Catholic Memorial vs. St. John’s Prep will test coaches’ wits and wills
When does a championship run begin?
Perhaps it began for Catholic Memorial on the first day of practice in August, when new coach John DiBiaso set the tone with intense, individualized drills before running the first-team offense through no-huddle sets until the lights went out.
Or perhaps it began years ago, when DiBiaso was hit with sudden inspiration to start jotting down plays in the middle of the night.
The combined genius of DiBiaso and his longtime assistant, Mike Milo, led Everett to 12 state championships over a storied 26-year run. On a rainy Friday night two weeks ago, they led CM to its first Super Bowl appearance since 1976 by making a savvy in-game adjustment.
The Knights had run a spread offense all year, but switched to a double-wing formation and torched Xaverian with a series of sweeps for a 25-14 victory, setting up a rematch with Catholic Conference rival St. John’s Prep in the Division 1 Super Bowl Saturday night at Gillette Stadium (8 p.m.).
The team hadn’t practiced that set in weeks, but it was installed on the first day of the preseason, and had been one of DiBiaso’s “bread and butter” sets for years.
“I always say, if you’re a dinosaur, you’re going to be extinct,” said DiBiaso. “You have to evolve and be prepared for every scenario. I’m not going to bang my head into a cement wall, because I know I’m not going to make a hole. It’s up to me to see what the defense is giving us, and up to the kids to execute.”
With 313 wins over 36 years as coach at St. Patrick’s (1982-87), Weston (1988-91), and Everett (1991-2017), DiBiaso’s track record speaks for itself. Recently inducted into the Massachusetts Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame, he’s the first in state history with 500 basketball wins and 300 football wins.
In his first decade at Everett, “Dibs” even spent seven years as boys’ tennis coach, leading the Tide to uncharted territory with three consecutive state tournament appearances.
The 61-year-old inherited a talented roster at CM, and quickly gained the respect of his players.
“Coming in, we knew we were going to be something special,” said star lineman Hunter Salmon, a senior captain.
“[DiBiaso] demanded the best from us. With Dibs, everything is on time and done over and over until we reach perfection. That’s why he’s great.”
And DiBiaso’s impact extends beyond his own programs. From Dave Maimaron at Duxbury to Paul Funk at Dennis-Yarmouth, former Everett assistants have become incredibly successful high school head coaches by following his example.
North Andover coach John Dubzinski, an assistant at Everett from 2003-08, credits Dibs for his own progression; his undefeated Scarlet Knights prepare to take on two-time defending state champion King Philip in the Division 2 Super Bowl Friday night.
“Every practice was like going to a coaching clinic,” Dubzinski said of his time at Everett. “I got to see how a championship program is organized. I take a lot from Dibs. He’s the best in the business. Wherever he goes, he wins. You’d be crazy not to follow his example.”
While his success has become expected, DiBiaso remains as invested as ever.
He still declines to eat on game day out of anxiety, and remains prone to the occasional epiphany, leading at times to the furious play design of a concept on a restaurant napkin.
“Some things don’t change, and some things do, with time,” said DiBiaso. “Kids are always going to be kids and especially with high school kids, you have to keep them focused in. I always tell them to take advantage when you get an opportunity. Fortunately we have one, and we want to seize the moment.”
St. John’s Prep coach Brian St. Pierre is extremely accomplished in his own right. He quarterbacked Prep to a Super Bowl in 1997, finished a four-year career at Boston College as the program’s all-time passing leader, and spent eight seasons in the NFL.
Entering his fifth year as the head coach at his alma mater, St. Pierre decided to change things up after his Eagles were knocked out of the postseason by DiBiaso and Everett for the third time in four years.
“It was a complete transformation in August,” recalled senior captain Wes Rockett, a standout receiver.
“[St. Pierre] said to us, ‘This your team, not my team. You guys need to take the reins. I’m here to be the head coach and lead you, but this is your team.’”
In addition to selecting five captains, St. Pierre created a “leadership” council comprised of two members of the sophomore, junior, and senior classes, giving each grade a say in day-to-day activities and in-game strategy.
“Now we’re incorporated in it all,” said Rockett. “We have a voice. Things like that inspire trust.”
“Year after year, we’ve come up a little short. This year, we decided to not let that happen. That little change, making it more of a democracy, turned out to be a big change and the reason we are where we are right now.”
From longtime Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher to John Fox with the Carolina Panthers , St. Pierre said he’s been influenced by a number of greats in terms of his coaching style.
Seemingly stoic on the field, St. Pierre laughs that his players would say he’s anything but even-keeled behind closed doors.
“Football is my passion,” said St. Pierre. “The kids have seen that, and then some. They know I care about them and about the school. Emotional is one way to describe me. Sometimes it gets intense, but it’s just my passion.”
St. Pierre’s system has turned junior quarterback Matt Crowley into the program record-holder with over 1,100 passing yards this season.
Rockett and fellow senior Max Freedman comprise one of the best receiver tandems in the state. Senior Aise Pream has been electric at running back, with Trent Tully filling in when Pream has missed time with an ankle injury.
And with Catholic Conference defensive lineman of the year James Taylor leading the way, Prep is formidable in the trenches.
The Eagles were able to dominate CM at the point of the attack during an October meeting, opening a 20-0 lead before holding on for a 27-20 road win in part thanks to their cohesive leadership structure.
This group is skilled, mature, and motivated by previous playoff losses. To St. Pierre, the culture established by his staff and propagated by his players has become nearly as valuable as the talent up and down the roster.
“Last year, we were a young group, but now these are ‘been-there, done-that’ type of kids,” said St. Pierre. “This is an old-school, throwback group and that’s refreshing to see.”
“You’re always evolving [as a coach] and looking for ways to get the most out of your players. The ‘Xs and Os’ I knew. But now I know it’s about getting the kids to play hard, buy in, and about developing the right environment around your program.”