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Season of ‘firsts’ for St. John’s Prep coach

Mansfield's Brendan Hill, shown hauling in a pass from QB Kyle Wisnieski against Waltham in Division 2 state semifinals last November, is ahead of schedule after injuring his knee on Thanksgiving last fall and is expected to be ready for the start of practice.
Mark Lorenz for the Boston Globe
Brendan Hill of Mansfield, hauls in a pass from QB Kyle Wisnieski against Waltham in Div. 2 state semifinals in November. He is ahead of schedule after injuring his knee on Thanksgiving last fall and is expected to be ready for the start of practice.

Coaching changes don’t happen often at St. John’s Prep, so this year’s training camp — starting August 18 — will have quite a different feel.

For the first time since 1984, someone other than Jim O’Leary will be in charge. Former NFL quarterback and Prep star Brian St. Pierre is taking over the reins and says he can’t wait to get started.

“I’m pretty excited about it,” said St. Pierre, who is just the third Eagles coach since 1967. “I’m not in a rush for summer to be over, but at the same time I’m chomping at the bit to get going. I’m really looking forward to it.”

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St. Pierre joined O’Leary’s staff as an assistant before last season.

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“I really enjoyed my experience as an assistant,” he said. “I wasn’t in a rush to be the head coach, it just kind of happened. But I’m very excited to be the head coach. It feels right to be coaching football. Playing is the only thing I ever wanted to do and now that I can’t play anymore the next best thing is coaching.”

O’Leary, who stepped down after last season, remains the Prep’s athletic director and will be an important resource for St. Pierre.

“We talk all the time, we’ve been close for a long time,” said St. Pierre. “There’s going to be a lot of firsts for me this year: first win, first loss, first everything. To have a resource like that who’s been through it and done it as long as he has is a huge benefit for me.”

The Eagles, who went 6-5 last season and lost to Lowell in the first round of the Division 1 North playoffs, return just two offensive starters, tight end and Boston College commit Jake Burt and wide receiver Owen Rockett.

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“Certainly those are guys [Burt and Rockett] we’re going to have to lean on,” said St. Pierre. “We’re going to be breaking in a new QB, really breaking in an entire offensive line. We lost the best running back in the state in Johnny Thomas. There’s a lot of unknowns going in.

“We have a great tradition of playing great defense and that’s going to have to continue. If we can be good defensively, we can take some lumps early offensively.”

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Mansfield senior tight end Brendan Hill, a Globe All-Scholastic last season, is ahead of schedule in his recovery from a torn ACL in his right knee, suffered last Thanksgiving, and should be ready to participate in training camp, according to Hornets coach Mike Redding.

“He’s doing real well,” said Redding. “He’s worked real hard with the therapist and trainer. He’s been given full clearance to do everything athletically with his brace. We were thinking that he’d be cleared mid-August and he ended up getting cleared at the end of June.”

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Redding expects Hill, who visited Villanova for a prospect camp last weekend, will need time to adjust to playing with a brace and will ease him along during his return.

“I think a big issue is getting used to the brace,” said Redding. “I think for him, it’s developing confidence that he can make certain cuts, that he can get tackled and get up and jog back to the huddle; it’s just getting through things the first couple of times and saying, ‘Hey, I feel OK.’

“I wouldn’t say we’re going to baby him, but definitely we’ll adjust his preseason. Where he’s a three-year starter, I don’t think he needs a ton of reps to get ready. We just need to get him into football shape.”

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Natick senior wide receiver Brian Dunlap, also a former All-Scholastic, will be ready for camp after missing all of last season with a foot injury suffered in the preseason.

Dunlap reeled in 155 receptions for 2,700 yards and 35 touchdowns in his first two seasons for the Redhawks.

“I’m 100 percent. I feel great, no setbacks,” said Dunlap. “I haven’t played a game since we lost the Super Bowl [to Beverly in 2012]. I hate knowing that that was the last game I played in. I’m hungry to get back out there and compete in a game. I’m so excited to play with the group of guys we have this year.”

Dunlap recently committed to Harvard to play football, something he called “a dream come true.”

“I’m so excited about the winning traditions at Harvard,” said Dunlap. “They’re always at the top of the Ivy League. And of course their education speaks for itself. Everybody knows how unbelievable it is. I’m excited about all the opportunities it will provide. The coaching staff over there has been tremendous to me. I can’t wait to be a part of that program.”

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Everett always seems to have its next big star waiting in the wings. Sophomore quarterback Jordan McAfee could be the latest.

There has been a certain level of hype surrounding McAfee, who starred on the Tide’s freshman team last season, but Everett coach John DiBiaso isn’t ready to put his team’s Super Bowl chances solely on McAfee’s shoulders.

“We’re not going to ask him to do too much,” said DiBiaso. “He did an excellent job for [the freshman team] last year, but that’s freshman. We realize that he’s going to be playing varsity for the first time. We’re not going to put too much pressure on him.

“I know he’s going to be a lot better at the end of the year than he is the first game.”

DiBiaso also likes the potential of his defense, which returns seven starters, including senior defensive back and Boston College commit Lukas Denis.

“Our defensive line should be very good. The defensive secondary, I think we have four or five kids that are very good,” said DiBiaso, who will replace all three linebackers, including All-Scholastic Angel Duarte.

“It might be the fastest defense we’ve ever had. But you have to go out there and do it.”

The Tide will be tested from the start. Their first four games are against Springfield Central, Xaverian, Division 3 Super Bowl champion Tewksbury, and St. John’s Prep.

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A perfect 13-0 season, ending with a Division 5 Super Bowl championship, doesn’t leave much room for improvement. But Bishop Fenwick coach Dave Woods is hoping last year’s experience has left his returning players wanting to do it all over again.

“We’re not going to compare our team to last year,” said Woods. “But we do have a lot of guys from last year’s team that are back, so obviously we’ll be able to draw some of the experience. Hopefully we can carry over some of that work ethic that we had and just the attitude of last year’s team.”

Senior running back Rufus Rushins is one of those returners. Rushins ran for 1,465 yards and 23 touchdowns last season and was a Globe All-Scholastic.

“Rufus, we take for granted sometimes because he’s so talented,” said Woods. “But I think he’s worked as hard this offseason as any to get ready for his senior year. If he stays healthy, he can do some really great things.”

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For the first time since 2006, participation in high school football in the state has increased. The MIAA released participation figures for the 2013 season in July and according to their annual survey, 20,113 boys played football, an increase over the 2012 figure of 19,651. Participation peaked at 22,169 in 2006 and had been falling ever since, with some pointing to concussion concerns for the drop.