WOONSOCKET – Bitterness can serve as an amazing motivator.
Carnell Henderson is electing to draw from the acidic flavor that crossed the taste buds of his Woonsocket High football program two weekends ago, when St. Raphael ended the Novans’ Division II playoff pursuit with a 15-14 quarterfinal-round loss. The gargantuan head of steam that has been pent up since that Saturday afternoon of heartbreak figures to get unleashed come Thursday morning when longtime holiday rival Cumberland treks to Barry Field.
The sight of the Clippers standing on the opposite sideline should conjure up an even more painful reminder for Henderson & Co., not to mention represent a whole different degree of motivation. A year ago, Woonsocket and Cumberland squared off twice in an 11-day span, and it was characterized by the domination of one competitor over another.
On Thanksgiving Day 2012, the Clippers licked the plate clean in a 32-0 whitewashing. The two neighboring schools then met with the Division II Super Bowl on the line, with Cumberland once more getting the upper hand in runaway fashion as Woonsocket fell by a 49-0 count.
Getting back to the original premise of letting past bygones serve as a turbo-changed source of fuel, Henderson thoroughly explained why the Novans’ 2013 postseason ouster is driving the motivational bus as opposed to last year’s inglorious results against the Clippers.
“The only motivation these guys need is that we’re getting the chance to play again. The last time we had a chance to play with each other, we experienced a tough defeat,” said the Woonsocket mentor. “They’re probably chomping at the bit, and for the seniors, it’ll be their last time playing for Woonsocket. That’s really all the motivation they need.
“Any time you lose, you want to avenge a loss. I can’t say that’s never part of it, but there’s a different dynamic in place. A lot of those kids who played for Cumberland last year and had a great deal of success aren’t there. A lot of our guys aren’t there, so the only thing you’re doing is avenging the loss of the program,” Henderson delved further. “Trying to motivate these kids who weren’t a part of (last year’s Cumberland-Woonsocket installment), it’s not like their guys are back and so are ours. We played them on Thanksgiving and again in the Super Bowl. You can talk about revenge when it’s in the same calendar year and you have the same group of kids, but when you’re talking about something that’s a year removed, this game has its own high stakes.”
The 50th chapter of this Thanksgiving rivalry is not lacking in intriguing subplots. Technically, this is a matchup of division winners –Woonsocket won the II-B side, while Cumberland shared top honors in II-A with four teams.
“This is our Super Bowl and we’re playing a worthy opponent. You know you’re going to get a great football game,” stated Henderson, his Novans sitting at 7-3 overall. “If I know (Cumberland head coach Chris Skurka), he’s coming to play. That’s just the way he’s always been.”
There is a sense of finality surrounding these Novans, something Henderson talked openly about when he referenced closing the season “the right way. We get to measure ourselves in terms of where we are and what we want to carry into the offseason and into next season. This game gives us an opportunity to do that.”
Lowering the curtain on 2013 will not transpire for Skurka and the Clippers until Sunday, Dec. 8. There’s still one more game of note after Thursday, and it’s one that will either place Cumberland (8-3 overall) in that rare orb of back-to-back title winners or in the runner-up position behind West Warwick.
“Obviously, with this format they tried out this year, we get 10 days between Thanksgiving and the Super Bowl,” said Skurka, referencing the decision that Division II made in contesting the semifinals before Thanksgiving rather than the Tuesday following the holiday, which will be the case in Divisions I, III and IV.
From Skurka’s vantage point, Cumberland is squaring off with one top seed in Woonsocket, with another one in West Warwick waiting on deck.
“That’s the way we’re looking at it with the kids, which is fine,” said Skurka.
Before they can seriously entertain thoughts about their rendezvous with championship destiny, the Clippers must first deal with a Villa Novans squad that figures to be pretty amped.
“We’ve been scouting them and have some ideas of what we’re going to do,” stated Skurka. “You have to prepare just like you would anyway. It’s no different if we were playing after Thanksgiving or not.”
Skurka pointed to Woonsocket allowing a league-low 50 points during seven regular-season games. “Obviously, they have good skill players and a good, well-rounded team. Unfortunately, they didn’t have their best game against Saints, but they’re a good football team.”
With film study serving as his primary guide, Henderson sees a Cumberland unit that’s “fundamentally sound. They do a lot of things well, and that’s why they’re still playing. We know what we’re going to get and we’re looking forward to the challenge.”
Cumberland leads the all-time series by a 28-17-4 margin. Henderson and Skurka have been matching coaching wits on Turkey Day since 2009, with each side claiming two victories.
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03