One of the greatest seasons in Pope John XXIII High School sports history came to an end at Gillette Stadium Saturday as the Tigers fell to St. Bernard’s, 46-35, in the Division 8 Super Bowl.
It was an offensive extravaganza from start to finish as Coach Paul Sobolewski’s Tigers (12-1) displayed the firepower that made them one of the highest-scoring teams in Massachusetts this season.
Sophomore running back John Smith-Howell started the point parade with a 34-yard touchdown catch from senior quarterback Anthony Mejia for the first score. Smith-Howell scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter on runs off 55 and 2 yards. He had 19 rushes for 116 yards.
Mejia was also very effective, completing 7 of 13 yards for 106 yards and three touchdowns before leaving the game with an injury. Mejia also had four rushes for 27 yards.
But St. Bernard’s matched Pope John stride-for-stride in the offensive categories. Each time the Tigers appeared ready to overtake the Bernardians with a big play, the Central Mass. champions answered with a big play of their own. For example, Mejia’s 26-yard TD pass to Jesus Rivera helped Pope John close the gap to 24-20 after three quarters, but the St. Bernardians were able to repel the Tigers’ comebacks by outscoring the Everett by a 22-15 margin in the fourth quarter.
Smith-Howell’s final touchdown run, followed by a PAT by Eric Flores, sliced St. Bernard’s advantage to 38-35 with 2:23 left, but Walter Morales answered with a 35-yard TD run on the ensuing possession.
St. Bernard’s Coach Tom Bingham expected a difficult challenge and he was impressed by the Tigers.
“Pope John is a fantastic football team,” said Bingham. “No. 1 [Smith-Howell] is a special player. We worked all week on defending Pope John. No. 4 [Greg Smith] was fantastic. No. 55 [Marcus Parrara] is a very good lineman. They played hard. We were in that boat in 2015 – we were undefeated coming in and you have that perfect season and it’s your first time at Gillette. We learned a lot from that trip. We really tip our hats to Pope John, they had an outstanding year.”
Sobolewski felt the Tigers’ best opportunity to forge ahead was late in the third quarter trailing by four points.
“We needed to get that lead midway through the third quarter and I honestly felt if we did, it would have been last-team-to-have-the-ball wins,” said Sobolewski.
But when the Tigers look back at their 2018 campaign, it will be with prideful memories of the school’s historic, first-ever trip to Gillette.
“We went 12-1 with four seniors and it’s pretty amazing what we accomplished with such a young team,” said Sobolewski. “I’m so proud of this team and my coaching staff (Assistant Coaches Rob Sobolewski, Mike Cella, Carlos Alonso, Ronald Alonso, James McCormack, and Marcus Carvahlo).”
The Super Bowl marked the final game for All-Scholastic Ajan Nelson, the Tigers’ brilliant middle linebacker.
A sportsman in defeat who hoped to bring the school its second-ever Super Bowl title, John Smith-Howell felt the Tigers were within one or two plays of being the state champions.
“We kept going back on forth – we just needed one more stop,” said Smith Howell, who was named Boston Herald Star of the Week for his superb performance. “We were doing well on offense, but our defense couldn’t make stops. St. Bernard’s executed good plays. ”
With standouts such as Smith Howell and Greg Smith returning, the Tigers could be back at Gillette in 2019.