Woonsocket head coach Carnell Henderson lost a lot of key players from last season's Division II state championship team.
For the 11 high school teams in the Blackstone Valley, as well as the others from across the state, the road to postseason glory in December started last week during workouts on hot mid-August mornings and afternoons that were better suited for spending on a beach.
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And while the ultimate goal of every team is to reach the Super Bowl in their respective divisions, two teams from the area, Woonsocket and Tolman, are hoping to get back to the championship game.
Last season, the Villa Novans repeated as Division II champions by beating the Tigers, 28-14, and while the Novans head into the season with most of the key players from that team gone to graduation, the Tigers enter it on the opposite end of the spectrum.
Only a half dozen players, including All-State tailback Ousmane Samb, picked up their diplomas a couple of months ago, and last week, head coach Dave Caito welcomed one of his largest turnouts with 86 players, 25 of them incoming freshmen.
"Last year, we had a ton of young kids, but this year, we're senior ladened and junior ladened," he noted. "This is one of the best groups that we've had hard working-wise, and everything's been going well."
At this time last year, Caito was working with a camp that consisted largely of sophomores and didn't know what to expect from the upcoming season. But the Tigers went through their Division II-B schedule with an unblemished record and found themselves playing for a Super Bowl title.
This year, Tolman has been included in the preseason talk as one of the teams to beat, and to a man, the Tigers, who have traditionally made it a goal to win their division and then the Super Bowl, hope to back up that claim and go a step further than they did a season ago.
"Coming in, I think we're a very talented team, so I'm not going to sugarcoat it," said Caito. "I think this is one of the fastest backfields we've had since I've been here. and defensively, we have speed and they are all athletes. We don't boast the 6-3, 300-pounders, but we have guys who are like 5-8, 170, 180, but they can move and they can hit."
The Villa Novans, meanwhile, enter their season minus a good piece of the cast that led them to their last two championships, including All-State wide receiver Jessie Charette and tight end Geo Heredia.
They also come into the season with one key figure out with a significant injury -- head coach Carnell Henderson -- who tore a tendon in his quadriceps muscle in a freak household accident late last month and has yet to report to practice. But Henderson's assistant coaches have effectively run the team in his absence and provided him with daily reports.
"Things have been going relatively well," said Henderson. "My coaches told me that the kids have been working hard. We have an inexperienced group of kids coming back, but a good group of kids coming back. We'll be young, but we have guys that are learning and are willing to learn."
Even though graduation took its toll on the Novans, the cupboard is far from bare, for they have some players coming back at key positions and young standouts looking to make their presence felt.
"We have a couple of O-linemen, linebackers, tight ends, running backs, and some good leadership at places where it's needed," said Henderson.
The Novans would dearly love to threepeat as Division II champs, a feat that hasn't been done since West Warwick won six straight titles in the 1950s, but if they plan to accomplish the feat, they are going to have to carve out their own identity and put their past successes behind them.
"We're looking forward to the challenge," added Henderson. "Last year's over, and like I told this year's group, 'You can't rest on what last year's group did the year before, You're only a good as the season that you're in. Our motivation is to continue to get better each week, and hopefully put ourselves in a position to win again."
Joining the Tigers and the Novans in the chase for the Division II-B title is St. Raphael, which reached last year's semifinals in its return to the division after a decade-long stay in Division I, and Ponaganset, which figures to improve greatly this fall after enduring a rebuilding season.
In Division II-A, Shea and Cumberland both missed out on a playoff spot last season by a game, but both teams welcomed large camps this summer and hope to be back in the playoffs this year.
Another playoff team from a season ago, East Providence, also took its lumps in the graduation department, losing key performers such as All-State lineman Dan Andrade and linebacker Mike Davol, but the Townies are also working with a big turnout of players and should be in the postseason hunt again.
In Division III, Lincoln and Burrillville are coming off two of their best seasons in a handful of years, but both lost a big chunk of their teams to graduation and will be hard at work these next couple of weeks trying to fill in the gaps. The Broncos only have a few starters back, while the Lions lost some key veteran contributors, such as All-State quarterback Ryan O'Dell.
Workouts have also been under way for the area's two Division IV teams, Central Falls and North Smithfield, and there will be plenty of attention on the Northmen this season as they have a veteran team that's looking to build on a 6-2 season that was their best record in more than a decade.