PAWTUCKET — The saying goes that you can't look ahead without fully understanding where you've been – and why.
Both Cumberland High chief Chris Skurka and St. Raphael Academy mentor Mike Sassi are utilizing that philosophy as they prepare their clubs for a monumental R.I. Division II semifinal, slated for Tucker Field at 7 p.m., Friday.
The old coaching colleagues and true-blue friends are pointing to what occurred back on Saturday, Oct. 5 as their impetus; that's the last time the foes battled, and the Clippers eventually sealed a wildly exciting 24-17 triumph at Shea High's Max Read Field home.
(The contest was originally scheduled for Friday night, Oct. 4, but contractors were still putting the finishing touches on the new field turf at Tucker, so it was moved to a neutral site).
“I think both teams made some (good) plays, and we both made mistakes, but it was a great high school football game,” Skurka said honestly. “That fourth quarter was one of the best I've ever been involved in; you kind of knew the last one to have the ball would probably win.”
With the score knotted at 17-all and 34 ticks left in regulation, senior quarterback Tyler Calabro connected with receiver Jared Talbert on a 35-yard scoring strike down the right sideline, and Calabro booted the extra point.
“We still couldn't take anything for granted,” Skurka noted. “They had scored on their previous two possessions, and there was no doubt in my mind Saints could've scored again. I mean, they had the ball as time expired; in fact, they moved it to our 35-yard line, and we had to tackle (superlative junior running back) James Kelly. It was second down, and he had fallen, so Joe Fine just touched him.
“They just ran out of time,” he added. “If there had been 15-20 seconds left, they may have scored … I had a moment of clarity right after we clinched it. I turned to one of my assistants and said, 'That was a tremendous football game. I also told our kids, 'This is one you'll remember forever.'”
Sassi indicated the same, though for a different reason.
“I thought we played really good defense in the first half; it was a ball-control type of game, very conservative in that half,” he stated. “The big difference was we made more mistakes than they did. Their first 10 points were a result of our mistakes. We were up, 3-0, but we dropped a punt inside our 30, and that set up a field goal.
“We were ahead, 9-3, but then we fumbled, and they came right down the field and scored, kicked the extra point and we were down, 10-9,” he continued. “I don't think we took care of the ball in that half, but we were still growing as a team then. Since that loss, we've won five straight, and I think the kids are gaining confidence.
“When we faced North Kingstown, our offense really lit it up, scoring 54 points (in a 54-34 triumph over the Skippers, their first defeat). Then, the other day (during the Saints' stunning 15-14 quarterfinal upset of II-A's top-seeded Woonsocket), our defense kept us in it. It was a group effort, but our defense played fantastically well, especially in the second half.”
Skurka attended that contest and naturally was impressed with SRA's wherewithal after trailing at halftime, 14-0, and after the third, 14-7.
“They're playing great football right now; there's no doubt about it,” Skurka said. “They just knocked off the top seed on the road, and that's a huge accomplishment. Saints is so well-coached, and it's one of the best teams in D-II; I mean, they're the only team to beat West Warwick, which is really solid.”
If Skurka is focusing on one thing in his daily practices, it's Sassi's ability, and love, to mix up plays, his want to keep opponents off-balance on both sides of the pigskin.
In this semifinal, by the way, the Saints (6-3) are the fourth-ranked team in II-B, and Cumberland (7-3) the second seed in the same.
“He's great at mixing things,” he sighed. “It is what it is. You've got to be sound defensively and good fundamentally. We just have to trust our system and what we've implemented and hope he doesn't exploit it.
“He went with a no-huddle against us last time, and we expected it, but they're so good at it,” he added. “It's tough to prepare for. Now that we've seen it – North Kingstown also did it to us – hopefully now we're a little more ready to handle it. Still, you can't be on top of it each and every down; you just have to be as consistent as possible.
“In that last one, I thought we played pretty good defense, but the negative would be turnovers. We have games where we have too many, and others where we don't. With us, it's one way or the other; when we fumble or get picked, we can't climb out of the hole we've dug for ourselves.”
He mentioned that of Cumberland's three losses this season – to non-league foe Cranston West and II-B opponents North Kingstown and West Warwick – they compiled a minus-three turnover ratio.
“You just can't have those kinds of numbers and expect to win,” he said. “Anytime you're more than minus-three, there's no way. That's a given statistic. We must be on the plus side … Our offensive line also has to play well and give Tyler time to throw, or give our backs holes to run through.”
As for Sassi's lowdown on upsetting the defending state D-II champions and earning its first Super Bowl berth since 2007 (that's when SRA took the D-I crown with a win over Hendricken), it's rather simple.
“If you look at the number of returning starters we had coming back, there were three on offense and the same amount on defense, but (the newcomers) lacked that experience,” he explained. “Now they're gaining it each and every week. They say no one's a rookie after nine games, and that's where we're at right now.
“We played well against Woonsocket, but we have to play better if we want to beat Cumberland,” he continued. “I think it's going to be a no-holds-barred, knockdown, drag-out fight. Both teams will undoubtedly make a few mistakes, but the key will be who's going to capitalize on them. Naturally, I hope it's us.”
When asked what it would mean to his group to return to a second straight Bowl game – the Clippers upended the Villa Novans last December, 49-0, at East Greenwich's Nick Carcieri Field – Skurka responded typically.
“We've got to play this one before we even think about it,” he claimed. “It hasn't been talked about at all. We're just concentrating on St. Ray's. You've got to take it one game at a time. We learned that when we had West Warwick at home (on Nov. 8).
“If we had won that, we would've been the II-B champions, but we didn't play well and turned the ball over. We just didn't execute, so we've learned from that. If they (the players) were looking ahead, they're not now.
“We've been preaching it forever, execute one play at a time, one quarter and one game at a time. We have to be focused on each and every play.”