WAYNE — The morning practice session of the St. John’s Prep football team was winding down. Head coach Jim O’Leary watched a fourth-string linebacker make an impressive tackle, the kind that just might earn consideration for third string, and he smiled.
“It’s a competition day. They get a little animated here. That’s OK. It’s a game of passion,” O’Leary said.
O’Leary’s Eagles practiced at Camp Androscoggin, on the shores of Lake Androscoggin, 150 miles from home in Danvers, Mass. O’Leary brought 103 players to camp,
“I left 76 at home,” he said.
A dozen assistant coaches oversaw practices. It was the most un-Maine-like high school football practice in the state of Maine. It’s rare to see a Maine high school football team do an overnight camp away from home (Messalonskee is a recent example of a school that did). While more than a few Maine high schools try to come up with enough players to run 11-on-11, O’Leary and his staff need to find time to get 103 athletes repetitions. O’Leary had nothing but praise for the work done by Maine high school football coaches and their players.
“People have pride in their school. They have pride in their town,” O’Leary said. “Sometimes, we get spoiled at our school, our big place, because we’re expected to have an All-American every year.”
St. John’s Prep has an enrollment of 1,150, all boys, O’Leary said. It routinely sends players to all levels of college football. Brian Kelly, the head coach at Notre Dame, went to St. John’s Prep, as did Penn State head coach Bill O’Brien. The coaching staff includes Brian St. Pierre, a St. John’s Prep alum who played quarterback at Boston College before an eight-year NFL career. Fifteen members of last season’s Eastern Mass. Division I championship team are playing in college this season, O’Leary said.
Johnathan Thomas, the Eagles’ starting running back and arguably the best high school football player in New England, has verbally committed to attend the University of Maryland next season.
“This is getting us ready for college. When you go to college, it’s eat, sleep, class and football. When you get to the next level, it’s nothing new,” Thomas said.
Now in it’s 13th season, training camp at Camp Androscoggin has become a St. John’s Prep tradition.
It started when Peter Hirsch, the camp’s owner, sent a letter to every independent high school in Massachusetts, extolling the camp as the perfect spot to get away and focus on football. St. John’s Prep was the first school to respond.
“They are perfect guests,” Hirsch said.
The Eagles arrived Wednesday night, and they’ll stay until Sunday afternoon. In a few days, the team will get a week’s worth of work accomplished. Days begin at 6 a.m. and don’t end until lights out at 10 p.m. When they get home, O’Leary said, all the Eagles need to do is polish a few things up. The basics are installed at Camp Androscoggin.
It’s football 24-7 for the Eagles, and with so many players, it’s a chance to get to know each other. To build, as O’Leary called it, an esprit de corps.
“This helps with team bonding. We’re here. We have to sleep with 10 guys in our cabin. You get to know your teammates,” quarterback Michael Geaslen, who will play baseball at Northeastern next year, said.
For O’Leary, camp is a few days in which his is the only voice that matters.
“The first thing I learned is, I can’t coach at the dinner table,” O’Leary, who has coached at St. John’s Prep since 1977, said. “They go home, they’re being coached again. Here, I’m their mom. I’m their dad. I’m everything.”
When St. John’s Prep first came to Maine 13 years ago, O’Leary looked for a local high school team to scrimmage. He couldn’t find one. Usually, O’Leary brings his seniors out to an exhibition game Friday night. They’ve been to a few Cony-Gardiner games in recent years, and they saw Livermore Falls, before the school merged with Jay to form Spruce Mountain High School.
“I like watching with the old guys who stand down in the end zone,” O’Leary said. “I’ll go watch it with them.”
Since Maine teams just began practicing last week, there was no exhibition game trip this year. It was a minor disappointment on a trip that sets the tone for the entire season. When St. John’s Prep returns home, O’Leary will oversee a program with five teams (two freshmen squads, a sophomore team, junior varsity and varsity), and begin defense of its championship.
“We have some rebuilding to do, but that’s OK,” O’Leary said.
St. John’s Prep is the preseason No. 1 team in Massachusetts, according to boston.com. The rebuilding won’t take long. No matter what happens, O’Leary and the Eagles will know the foundation was poured in Maine.
Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242