WEST ROXBURY — When he watched Springfield Central play its opening games against Everett and Central Catholic — where the Golden Eagles scored a combined 82 points — Catholic Memorial coach John DiBiaso developed a strategy to get that number down.
Rather than get in a shootout with Central and try to light up the scoreboard, DiBiaso went mid-1990s, early 2000s Everett on the visitors Friday night, with a heavy dose of double-wing to bleed the clock. The Knights also sold out to stop the run, and effectively took that away for most of the game, as well.
Thanks to some outstanding play on offense, defense, and special teams from Owen McGowan, timely pass breakups by Zach Mitchell, and hard running from its stable of backs and quarterback Barrett Pratt, top-ranked Catholic Memorial held off a game challenge from No. 3 Springfield Central, 21-13.
"(The Golden Eagles) had good pressure on Barrett early in the game," DiBiaso said. "That's a tremendously athletic team. You covered them in the summer. They win every 7-on-7 game, right? So we did not want to make it a 7-on-7. By doing what we did, we're attempting to eliminate 7-on-7."
For most of the game, the Knights played with no deep safety.
"I saw them against Central (Catholic), and I saw them against Everett, and I just felt that their run game sets up their pass game, DiBiaso said. "Our goal was to stop the run and defend the pass. Some teams put five men in the box against them, and they get ripped. So we said, we're not going to go with that. We'll make a decision on what they're going to do. By putting the men in the box, we decided that they were going to pass."
It did not always work. Central quarterback William Watson III found Justin Gabriel for a 66-yard touchdown pass on his second completion of the game to help give the Golden Eagles a 7-0 lead with 4:43 to play in the opening quarter.
"(Watson) getting better every week," Central linebacker Tyson Thornton said. "He lives to play in environments like this. He loves it. Even though he's young, he's not young no more. He's not young no more. We don't look at him like 'Little Pop.' We don't look at him like that. He's a varsity player now. He's going to handle his business."
CM battled back, and with an 11-play, 75-yard drive that featured 10 runs out of the double-wing, pulled within 7-6 after Pratt's 1-yard sneak with 5:28 to play in the half.
The teams traded interceptions — one by CM's William Stockwell, the other by Central's Mesias Lee — and it appeared that the visitors would go into halftime with the lead. But a bad snap on the next Central punt gave CM first-and-goal at the Central 5-yard line. Two McGowan runs later, the second from two yards out, gave the Knights a 12-7 lead at the half.
McGowan came up with a sack on the first drive of the second half to help set up Matt Sokol's 21-yard field goal and boost the CM lead to 15-7.
At that point, maybe the game gets away from a lesser team, but Central isn't that. Thornton, who had a monster game for the Golden Eagles, sacked Pratt, and after a CM punt, Central took over at the Knights' 39.
Watson, who completed 13-of-23 passes for 166 yards, hit Andre Ellison for a 15-yard gain down the left sideline. Two plays later, Watson kept it on a zone read for the first time, completely fooling the CM (3-0) defense, and scampered into the end zone for a 19-yard score. The conversion pass failed, and CM's lead was down to 15-13 with 4:33 to play in the third.
"(Watson's) smarter than you think. He'll surprise you," Thornton said. "He's definitely got stuff in his back pocket. He surprises us in practice every day. Every day he grows up. Every day he tries to get better."
McGowan, though, came through with the play of the night on the next drive. With his team facing a third-and-10 from its own 36, the junior BC commit made a leaping grab on a pass from Pratt against good coverage and rumbled for a 38-yard gain. Five plays later, McGowan powered in from the 1, and CM grew its lead to 21-13.
"That was huge," McGowan said of the catch. "I lost it for a minute but kept my eye on it, got a little lucky, and ended up with it. That gave us a ton of momentum."
"He's just a football player," DiBiaso said of McGowan. "As I was telling the other guys, he returns punts. He covers kicks. He's a personal protector when we punt. He goes out for passes. He protects the quarterback. He runs the ball. He's a football player. Old school. Throwback. And BC's getting a great one."
Central did have its chances to tie it up, but Mitchell broke up a pass on fourth-and-goal from the 7 with 9:42 to play that denied the Golden Eagles' last great red zone chance.
"(Mitchell) made two big (pass breakups) in that corner," DiBiaso said. "Those are great receivers, too (Central's Isaac Boston and Andre Ellison). I told my son over at Boston College (Jonathan, an assistant with the Eagles) to offer those two kids. They're good. Their skill guys are off the charts, and the quarterback's only a freshman. They have a bright future."
A week ago, Mitchell made two big interceptions in the red zone to preserve his team's 35-20 win over St. John's of Shrewsbury.
"Yes, it does (feel good that we can win with defense, too)," Mitchell said. "Going out and playing a hard defense really matters longer and longer into the season."
But it was CM's offense that drained the last 4:47 to ice it, with the help of Darrius LeClair's 35-yard run. The junior finished with 119 yards on 14 carries. Pratt hit Daniel Lopes for a first down on third-and-8 from the Central 37 to put the final bow on it.
"Hey, they were ready. They came ready," Thornton said. "They were prepared. They battled like how we battled. We punched them. They punched us. It was a heavyweight championship fight, for sure."
Pratt completed 8-of-18 passes for 126 yards and took a beating along the way. When he tossed the ball out on the double-wing, he was blocking much bigger players. For every shot took, though, Pratt kept getting up.
"He's tough. He's tough. Those defensive ends were big dudes," DiBiaso said. "He took those hits. He's a tough kid. He's gutsy. He hung in. The whole team hung in. (Springfield Central) hung in. It was a war. Anybody that paid five dollars got their money's worth, didn't they? Really, I mean that. You can watch the NFL on Sunday and they're dancing around. You don't see hitting like that, do you? That was a war."
Said McGowan, "(Pratt's) my best friend and I've played with him since we were 7-years old. He's the toughest kid I know. Every year he takes huge hits and he never quits."
For Central (1-2), the Golden Eagles complete their three-stop tour of Eastern Mass. powers and go into the bye week knowing they can play with anyone in the state.
"We like that type of (physical game). We practice like that every day," Thornton said. "We come out and try to smack each other around, get better every day. We compete. And we like to play these type of games because it brings out the flaws, and it opens up what we need to get better at. And we always try to find little ways to get better. For sure, we definitely got better tonight, and we got deeper. A lot of young kids, you're going to see in the future."
Golden Eagles coach Valdamar Brower also sees only benefits from stepping up the way his team did.
"The opportunity to play at a high level, to play four quarters, to know what the guys are built of, to know what the coaches are built of, to practice the scenarios (was useful)," Brower said. "We have a lot of new coaches this year. Just to put guys in the same kind of Springfield Central mentality. When adversity hits, play the next play. The refs are the refs. Nobody's perfect. So we just want to have the play the next play mentality. With the personalities of our new players coming in and then the coaching staff, our leaders, they know from being here, but just having that mentality to where we don't get caught up in our emotions and we're ready to play every single play and we're not thinking about the last play.
"We're going to compete until the last whistle, so just getting those personalities, having those situations, seeing how much those kids don't like to lose, that's very special, too. That means you have a lot of people who love football, and that's all I want to be around is people that love football. So, obviously, you don't want to beat yourself up. Some of the guys are too hard on themselves. I was the same way as a high school player, so I definitely respect it and love it. But, at the same time, we've got to heal up. We have a bye week. We've got to watch this film, clean it up, and then we've got to move on to our next opponent."
DiBIaso was just happy to emerge from the game with his team in relative health, despite the Knights coming down with a lot of cramps.
"I don't think we had anybody seriously hurt. I'm praying we didn't," DIBiaso said. "So, hopefully we get everybody healthy next week. It's a long, long season, and 12 minutes are long, long quarters. These games, they're wars. If you don't have depth — luckily we play most of our guys one way, and they did, too — I can't imagine these schools that don't have depth playing these (12-minute quarters)."
CM survived, and that was probably the right word for it.
"High school football is a special game," Brower said. "It's a violent game, and you've got to be a special kind of person (to play it). But the good thing is, the kids want to play and compete. Obviously, the starters get more situations and get to call more play calls. But the other guys, the other strings, are paying attention, and they got in and competed, which is awesome."