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R.I. high school sports pit 'haves' vs. 'have-nots'

December 21, 2011

Lee Vasquez and his 2008 Woonsocket High basketball teammates fell just short in the Division I state title game against perennial champion Bishop Hendricken. (ERNEST A. BROWN file photo)

Looking back on the 2011 sports year, my most vivid memories relate to a Shea High boys soccer team that dazzled opponents with its talent, ball skills and exuberance for the sport.
The Raiders made soccer fun to watch, even for a traditional sports fan like myself who is more attuned to football than “futbol.”
The Shea High team played top-ranked La Salle Academy twice this past autumn, once during the regular season and again in the state finals. The Raiders rallied to tie La Salle in their mid-season game at the Rams’ plush home field, then fell behind 3-0 in the Division I championship game before again rallying, this time falling short by a 3-2 score.
The latter game reminded me so much of the 2008 boys’ basketball state final between Woonsocket and Hendricken. It was a case of the haves against the have-nots. In each game, the private school team prevailed, even though both public school teams probably outplayed their foes and deserved to win.
What cost Woonsocket in 2008 and Shea in 2011 were a series of unforced errors that proved too much to overcome. The Woonsocket players wanted to win so badly that they missed layups they normally would make. In Shea’s case, its goalie misjudged a pair of wind-aided shots that landed in the top corner of the net. Blame the wind if you must. Or maybe just curse the fates. Either way, Shea loses.
What hurt the two losing squads was the sense of desperation they took into these championship games. This was it for them, the biggest game of their lives. Not so for the private school kids. Hendricken goes to the state basketball finals every year, or so it seems. The Hawks consider it their birthright. The state finals are where they feel they belong at the end of each season. Hendricken won seven straight state titles before St. Raphael Academy ended its run last March.
La Salle Academy also has a great sports tradition. It plays on some of the best fields in the state, patches of green grass and artificial turf funded by rich alumni contributions. The girls’ soccer team has gained national recognition in recent years while winning nine of the last 11 Division I championships.
The boys’ team is coached by Mario Pereira, perhaps the most dominant figure in the Rhode Island soccer community. His teams have won seven state titles since 2000.
The Shea High boys’ soccer program has now been to the Division I state finals two years in a row, losing by one goal each time. It is led by former Central Falls player Pierre Ridore, who developed his skills under the tutelage of long-time CF mentor Bobby Marchand.
Ridore’s Shea program is getting stronger each year because the cultural diversity in Pawtucket works in favor of a soccer team. The poor kids who come here from places like Cape Verde, Colombia, Haiti and the Dominican Republic bring with them a love for their national sport of soccer.
Inner-city coaches like Ridore just have to blend together the varying styles of play that players from different countries bring with them to the practice field. That isn’t as easy as it sounds. The sport varies in style from one country to the next.
Private school coaches operate from a position of strength in Rhode Island. The best junior high student-athletes often apply for admittance to places like La Salle and Hendricken. It is too simplistic to say they are recruited. Youths from Pawtucket and Woonsocket can also end up in private schools with most of their tuition paid through various grants and alumni donations. Rich kids from Barrington can end up at the same schools just because their parents want them to have the best education possible, and think this is where it can be found.
There’s an interesting method to the way this system works, even if it is heavily balanced in favor of people, and private schools, with strong resources. Some kids from the poor side of town do end up at private schools.
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A city school coach like Pierre Ridore must do more than implement a system of cohesive play in his team. He has to look each of his players in the eyes and see if they are okay. Ridore told a story after the first La Salle game about how one of his star players (Joao Cardoso) had seemed shaky in the first half. Turns out the senior striker from Cape Verde hadn’t eaten all day. He only volunteered this information when Ridore asked him a direct question.
Ridore’s girlfriend dug an apple out of her purse and delivered it to Cardoso, who gulped it down and then scored two goals in the second half to tie the game.
It seems like a heartwarming story until you consider the deeper implications. There are many kids in places like Pawtucket, Central Falls and Woonsocket who aren’t eating three meals a day. If it weren’t for breakfast and lunch programs established in school, some of the more underprivileged students might go 15 hours between meals, from the time they leave school until they return the next morning.
Who looks out for these kids every day in school? Teachers and coaches, that’s who. And what keeps many of these students in school? Sports … and the chance to play a competitive team game with their friends. These teenagers welcome the chance to go compete against schools from around the state, showing off the skills that can send a team of city kids into the state finals, against all odds. It is part of their dream.
City schools have an underdog feel to them in these days of economic despair. Teachers worry about each of their students. Coaches become parental role models for kids who play sports after school. Sports writers watch from the sidelines, finding themselves rooting for the local kids, the underdogs, the ones who are trying to succeed in school and in sports while dealing with socio/economic issues at home that can be as basic as putting food on the table, or making the next month’s rent.
It’s too easy (and wrong) to shake our heads at today’s children and say they don’t work as hard as we did back in the good old days. It might be more accurate to look at today’s youngsters and say they are battling through problems most of us never had to deal with in simpler times, when the economy was good and everyone had a place to live.
There’s probably a better parallel between today’s teenagers and the kids who grew up during the Depression back in the 1930s. It would be a great idea to bring these two generations of people together for a forum at each of our local high schools. I would love to hear the debate between the few surviving members of the Depression Era and today’s youths. I bet they have more in common than they realize.
Back in the late 1960s, Neil Young wrote a song about what was once known as the Generation Gap, sung from the lips of a young man passing by an older person on the street: “Old man take a look at my life … I’m a lot like you were.”
Young had it right. People should recognize how much we all have in common, rather than focus on our differences.

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