SHREWSBURY — When Alex Zequeira became headmaster at St. John’s High four years ago, it was mentioned to him the Catholic Conference was interested in adding the school as a sixth member.
Looking back Monday, Zequeira recalled it was “not the right time or right thing to do.”
That position organically evolved over time to where St. John’s initiated the process of departing the Central Mass. Conference last October and gained approval from the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association to join the Eastern Mass.-based Catholic Conference in late May.
News of the move, which went public Friday, has been well received by the St. John’s community.
“I would say overall the impression has been positive,” Zequeira said, noting there are always going to be a “jab” or two on social media.
Perhaps that’s because everyone from student-athletes to coaches to faculty members to alumni to the board of trustees were sought out for their opinions on the upsides and challenges of making such a move.
The Pioneers will formally join Boston College High, Catholic Memorial, Malden Catholic, St. John’s Prep and Xaverian in the Catholic Conference for the 2021-22 school year, but will play in a pod with the CC teams for the fall season and, should COVID-19 not shut things down, the winter and spring seasons as well.
The reasons for the move include more stability when it comes to scheduling, membership in arguably the best league in the state, increased opportunities for sub-varsity teams, and added exposure for their student-athletes as college recruiters and pro scouts are regulars at Catholic Conference games.
Athletic director Michael Mead said it had become challenging to find schools in Central Mass. that wanted to schedule the Pioneers, including those in their own conference.
It’s been four or five years since St. Bernard’s played St. John’s in any sport and Holy Name and St. Peter-Marian had also pulled back to the point where last winter the Pioneers only played one league game — against Holy Name — in basketball.
“Overall our competitions against the Central Mass. Conference were diminishing where we were only playing sports when they wanted to play them,” Mead said. “It was sort of they were handpicking when they would play St. John’s. If you’re in a league, you’d think they would want to play you regularly.”
The announced merger of fellow CMC members Holy Name and St. Peter-Marian in early March essentially sealed the demise of the conference. Mead submitted a formal application to leave what was then District E (CMass) for District H (EMass catholic schools) in April.
“We did have concerns when the merger happened,” Mead said. “What was going to happen to the Central Mass. Conference? And this provided us with an opportunity to join a conference and have 10 set games. I’m not going to lie. The scheduling aspect of it was huge.”
That said, St. John’s wants to maintain healthy rivalries with Shrewsbury, Wachusett, Algonquin, the newly merged St. Paul and Inter-High schools, to name a few, as it seeks to fill out the other half of what would traditionally be a 20-game schedule in most sports.
“We’re a Central Mass. school and we will continue to be a Central Mass. school and we’ll continue to want to engage those schools in competition,” Zequeira said. “We know that not only is it something that builds community in our schools, healthy rivalries — and I think in all cases it’s a healthy rivalry — but also the fact our athletes are playing against kids that they group up with and oftentimes were on the same teams up until they split apart in high school.
“We feel it’s good for St. John’s, but it’s also good for all of our communities to continue to play and have these rivalries.”
It would obviously continue to be a win-win situation for fans and mutually beneficial for the programs involved.
In February, the MIAA voted to adopt a statewide tournament format beginning in 2021-22. That accelerated St. John’s decision to apply to the Catholic Conference.
And while the power ratings system that will be utilized has yet to be determined and strength of schedule is not technically a factor, the truth of the matter is St. John’s is an incredibly appealing opponent because it will play a loaded schedule as a member of, again, what is arguably the best league in the state.
“The statewide tournament was a big part of it; schools are going to want to play schools that have good schedules and good records,” said Mead, who compiled a five-page report that included three-years’ worth of data as part of the application process and reached out to scores of CMass ADs to inform them of St. John’s move east once official.
There will be no need for introductions as the Pioneers were already members of the Catholic Conference in swimming & diving and volleyball and competed against CC teams in the Tri-County League in indoor track.
And the football (1-1), soccer (4-0-1), basketball (2-0), hockey (3-3), and baseball (2-3) teams all played multiple games against Catholic Conference teams in their most recent seasons.
While the upsides are plentiful, the biggest challenge is travel with CC teams located in Danvers, Dorchester, Malden, Westwood and West Roxbury. The St. John’s school day ends at 2:28 p.m., and most varsity games are scheduled to begin at 5, so that’s a tight window when getting from here to there.
“The time is something to be considered,” principal Maggie Granados said. “But we’re working the schedule to make it work because we don’t want to shortchange the academic piece of their school life. Travel is a part of every season, to be honest, so we’re used to it, and the conference is working with us in terms of understanding the need for scheduling times.”
St. John’s was founded on Temple Street in Worcester in 1898. A move to Shrewsbury that took three years to complete culminated with all classes being held for the first time at the present campus on Main Street in 1962.
Today, the enrollment stands at 960 students in Grades 7 through 12, including 870 at the high school. And while the Pioneers are headed east to join an athletic conference, their central tenets remain unchanged.
“We never, ever, ever fail to remind our students where we come from,” Zequeira said. “So we always be a Central Mass. school. … It goes beyond athletics for me. We feel like we’re a strong institution in Central Massachusetts and we’re going to continue to invest heavily in our community through service, through activities, but also through good and healthy competition.”
—Contact Rich Garven at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @RichGarvenTG.
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