free Academy, the Xavier was upended a week ago by West Haven.

"We have been working hard to get to this point," said Falcons head coach Sean Marinan, now in his 15th season. "We knew St. John's was a very good football team so we challenged our kids this week. We knew we needed to step up, take care of business and eliminate some of the mental mistakes. For the most part, I felt the kids did that. They played really hard."

Xavier, one of the elite programs in Connecticut, has won five state titles since 2005 and four over the past six years. Against the Pioneers, the Falcons balanced their offensive attack with a nice mix of run and pass to keep St. John's (2-1) on its collective heels throughout. Xavier junior quarterback Will Levis performed adequately, completing 9 of 15 passes for 139 yards and one touchdown. Workhorse running back Glenn Cunningham, a senior, did the rest by rushing for 109 yards and finding the end zone three times.

The Falcons jumped out to a 10-0 first quarter lead, and never looked back. The Pioneers were able to inch back, narrowing the deficit to 10-8 early into the second quarter on Peter Oliver's five-yard carry and ensuing Nick Pallotta conversion catch. But that would be as close as they would get. Oliver was St. John's leading back, gaining 55 yards on 13 attempts.

With Xavier taking second half kickoff, Levis keyed a 93 yard drive with a 67-yard completion to Kyle MacGillis, which took Xavier down to the Pioneers 5. One play later, Cunningham bolted across the goal line to make it 17-8.

For a majority of this contest, St. John's proved to be its own worst enemy. On four different occasions, the Pioneers came up short on fourth down attempts. When they weren't turning the ball over on downs, several ill-advised penalties either allowed the Falcons to sustain drives or cost them points.

"In the first half we had four penalties, which hurt us," St. John's head coach John Andreoli said. "We also had some fourth down chances that we did not convert on. But those are things we can control and work on. I don't want to take anything away from Xavier. They are a very good football team and played well today. They are strong and their linebackers were very physical. Up front, I thought they played very tough against our running game. We'll learn from this one because we have another big game next Friday night (at defending Division 2 state champion Nashoba Regional). We need get ready for it and fix the things we need to work on."

Late in the third quarter, Xavier, following a St. John's punt, initiated a game-changing drive from its own 31. A 15-yard draw by Tyrone Abrahams on 3rd and 9 allowed the Falcons to hang onto the football. After moving to the Pioneers' 14, Levis lofted a pass in the back corner of the end zone, in which MacGillis out-leaped a defensive back to make it 24-8 with 10:24 remaining.

Following another turnover on downs by St. John's inside its own territory, Xavier took advantage of the short field after setting up at the Pioneers 41. Behind dual running of Cunningham and Abrahams, the Falcons reached the 3 before Cunningham capped the drive with his third rushing score of the afternoon with 25 seconds showing.

"We knew they were a good team," Cunningham said. "So we needed to come out strong against them and not wait. Fortunately we were able to execute today and get it done. Our offensive line really dug in deep today and made it a lot easier for me to run through."

On the ensuing kickoff, St. John's freshman Eammon Dennis returned it 88 yards for the score to make things a little more respectable.

Xavier took command early, scoring on its initial possession. The Falcons drove 51 yards before Cunningham, following his blockers, dashed 9 yards for the touchdown. A few moments later, Pioneers quarterback Steven Bucciaglia (17 of 30 for 150 yards) was intercepted by Owen Gonzalez which eventually led to a Sam Norris 33 yard field goal and a 10-0 lead.

It wasn't long after Oliver's touchdown carry early in the second, that St. John's had an opportunity to move in front. A 29 yard Oliver end-around touchdown run was negated due to a holding penalty. At that point, the Pioneers looked to be a deflated bunch as they never seemed to recover from there.

"I'm really proud of our kids in the way they responded," said Marinan. "They did a terrific job. Now we need to build on this. We told the kids they couldn't afford to make mistakes today or else it would be deadly. Obviously they listened. This is certainly a big step forward for us."