No stretch of games in the regular season can compare to a run through the state tournament culminating in a championship, but last week may have comprised the best string of games for St. John’s Prep since the Eagles won the 2010 Division 1 title.
The fifth-ranked Eagles (5-2) earned a pair of one-goal wins over Catholic Conference rivals BC High, the defending Division 1 state champions, and Xaverian, which had been ranked No. 1 and was coming off a win of its own over BC High.
The 13-12 overtime win for St. John’s Prep over BC High last Tuesday was its first win against the Eagles since 2015 and its 9-8 triumph over the Hawks on Thursday was its first in that series since 2012.
Arguably the biggest factor in Prep outlasting its opponents was its decisive advantage in possession, the bulk of which can be credited to its All-American faceoff specialist, Craig Yannone.
Yannone, a senior who’s committed to St. Anslem College, won 17 of his 25 draws against BC High and 13 out of 19 against Xaverian.
In a game with a razor-thin margin for error, Yannone’s brilliance on the X allows Prep to play the game on its own terms in the offensive zone, according to coach John Pynchon. The Eagles held a 9-5 lead over the Hawks midway through the third quarter last week and were able to sustain a dry stretch of over 16 minutes without a goal to end the game thanks to a few extra possessions Yannone helped provide.
“With Craig facing off, we can play our pace offensively,” Pynchon said. “We don’t need to force anything. We have the offensive talent to make plays when we need it.”
Yannone is one of several dominant faceoff men across the state right now, a group which includes Franklin’s Jacob Alexander, a senior All-American who’s committed to Bryant University.
The 12th-ranked Panthers remain unbeaten (4-0) and earned their first win over a ranked opponent on Saturday, a convincing 17-8 decision over No. 19 Newton North.
Alexander won all but two of his attempts at the faceoff-X vs. the Tigers, going 24 for 26.
“Those extra possessions really helped,” said Franklin coach Lou Verrochi. “Jacob Alexander is probably the best face-off guy in the state. Getting that many possessions in a game is huge, so I thought he did an excellent job.”
Both Yannone and Alexander have added other elements to their game through the years, remaining a part of the action in the offensive zone when the situation is right. They are no longer merely FOGOs, an acronym for “face off, get off.”
Alexander tallied six goals and three assists in addition to winning 87 percent (65 of 75) of faceoffs for the Panthers in wins over North Attleboro and Newton North this week.
Yannone has a pair of multi-point games to his credit already this season against Hingham and BC High.
“He’s elevated his game,” Pynchon said of Yannone. “That’s what we talked about last year. He was great and facing off and getting the ball to the attack. This year, he faces off and pushes transition. That’s the next level and he works at it.”
Yannone is aware of the pressure he faces on the faceoff-X, but it’s a responsibility he embraces – much like his older brother, Derek, who is the primary faceoff man at Endicott College. Each Yannone brother has a laid-back personality which makes them perfectly equipped to handle the stakes of faceoffs, according to Pynchon.
“It puts a good amount of pressure on me when it’s a tighter game like this, but I enjoy it,” Craig Yannone said after knocking off Xaverian. “I enjoy having the team count on me and me being the person that helps the team out with the win.”
Alexander began taking faceoffs while he was still at the youth level, realizing it was something he might be good at before setting foot on campus at Franklin High.
“I just enjoyed doing it,” Alexander said. “It was like ‘I guess I’m not bad at this,’ and I just started working on it. I don’t do it alone, I’ve got great wings.”
St. John’s Prep and Franklin are both hoping for a lengthy postseason run this spring, something that’s been missing for each program of late. The Eagles won a tournament game last spring, but it was their first appearance since 2014, while the Panthers haven’t been able to get beyond the sectional quarterfinals since 2015.
Neither team can look that far ahead yet, especially when there’s only one thing on their collective mindset: the possession at hand.
“My mind is on the faceoff I’m going to take, not the next one, or the previous one,” Yannone said. “I’m focused on the one I’m about to take.”
■ School vacation week means a full slate of lacrosse tournaments starting this Tuesday.
The most prominent of those tournaments is the Coaches Cup, initially created by Winchester coach John Pirani, Andover coach Wayne Puglisi, Lincoln-Sudbury coach Brian Vona, and Concord-Carlisle coach Tom Dalicandro in 2010. Hingham, Dover-Sherborn, North Andover, and Wellesley joined in on the tradition, which alternates seedings and tournament sites on an annual basis. This year, the first round of games will take place at Lincoln-Sudbury on Tuesday, with simultaneous matchups scheduled for 12 p.m. And 2 p.m. The semifinals and consolation games will take place at Hingham on Thursday afternoon, with the tournament scheduled to conclude at Winchester’s Knowlton Stadium Saturday. Hingham won the Coaches Cup for the first time in 2018.
■ The seventh annual Creators CrosseTournament starts on Thursday at Walpole High. The red-hot Eagles of St. John’s Prep face undefeated Franklin at 10 a.m. And host Walpole faces Lexington at 12:30 p.m. Lexington coach Dave Walsh created the tournament, which is scheduled to conclude with a championship game at 6 p.m. Saturday at Lexington High.
■ The 12th annual Chowda Cup is another proud tradition. This year, the tournament begins at Marshfield High on Tuesday with the host Rams facing Mansfield at 10 a.m. Foxboro and Hanover face off at 12 p.m., followed by Scituate and Falmouth, then Norwell and Westwood. Day 2 of the tournament is at Westwood High on Thursday and the Championship round will be Saturday at Hanover High.
■ Cohasset edged Duxbury, 12-11, on Thursday, for the Skippers first win over the Dragons since 1997 . . . Chelmsford beat Billerica, 9-8, in overtime on Friday thanks to a buzzer-beating goal from senior midfielder Christian Gastonguay . . . In the ISL, Belmont Hill topped Governor’s Academy to move into a four-way tie atop the standings with Rivers, Brooks, and St. Sebastian’s.
Games to watch
■ Tuesday, BC High at Reading, 4 p.m. — The Rockets and Eagles meet in their annual clash during school vacation week. Both programs secured their first state titles last spring.
■ Wednesday, Xaverian at Medfield, 7 p.m. — Medfield re-asserted its status as the team to beat in the Tri-Valley League with a couple of huge early wins, but goals will not come as easily against an elite Xaverian defense.
■ Thursday, Franklin vs. St. John’s Prep, 10 a.m. (at Walpole) — After topping defending D1 state champion BC High and previously top-ranked Xaverian last week, the Eagles set their sights on the Creators Crosse Cup.
■ Thursday, Central Catholic at Melrose, 12 p.m. — The Raiders stunned North Andover, 11-4, and edged Andover, 5-4, to open their season. Will they pull off another upset at Middlesex League power Melrose?
■ Saturday, Needham at Xaverian, 12 p.m. — The Hawks consistently play one of the most difficult schedules in the state, and it won’t get any easier Saturday when the high-scoring Rockets pay a visit.Jake Levin can be reached at [email protected]. Nate Weitzer contributed to this report.