Tigers Continue Storybook Season, Punch Ticket to Super Bowl
By Lorenzo Recupero
There ain’t no rest for the winners – Pope John High School, that is.
The Tigers (11-0) punched themselves a ticket to the school’s first super bowl in 20 years and only the second in school history after knocking out West Bridgewater, 31-14, for the Division 8 Eastern Mass. Championship on Saturday.
The Tigers went down, 7-0, for the first time since early September in the matchup against West Bridgewater, but superior talent and coaching propelled the team to a come-from-behind win of sorts.
After the team’s stellar defense (averaging 7.5 points per game against this postseason) gave up an atypical 40-yard TD rush 5 plays into the contest, superior talent began to take over for the Tigers as senior receiver/ defensive back Jesus Rivera III quickly helped Pope John turn the tables with a 20-yard touchdown reception from Anthony Mejia to give the Tigers a 1-point lead they’d only expand upon as the game progressed.
Rivera was instrumental in the Tigers attack, helping extend the lead, 17-7, with just seconds to go in the first half after returning a booming punt 62-yards to pay dirt. He finished with two touchdowns and a key interception and fumble recovery in the second half.
“The punt return just before the half took the wind out of their sails I think,” said Pope John head coach Paul Sobolowski, who is going to his first super bowl as head coach. “It was a big point in the matchup and a turning point in the game,” he said.
He also spoke highly of his opportunistic senior. “[Rivera] In big games, against tough competition, he makes the biggest plays in big moments and that’s what you need from your leaders in order to win,” said Sobolowski.
Rivera mirrored his coach’s sentiment while recollecting the monumental moment for himself and his team.
“The game was still close and I just wanted to get as many yards as possible. It just happened that I found a hole and ran through it and ended up in the end zone,” said Rivera. “I was excited and you could clearly tell while making my way to the sideline that we had the momentum,” he said.
Sophomore John Smith Howell was also a key talent in the win for Pope John, he rushed for a game-high 140 yards and a TD, including 84 yards in the fourth quarter to help keep West Bridgewater’s offense off the eld and preserve the lead.
But even with a super bowl berth in tow, the Tigers aren’t getting any breaks, though.
With just 5 days rest, they will travel up to Cambridge on Thanksgiving to battle Matignon on Russell Field at 10AM.
And though coach Sobowlowski might have it in the back of his mind to give his starters a rest ahead of the most important game of the year, he’s well aware that’s just not something he could offer.
“We just can’t afford to do it,” said Sobowlowski of resting his starters during Thanksgivings exhibition match. “We only have 32 kids in our program so we will treat it like any other game we have all year,” he said.
And if you are worried about the team’s undefeated status being in jeopardy prior to the super bowl, history says you shouldn’t be. The Tigers throttled Matignon, 42-0, earlier this season.
As for the super bowl, the Tigers have their work cut out for them, and coach Sobowlowski is well aware his team may have to play a nearly flawless game to stop a Saint Bernard’s team playing like a juggernaut.
St. Bernard has scored 124 points and only given up 7 all postseason.
“We got our hands full. They are a big and talented team and it’s going to take a big effort on our part,” he said of the oncoming challenge. “We have to know our defensive assignments and gang tackling. If we aren’t disciplined defensively, we are going to get blown out. We have to work on getting first downs and keep their high potent offense off the field,” said Sobolowski of his team’s keys to getting a victory.
The Div. 8 State Championship game will be played on December 1 at Gillette Stadium at 9AM. Tickets ($17 for adults, $14 for students and seniors) can be purchased online via the MIAA tournament website.