The first weekend of league play in Rhode Island football provided a hint of what to expect in the season ahead from local teams.
In a most evenly-matched contest, Tolman High outlasted St. Raphael Academy 22-14 on Friday night. The Tigers are coming off a 2010 season in which they lost in the Division II Super Bowl to two-time champion Woonsocket.
The Villa Novans, meanwhile, laid an egg in their opener on Saturday, losing to Pilgrim, 18-7.
Tolman will visit Woonsocket on Saturday afternoon in a game that means a lot to both teams. The Tigers will be trying to build on their early-season momentum while Woonsocket could already be fighting for its life. Desperate teams with talent, like Woonsocket, are always a difficult opponent.
Ponaganset High, which moved up to D-II from Division III last year and struggled to a 2-5 record, now appears ready to contend in its new surroundings. The Chieftains rolled to a 38-0 win over Toll Gate on Saturday. They are led by veteran quarterback Chris Larabee, who runs a balanced offense that should move the ball consistently, even against the divisionâ€™s top defenses.
In another D-II opener of note, Cumberland High showed a strong defense on Friday night while winning at Shea Highâ€™s Max Read Field by a 14-7 margin, with the game coming down to the final play, just as the Tolman-St. Raphael contest was decided in a similar fashion less than one mile away.
Division II, always the most competitive league in the state because of its size, would appear headed for more of the same this season.
Over in Division III, Lincoln High was impressive in a 20-0 romp over East Greenwich. The Lions are coming off a playoff season and hope to repeat their 2010 success with an offense led by quarterback Anthony Palombo.
In Division IV, North Smithfield dug its own grave with five turnovers during an 18-10 road loss to Hope High on Saturday in a game that matched two playoff teams from 2010. It is interesting to note that the Northmen could have won this game despite their sloppy handling of the football. The potential for success this seasons rests in the hands of the Northmen. They just have to handle it more carefully than they did the pigskin against Hope.
Central Falls showed it may contend in D-IV with a 29-0 victory over Smithfield.
And, finally, Division I contender East Providence routed North Kingstown 49-17 on Friday night, getting 267 yards rushing from halfback Jalin Braxton and four touchdowns from quarterback Brandon Peters. The Townies will visit Cranston West on Friday night in their first serious test of the season.
Tolman coach Dave Caito didnâ€™t get to enjoy his teamâ€™s victory over St. Raphael Academy for long before taking a more critical look at the Tigersâ€™ performance.
â€śWe may be practicing our ball security for five or 10 minutes this week in practice,â€ť Caito said on Saturday evening. â€śWe fumbled the ball several times against St. Raphael. Elvis George fumbled twice. We talked to him about it on the sidelines and Elvis really protected the ball after that. But we need to do some drills in practice where our runners go through a line and have players try to strip the ball away.â€ť
Caito also lamented the biggest mistake of the game on Tolmanâ€™s part, a special teams blunder on punt coverage that allowed Saintsâ€™ return man Charles Correa to pick up the football in a crowd of Tigers and bolt 73 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
â€śThatâ€™s Football 101,â€ť Caito said. â€śWe had four guys standing behind the ball instead of in front of it. Charles is a great athlete, we contained him for most of the game, but he got us on that one.â€ť
The Tigersâ€™ special teams did create two turnovers on kickoffs, the second one a strip by Andre Gilbert at midfield. But the Saints showed their resiliency by stopping Tolmanâ€™s offense, the first time on an interception by Correa, and the second when they forced a 3-and-out that led to Correaâ€™s stunning punt return for a touchdown.
St. Raphael Academy came to play on Friday night, running the ball consistently in the first half, pushing Tolmanâ€™s defensive line off the ball as fullback Patrick Miranda along with halfbacks Correa and James Berry broke through for solid gains.
â€śWe made an adjustment on our D-Line,â€ť Caito admitted. â€śWe moved Darion Stubbs from tackle to nose guard and he caused some problems by submarining under their linemen. Heâ€™s built like a tank with a low center of gravity.
â€śOur offensive and defensive lines did a great job,â€ť Caito said. â€śDion Rubio, Giovanni Lima, Jeremy Deossa, Daniel Stubbs (who is only a sophomore and plays both ways), Darion Stubbs and Kevin Assuncao were the keys for us in winning this game.â€ť
Caito also had special praise for halfback Mory Keita, who set up a huge â€śinsuranceâ€ť touchdown when he broke a 46-yard run down to the Saintsâ€™ one-yard line in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter. Backup quarterback Rodney St. Pierre covered the final yard to give Tolman a 21-14 lead.
The Tigers, who had problems last year kicking extra points, got two solid conversion kicks from junior Andrew Soares that helped provide the eight-point edge that St. Raphael almost erased with a desperation drive down the field in the final minute of the game.
Tolman also showed improvement in its passing game over last year as quarterback Luis Rodrigues stood tall in the pocket and made several good throws. Rodrigues found Daniel Stubbs open for 34 yards to begin a drive late in the first half, then hit Andre Gilbert for 11 more yards on the next play. The tall quarterback overthrew Jason Maynard in the end zone before a holding call and some stout defense by the Saints ended the drive without any points.
â€śIt was a great game to watch,â€ť Caito said, â€śespecially for the fans. As a coach, it was kind of nerve-wracking.â€ť