DANVERS — St. John’s senior linebacker James Hanley always envisioned himself capping his high school football career with a state championship. When he looked at what the Eagles returned to the fold this summer before the season started, Hanley was confident St. John’s had the pieces in place to reach that dream.
Now the Eagles are one win away from giving Hanley and the rest of the senior class the fairytale ending they dreamed of. St. John’s will play Catholic Memorial Saturday night (8) at Gillette Stadium for the Division 1 state championship.
“I think about it all the time,” Hanley said. “It’s definitely starting to hit me more as we’re approaching our last practices. It flew by. It feels like just yesterday I was playing freshman football. We dreamed of playing in the state championship. Everyone in the locker room is excited to have a chance to make our dreams a reality.”
A Malden native, Hanley has helped anchor a St. John’s defense that has absorbed its share of bumps and bruises during the season. The defense also struggled at moments but improved as the year progressed.
“With the team we have, the guys we have on the field with us, I feel like we really culminated as brothers and we had one goal,” Hanley said. “We lifted over the summer and worked hard every day. I can’t thank the coaches enough for getting us ready for every snap and every possible look we can get.”
Eagles coach Brian St. Pierre has seen Hanley’s key contributions firsthand this season.
“James has been really good for us,” St. Pierre said. “He’s a super athletic kid at outside linebacker with a lot of speed and aggression. He’s been an explosive and steady player for us all year.
“We ask a lot of him,” St. Pierre continued. “He’s an outside backer that goes to everyone’s speed formation. He’s in coverage, at times we blitz him. He’s one of those guys that seems to always be around the ball. That’s been his role all year long.”
Saturday’s clash won’t be the first between St. John’s and Catholic Memorial. The Eagles traveled to West Roxbury in Week 5 and brought a 27-20 win back home to Danvers.
Still, the Eagles aren’t taking the Knights lightly. It’s been business as usual this week in practice and Hanley credited the coaching staff for establishing that approach.
“We respect every opponent we play,” Hanley said. “We don’t take anybody lightly. We’re preparing like we’re going to Gillette to play the Patriots. The coaches do a good job at that. They prepare us for any look we can possibly see.”
Part of the challenge for St. John’s this week has been turning the page on last Wednesday’s 14-12 loss to Xaverian at Fenway Park. The Eagles fell behind 14-0 early and couldn’t make the plays down the stretch to even the score. With the loss, St. John’s watched Xaverian celebrate another Catholic Conference championship.
“Fenway was a very frustrating game,” Hanley said. “The second the game was over, everyone’s mind was set on the Super Bowl. I feel like we almost didn’t take Xaverian seriously in the first half. Things could’ve been done differently but we’re just going to move on and prepare for Catholic Memorial.”
Hanley feels the loss served as a wake-up call for the Eagles.
“I haven’t been that upset after a game,” Hanley said. “It left all of us hungry. We’re going to go out and do what we do. In a way, it was a wake-up call. We needed to get more serious. I think we have our heads set on straight now.”
Defensively, the Eagles are gearing up to stop a multi-dimensional Catholic Memorial offense. Hanley said he’s confident the Eagles will be ready for the challenge.
“I think we just want to stop the run and stop the pass game,” Hanley said. “We try to stop anything, any game. We take all yardage, every single yard personally. I can speak for everyone else on the field on that. I think that’s a really good quality to have for our defense.”
Although he’s not yet sure what it’ll feel like to be on the winning end after the final whistle Saturday, Hanley’s excited for the opportunity to end his St. John’s career on an unforgettable note.
“I really wouldn’t have words,” Hanley said. “It’s something I’ve dreamed about doing since I started playing freshman football. There wouldn’t be a better feeling in the world.
“I’m really grateful and excited to be doing what I’m doing with the guys I’m doing it with. I’m excited to play Saturday.”