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McGair: Arrival of league play means high school football season is truly under way

September 19, 2013

Woonsocket head coach Carnell Henderson and his Villa Novans will host Johnston in a Division II-A battle on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. PHOTO BY ERNEST A. BROWN

Tolman High head coach Dave Caito calls it the start of a new season. In many ways, this weekend’s Rhode Island high school football schedule is just that for the local teams.

The time has come to put what has amounted to nearly five weeks of preseason camp in the rearview mirror. The 2013 campaign begins in earnest Friday night with the opening of league play, a time where teams battle it out for division championships and jockey for position in league standings, all fighting toward a common goal: to make it to that next – and final – “new” – season, a.k.a. the playoffs.

It gets under way with a “Friday Night Lights” lineup that includes Cranston East at Tolman, Pilgrim at Shea, Hope at North Smithfield, Central Falls at Smithfield and Cumberland at Central. On Saturday, the games of local note include Middletown at Burrillville, Lincoln at Moses Brown, Rogers at St. Raphael and Johnston at Woonsocket.

“Everything counts now; before, it was tune-ups and scrimmages, things that get you ready for the season that begins Friday night,” Caito expressed. “Right now we’re 0-0.”

League play represents a golden chance to see if the laying of the foundation can materialize into a successful season.

“You start in the weight room and next you’re in preseason and taking part in a couple of scrimmages,” notes Woonsocket High head coach Carnell Henderson. “Then you play for what you signed up for. The goal is to always win your division and be competitive in your division. Or you play for a second life in the division.

“That’s what these games are for from here on out.”

Everyone has a fresh start and every team has high hopes entering league play. From a win-loss perspective, today represents the only time when everyone is on equal footing.

After this weekend, though, the process of separating the wheat from the chaff begins in earnest. Contenders will rise to the top, while the pretenders are forced to take a backseat. It’s all part of a fascinating journey into the unknown – at least for now.

“Early in the year when you have a lot of unknowns on the team, you want to see how things are going to balance out,” Henderson expressed.
While last week’s non-league contests may not have had any direct bearing on the standings, you have to wonder how much stock or significance is placed on a game that featured an out-of-division opponent.

Reviewing Tolman’s 21-6 defeat at the hands of Division II Mount Hope, Caito expressed that the outcome didn’t result in any restless nights.
“Our conditioning was fine, it was our execution that didn’t work well,” said the longtime Tigers’ mentor. “The schemes were fine defensively and offensively. We just didn’t execute the way we should have.”

At this stage, teams hope that the long journey ahead results in playing meaningful football the Tuesday following Thanksgiving. Remaining in the present, there’s more of a priority placed on making sure these young knights of the gridiron can withstand four quarters worth of pounding.

On the flip side, making sure that the plays are properly carried out is a process that emphasizes time and patience – not to mention extra film study!

A well-conditioned team enables a head coach and his staff to devote more energy to making sure that the players understand the terminology of the plays that will be relayed to them during the heat of confrontation.

What about a team that’s gasping for air during the middle of the third quarter? Simply put, let’s just say those are the concerns of a different beast.

“When we played the Injury Fund, I thought we weren’t in shape or where I thought they should be. That was a concern,” was the aftermath Henderson had to contend with when his Woonsocket crew was shutout by Shea earlier this month. “We had just scrimmaged a very good team from Brooklyn the week before (the 7-0 loss to the Raiders). Plus we had a good scrimmage against Mount Pleasant. In the Injury Fund, it just didn’t seem they had the same step.”

Henderson has been around the coaching block enough times to know that you can’t get into football shape in a week’s time. Having that as a chief worry while trying to gear up for a non-league encounter with Division I East Providence probably resulted in some “back to the basics” practice sessions at Barry Field, ones that were probably eerily reminiscent of the ones conducted under the hot August sun.

In the end, the Villa Novans staged a 26-21 come-from-behind victory over the Townies.

“To see them come out and put it together for four quarters and come out on top, it was a good one,” said Henderson, who adamantly believes that all games, whether they count in the standings or not, represent a measuring stick of where your team stands at that particular moment in time.

“I’ve never put too much stock in league games versus non-league games since I’ve been here. I kind of prepare every game as though it’s the same. I can’t imagine going into a game and losing, and at the end of the day saying that it doesn’t matter because it’s a non-league game or that we’re better than we are because we beat a Division I team,”

Henderson expressed. “At the end of the day, it’s another opportunity for our guys to get better and familiarize ourselves with one another. I firmly believe that the only time your team grows is when they’re in tune with each other. Whether it’s a league or a non-leaguer, or where you’re situated in the standings, that’s all irrelevant to me. It’s a matter of seizing the moment.”

The last part of Henderson’s statement might as well serve as the catch phrase for the new course that teams are set to embark upon. The preseason scrimmages, Injury Fund contests, and last weekend’s non-league games are all history. Now the high school football games, pitting division opponents against each other, mean something.

Now it’s officially decreed – the games count.

Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03

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