NORTH SMITHFIELD — For the first time in recent memory, North Smithfield High's Thanksgiving morning tilt at Division IV rival Scituate will have more on the line than mere casual alumni interest and bragging rights for the victor.
With a triumph, the Northmen – which have already sealed a semifinal berth – will earn the No. 3 seed in the playoffs and battle Exeter/West Greenwich at its home at 7 p.m., Tuesday.
Yet if the Spartans (4-4, 3-3) can upset their foes, they will gain that third rank, leaving North Smithfield the No. 4 slot the fourth and a trip to league champion North Providence on the same evening.
NS head coach Wes Pennington nevertheless feels good about his squad's chances at maintaining the status quo; a lot of that has to do with the recent successes at the school.
“We have kids on this team who played on the state Division III championship basketball team (last spring), so they've been in the limelight before,” he stated of the brothers Cicerone, senior Mike and junior Nick; and seniors Peter Keenan and Matt Lachance, to name only four. “They won't be scared of the hype surrounding a big game because they've been there. They have that mentality.
“I know Matt (Lachance) approached me before the season started and told me he won three state titles last year (in tennis, hoop and volleyball); he said he wants to help the football team get there, too,” he added. “With an attitude like that, it's only going to help us.”
Pennington still knows his squad will have its collective hands full trying to stop Scituate and its top guns, including junior signal callers Jack Owens and Mike Winfield; running backs Brandon Cucino and Miles Maxwell; and junior tight end Wyatt Laprade.
“I've seen their game films, and what's impressed me is that they get after it a lot more than they have in the past, both offensively and defensively,” he noted. “They throw the ball better; they actually use two quarterbacks. (Owens) is more of a thrower, and he's a good scrambler; he can hurt you with his legs, and that can break down your coverage.
“(Winfield) is more of a running QB,” he added. “He's solid at running the football, though he can throw, too. They have a good-sized offensive line, and they're a good throwing team, but they'll mix in the run to keep you off-balance.
“I saw films of them in their games against Central Falls, North Providence and also PCD(/Juanita Sanchez/Wheeler); the tight end (Laprade) is big, strong, can catch and runs good routes. What we're going to have to do is keep both of the quarterbacks honest, keep them in the pocket and try not to overthink it, play every down for what it is.
“Like I said, Scituate is big up front, so an important task for our linebackers and linemen will be to flow to the ball and create some issues for either QB. We can't allow them to string together too many first downs; we'll need to keep them in third-and-long so they have to throw the ball. That will limit the amount of rushes they have.
“This will be a test, a challenge, for our secondary. Our kids will have to play their coverages.”
The Northmen haven't played since they lambasted Central Falls, 61-8, on their home turf on Friday, Nov. 15, but will carry that confidence into the contest.
“If we want to win this one, we've got to execute and keep mistakes at a minimum,” Pennington stated. “When things go well for us, we move the ball and hold on to it; we eat the clock, so we're going to need at least two or three eight- or nine-play drives to stay in rhythm.”
Senior quarterback Mike Cicerone will direct the offense, and his favorite targets include Peter Keenan; junior tight end Mark Keenan; and senior back Dylan Narodowy, in his first year on the gridiron. He could also throw to fellow back Devon Deragon, a junior, or classmate Ross Topik.
“Dylan was really green when he first came out (9in August), but he know understands the concepts and what we're trying to do in the running game,” Pennington said.
Both Deragon and Topik complement the ground attack with Narodowy; they've seen a dramatic increase in touches since junior Nick Cicerone, the signal caller's kid brother, suffered a dislocated elbow in a non-league loss to Plainfield, Conn.
“Defensively, (the Spartans) are pretty good, so we're going to have to take what they give us, and be smart enough at the line to know it,” Pennington indicated. “This is our biggest game of the season. Last year, we were the third seed but went into Central Falls and lost; we wound up the fourth, and ended up playing (then-Division IV powerhouse) Mount Pleasant at their place. We got shelled.
“I've told the kids that this is the most important one of the season, and that we need to take care of business,” he continued. “This is a great game for us because we're going on the road, just like we will for the (semifinal) and, hopefully, the Super Bowl. They have to realize that this IS a playoff game.
“I want the kids to be aggressive, use their heads and play smart. This is a great chance to see a team that's fired up to beat us … They had our number for the first couple of years I was here (in 2007-08), but we've won the last three (straight). If we do win, then it will be time to prepare for EWG, where we lost three years ago in double-overtime.”
Pennington's crew dropped a 17-14 heartbreaker to the host Avengers back on Sept. 28, and would like nothing more than to return the favor, but first thing's first: They must reign on the holiday.
“We're hoping that, if we somehow get past Thursday (with a victory), we won't let the same thing occur (on Tuesday),” he said.