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Prep Magazine: In the Zone

Prep Magazine: In the Zone

Above: Members of the St. John's Prep football team gather around their teammate during a summer training session in the Joseph R. Levis '60 Fitness Center. 

Prep sports teams won 20 championships in 20 months. What’s the secret sauce? It’s not rocket science. It’s relationships.

It doesn’t matter which GOAT is defining how successful teams become the best team. They all agree.

Tap into the glory of ancient Greece, for example, and you get Aristotle, who said: “Excellence is never an accident. It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives.” Flash forward more than two millennia and you have Tom Brady, the NFL’s QB1 for life, telling Patriots fans at September’s home opener that "teamwork is all about believing in each other, believing in playing for this community, and believing in playing for a common mission.”

Eloquent, to be sure. But it’s probably New Age sage Deepak Chopra who most precisely decodes what St. John’s athletic culture has become and where it’s headed. The good doctor insists the pursuit of excellence requires tuning out success. In other words, success is merely “a by-product of excellence.” That mere remainder has made Eagles sports programs a rainmaker, bagging more hardware in the past two years than an assembly-required wardrobe from

As proof of concept, the business of displaying trophies, designing championship rings, and churning out title-themed apparel at St. John’s has become derivative. A side-effect, if you will. Student-athlete culture at the Prep is increasingly about the quest. It’s the journey that’s the juice.

Glory comes in bite-sized and byte-sized measurables. Waypoints aren’t marked by the season or practice-to-practice or even play-to-play. Excellence is measured by drops of sweat, weightroom reps, attaboys, and—critically—from class to class. 

“I think an overall team culture exists here across every single sport, and it all starts in school,” says Jake Vana ’24, a unique beneficiary of the School’s new Gilded Age, having won five state championships as a starter to date. “You see each other in class and compete in the classroom every day, then once you get on the field, the chemistry comes. You’re brothers in school and you’re part of a brotherhood on the team.

“Building that culture over the years makes a tight group, so when your backs are against the wall, you look to the guys next to you and you’re like, ‘We can do this,’” he continues. “Playing here, you’re always going to sacrifice yourself for the team. We can have all the talent in the world, but if everyone’s not bought in to what you want to do, it doesn’t work.”

Oh, it’s working. Overtime.

St. John’s enjoys a well-chronicled history of success in scholastic athletics—all defined by streaks within a single program. The Prep won six consecutive indoor track state championships from 1957-62, while water polo captured five titles in a row from 1986-91. Others have soared even higher: 11 straight for fencing (2004-14), nine successive swimming and diving crowns (2006-14), and a run of seven in eight years by the golf team (1994-01).

What’s happening today high above the neighboring hilltops is uncharted territory. From October of 2021 through June of 2023, St. John’s brought home 20 championships, including two New England titles, across 11 separate programs. Those banners span marquee high school sports like football, ice hockey, soccer, cross country, track & field, golf, and lacrosse as well as sports better known internationally—swimming and diving, skiing, wrestling, and mountain biking.

What’s happening today high above the neighboring hilltops is uncharted territory. From October of 2021 through June of 2023, St. John’s brought home 20 championships, including two New England titles, across 11 separate programs. 

To put that in context: Eagles teams won half as many state or New England titles in 600 days as the School had won throughout the preceding decade. Not surprisingly, the Prep was awarded the 2022-23 Massachusetts Cup, an annual honor bestowed upon every state’s top high school based on state championships, runner-up finishes, and teams’ national ranking.

“You’re right, I’ve never seen it,” says Athletic Director Jameson Pelkey, when asked if the zone in which Prep teams currently reside is as supernatural as it seems. “And I’ve never heard of anything like it, either.” 

Let's Make a Deal

When Vana talks team ‘chemistry,’ he doesn’t mean it in a conventional sense, like clubhouse conviviality or contagious clutch play. He’s talking about an ethos. A values-driven athletic culture as opposed to one bent on winning trophies. Lacrosse coach John Pynchon ’01, the architect of a three-time defending state championship squad, explains.

“The focus—the end game—can’t be about winning,” he says. “The program needs to be about purpose. It needs to be about the kids. It needs to be about the relationships that you’re building with your athletes. If we lose, but give great effort, show respect, and do everything the right way, there’s nothing to hang our heads about. You simply didn’t get the outcome you wanted. And when you zoom out and keep the emphasis on doing things the right way, I think you win a lot more than you lose.”

Coach Brian St. Pierre ’98 sticks to the notion that you don’t teach responsibility by shielding it, you teach it by giving it away. Accordingly, he ensures a standard is set, then guides in an open, honest, and direct way. He is the steward. But the operation is player-driven. Now in his ninth year, he’s led the football team to three state titles in five seasons.

“I tell them all the time: It’s your room. It’s your field. It’s your team.”

In that environment, it turns out, players’ self-governance and leadership structure grows like a weed with little more than good light and regular watering. St. Pierre also unapologetically preaches process over victory, and he places relationships above all else. By the last scrimmage of every preseason, he knows the name of every varsity and JV player in the high school program. That’s 140 kids.

You see each other in class and compete in the classroom every day, then once
you get on the field, the chemistry comes. You’re brothers in school and you’re part of a brotherhood on the team.” — Jake Vana ’24

“I’ve always made a point of it, and starting this year, I made my assistant coaches do it too,” he says. “A relationship has to be present for any of this to work. The kids give us so much, they at least deserve that much. I’m not saying, ‘Hey, 39, work on this technique.’ Call them by name and they hear it. ‘He knows my name. I’m seen. This guy cares about me.’”

Most importantly, relationships trump losses.

“You’re not going to win a championship every year, so it has to be about becoming the best version of yourself and the best version of Team No. 117 (the 2023 Eagles),” adds St. Pierre, whose team played in its fourth state title game in five years at Gillette Stadium this past November. “If you can enjoy the journey, good things usually happen.”

Swimmers cheer on their teammate in a fall 2022 home meet.

Track & field coach Zach Lankow ’07 agrees that student voice and choice power the Prep’s athletic gestalt.

“If you have this handful of guys—they don’t even need to be the best ones—just guys who carry weight because they might be really good at football or they might have juice in other areas on campus outside of sports, if those guys are on board, it makes everybody kind of fall in line.”

Setting expectations and clear communication are hallmarks across St. John’s athletic program these days. An increasing number of programs require student-athletes to sign a contract agreeing to specific principles of conduct, accountability for one another, academic performance, and inclusivity. Math teacher Kara Brown, now in her eighth season as volleyball head coach, asks her captains to sign a separate, additional contract. That document runs three pages.

Brown believes putting it in writing actually elevates her players’ expectations of themselves.

“It wasn’t easy at first, but over time, they’ve kept pushing to be the best version of themselves they can be,” she says. “Now, we have kids coming in and working hard during the offseason. Even if they’re playing another sport, they’re watching volleyball film.”

Prep volleyball finished fifth in the state last year and fourth in the state two years ago. For a half-decade, the Eagles have consistently ranked among the top 10 teams in the state even though the roster is devoid of young men who play the sport year-round. And, unlike other high school programs, the Prep doesn’t have a middle school feeder program.

Somehow, the explicit contract seems to nurture an implicit social contract between and amongst coaches, players, and the sport itself. Ninety percent of grads in Brown’s tenure are playing club or varsity volleyball in college. Many come to her practices as volunteers to assist with coaching.

“To me, that’s a testament to the atmosphere we’ve built,” says Brown. “They fall in love with the sport.”

“The different leaders and coaches I had at the Prep personally embodied those Xaverian core values, and the expectations that come with that are based in a love for helping you better yourself on a daily basis as players and people,” says Tyler MacGregor ’18, an All-Coastal Athletic Association first baseman at Northeastern last spring. “We wanted to get better, but we wanted to get better as a group—making sure everyone did the little things in order to prepare. I think holding each other accountable is a huge factor at the Prep.”

Player expectation contracts even exist in the Middle School. The terms are different, but the meaning is the same. Math teacher Tom Eighmey, head coach of the middle school football team, says the fact there are no championships contested at that level focuses the lens to everyone’s benefit.

“Wins and losses don’t have a place, so the top goal is understanding the idea of community, the idea of teamwork,” he says. “All we focus on are lessons learned within the game, the event, the practice. We’re constantly talking about the stuff that goes right or wrong or the fear that goes into having an off day. All that is normal. The point is: We want you to be part of this community, part of this culture. You are wanted. Here, with us."

A Better Mousetrap

The obvious counter-argument to the preceding narrative is that it’s easy to have a five-star culture when you have five-star talent. The Prep draws elite student-athletes from 90 communities and athletic participation is at an all-time high with 656 varsity, sub-varsity, and middle school competitors in the fall of 2022, alone. In grades seven through 12 this fall, 275 students played football. But the volume of athletes and the voluminous winning of late can’t be explained away by simple cause and effect.

“Keep in mind, we have kids from so many different towns who come from different programs, different systems, different places, different backgrounds,” says Vana. “All these guys have to mold together. In public schools, they play in the same system and the kids have been together forever. They’re already on the same page when they get to high school. So they’re getting bigger and stronger, whereas we have to reset every single year.”

Strength and Conditioning Coordinator Bill McSheffrey, who came to St. John’s six years ago from the American Hockey League, reminds us that there’s also a little something called elbow grease involved.

“We’re always talented, but now we work really, really hard,” says McSheffrey, the National High School Strength Coaches Association’s 2021 Massachusetts Coach of the Year. “You have to be consistent in your messaging and you have to show up every day. We turn the lights on at the Mahoney Wellness Center every morning at 6:00. You’ve got dozens of kids here getting after it. I know. I’m here. And habits like that always start with student leadership.”

McSheffrey says the net effect is about more than hoisting iron and anaerobic thresholds. Student-athletes are buying into messaging about nutrition, rest, recovery, and overtraining. As Vana points out, the lacrosse team’s motto is: “Eat (right), effort, attitude, accountability, and team.” Lankow says integrated training is becoming pervasive within and beyond his program. 

“From an athletic standpoint, they understand that the two hours a day at practice isn’t the only time they’re a student-athlete,” he says. “Some of the biggest gains and biggest mistakes can be made during the other 22 hours. Bill and Associate Strength and Conditioning Coordinator Ana Tocco and that staff do such a great job with the promotion of sleep, recovery, nutrition, rehab, and all the other things sports medicine does. Getting our athletes on board with that is a huge, huge advantage.”

“No other high school we play against gets this fitness facility, this coaching, the active recoveries, the speed training,” adds Vana. “It separates us physically, conditioning-wise, and even mentally knowing that we’re bigger and stronger.”

The numbers certainly reflect a level of excellence outside the bellcurve. The 11 programs that produced 17 state or New England championships during the period in question combined for a record of 212-11-1. That’s a winning percentage of .949. For context, Patriots coach Bill Belichick’s winning percentage during the Brady era was .769.

As athletic director, Pelkey sees structure as a key component as well. Nearly half of Prep coaches work on campus, and all of them now receive mandatory training at Northeastern’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society to develop skill sets and toolkits to prevent violence, unpack unconscious bias, and stop the proliferation of toxic speech in scholastic athletics.

The annual O’Brien Family Student-Athlete Leadership Initiative at St. John’s is a collaborative, student- and coach-focused program that develops leadership opportunities for both young people and the adults who mentor them with an emphasis on sportsmanship, teamwork, perseverance, and grit. The year-long leadership program is made possible by a gift from Patriots Offensive Coordinator Bill O’Brien ’88 and his wife, Colleen.

Pelkey also points to growing participation opportunities. The department made a conscious decision a few years ago to split subvarsity teams into two groups (blue and white) whenever feasible, allowing coaches to make fewer cuts. Pelkey schedules about twice the number of contests overall so both blue and white players each get a full season of games.

Developmental avenues are also on the rise. Since the Middle School launched a golf program in 2019, 40 to 50 kids fill the roster every season. A new program offering introductory water polo workouts for middle schoolers began this fall.

For Pynchon, especially during this era of unimaginable success, a top priority is to stay grounded in the real world. Because winning 95 percent of your games as an athletic department is not real -world.

“I think I have an interesting perspective as dean of students,” he says. “Does doing things the right way in the weight room, in training, in practice, and on the field carry over into the way a kid behaves in life? Absolutely. But as a coach, you have to keep that speed bump in the back of your mind. Not everybody is going to get it at the same time. Some may backslide. They’re teenage boys. What we can’t fail to do is make sure they know we’re here for them—win or lose—and want to help guide their choices.


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