September 3, 2017

St. John’s depth has Pioneers dreaming big in 2017

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Joe Parello / For Worcester Sun

St. John's AD Pat White, who doubles as the team's defensive coordinator, has a message for the rest of Central Mass.

St. John’s is never short on talent, in any sport.

The Pioneers are coming off another banner athletic year that again saw their teams make deep postseason runs across the board, so it seems almost silly to say that one particular team is loaded.

But, if that word has meaning left on the St. John’s campus in Shrewsbury, it most certainly applies to this year’s football team, which will vie for a state title in the newly aligned Division 3.

While most of the region is bemoaning the losses of generational talents, like Grafton’s Ifeatu Melifonwu, West Boylston’s Cole McCubrey and Leominster’s Noah Gray, the Pioneers are thrilled to welcome back nearly all of their big names from a season ago, starting with highly regarded athlete Hunter Gorgas.

Now a senior, Gorgas holds scholarship offers from Rhode Island, Monmouth and Wagner, but expect things to pick up for the 6-foot-5 defensive end, tight end and wide receiver. After attending summer camps at Boston College, Temple, Syracuse, UConn and others, Gorgas has drawn more Division I Football Bowl Subdivision interest, but has only one thing on his mind this season.

Joe Parello / For Worcester Sun

Hunter Gorgas, second from right, is a talented tight end and defensive end with bright prospects at the college level.

“We have the talent to make it to states,” Gorgas said. “The only goal that everybody on the team has, including myself, is to win states.”

That tunnel vision should serve St. John’s well.

More from the Sun Football Forecast:

  • Local football stars to watch on Saturdays and Sundays |  So, if you want to keep track of the Worcester County boys now playing at football’s highest levels, you’ve come to the right place. Here is a handy list of, and outlook for, every CMass native playing in the NFL and the NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision.
  • Worcester’s Yiadom primed for big senior season at BC |  The Doherty legend’s name has come up a lot more in talks about the best players in the formidable Atlantic Coast Conference. But to senior DB Isaac Yiadom, that’s all just noise. “I don’t really listen to any of that, I just have to keep doing what I always do.”
  • Wachusett’s Tyler Catalina’s journey to an NFL roster spot |  “I’ve got to keep working and showing the coaches I can handle anything they throw at me,” Catalina said in mid-August. Those coaches, it seems, have seen something from the 325-pounder, who has earned a backup role on the Washington Redskins offensive line.

Crammed in a competitive D3 Central with local powers Leominster, Shepherd Hill, Wachusett, Shrewsbury and newly bumped up Doherty, and playing a schedule that features Eastern Mass. rival Catholic Memorial and perennial Western Mass. power Springfield Central, the Pioneers will be battle-tested.

That said, they understand how talented they are.

Joe Parello / For Worcester Sun

The Pioneers defense huddles at a recent practice — trying to figure out some way to stop Steve Bucciaglia and the potent SJ offense.

Senior quarterback Steven Bucciaglia returns after a stellar first season under center, and has hit the ground running this preseason. Two solid scrimmages throwing the football, first against Eastern Mass. power Brockton, then against Framingham, have Pioneer fans excited about Bucciaglia’s and the offense’s explosive potential, and St. John’s will continue to run its patented up-tempo attack.

The “Blur” offense, originally run by coach Chip Kelly at Oregon, has been employed by coach John Andreoli at St. John’s for years now, and he’s had several great quarterbacks to run it.

[Editor’s note: Kelly made a name for himself as offensive coordinator at New Hampshire calling plays for St. Peter-Marian legend and former NFLer Jerry Azumah, a record-breaking collegiate running back who became a Pro Bowl kick returner and backup defensive back for the Chicago Bears.]

From Andrew Smiley to Tim Cassidy, and now Bucciaglia, the Pioneers have been blessed with the kind of quarterback it takes to run this system for the last half-dozen years.

This up-tempo, no-huddle attack will again leave Pioneer opponents catching their breath, and if the experience at quarterback doesn’t scare you, the talent at receiver should. Senior receiver Josh Shrestha returns in the slot, and super sophomore Eamonn Dennis hopes to build off a fantastic freshman campaign. Classmate Jay Brunelle could be poised for a breakout season on the outside, and senior Coleman Drugotch is as reliable a target as there is in Central Mass.

Throw in Gorgas at tight end, and junior receiver Zach Pedone, plus a deep stable of backs led by seniors Peter Oliver and Mike Bernard, and you have the deepest group of skill players in the region.

Joe Parello / For Worcester Sun

Bucciaglia, left, fires a pass at a recent practice.

“We’ve had a great offseason throwing the ball,” Bucciaglia said. “I’ve got a lot of great players to throw to, and each day we have high-intensity practices. We put the 1s against the 1s, so it’s good reps for us every day.”

But it doesn’t end there. The St. John’s offensive line also has the potential to be one of the best in the state. Led by powerhouse senior right guard Federico Ernst, the Pioneer line features a blend of size, strength and speed not often seen at the high school level.

Senior left tackle Neal Nasuti returns for another year protecting the blind side, while Andrew Stolberg on the right side should give the Pioneers bookend tackles. Ernst provides the power at right guard, and senior left guard Ian Schade and junior center Liam Daly both bring exceptionally quick feet along the interior.

On the other side of the ball, St. John’s has the talent to field its best defensive unit in quite some time.

Starting up front with Gorgas at defensive end and senior Ryan Kelly at defensive tackle, the Pioneers should be fast and physical in the trenches. An experienced linebacker group, led by seniors Liam Doran and Isaiah Keegan, should be among the region’s best, and the Pioneers now feature a deep and physical secondary.

Joe Parello / For Worcester Sun

Andrew DelBrocco, a senior defensive back, is among the leaders of a stout defense.

Look for senior corners Andrew DelBrocco, Jameson Carroll and Owen Ryan to all have big years, and a number of two-way players to help fill in at safety.

“Jameson has come a long way, he’s been making plays for us,” Andreoli said. “We’ve got a great foundation to build off on both sides of the ball, but we’ve got a long way to go and a lot of work to do.”

As is the case every year, St. John’s has the talent to contend for a district and state championship. But, with a senior-laden group that is long on big-game experience, the time is now for the Pioneers to go get that ring.

The Pioneers begin that quest at 7 p.m. Friday on the road against Eastern Mass. power Catholic Memorial.

Joe Parello is a deputy editor and cofounder of SuiteSports.com. He also hosts “The Local Sports Lunchbox” at noon Thursdays on WPKZ 105.3-FM and 1280-AM.

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