Even on the phone, Chris Skurka came across as a happy camper. Call such “merriness” not in keeping with the spirit of the holiday season, but rather it is based solely on the fact that his Cumberland football outfit does not have to concern itself with a semifinal-round game on Tuesday night.
Cumberland achieved Super Bowl status back on Nov. 22 with its Division II championship game partner, West Warwick, following suit the following day. The big game is on tap for next Sunday at 3 p.m. at Cranston Stadium, meaning the Clippers will have had a whopping 17 days to bask in the glow of knowing that they have earned the right to defend their 2012 title.
For non-Division II schools such as North Smithfield, receiving an invitation to the big bowl game hinges upon Tuesday’s playoff outcome. There’s no rest for the weary as upon passing the “round of four” test comes a stark realization – the Super Bowl is merely five days later.
Counting the Thanksgiving game, the two Super Bowl finalists in Divisions I, III and IV will end up participating in three games in an 11-day span. If you think such a schedule is both compressed and demanding for a contact sport where concussion-related health problems are at the forefront, you’re not alone.
Avoiding the three-game squeeze that has come to define the conclusion of the state’s high school football season is something Skurka and West Warwick head coach Shane Lagor are undoubtedly ecstatic to have avoided. Each Division II finalist will have enjoyed 10 full days of preparation between Thanksgiving and next Sunday while the rest of the state is forced to cram and make do on the fly.
“It’s a so much better format. You have a ton of time to prepare for the Super Bowl, which is important,” said Skurka upon reached early Sunday afternoon, the Cumberland mentor speaking about the decision the Division II folks made in contesting the semifinals the weekend before Thanksgiving rather than include them as part of the ‘Tuesday Night Lights’ lineup. “You have the chance to heal up and rest guys.”
Skurka remembers last year when the semifinals were postponed from Tuesday to Wednesday due to inclement weather. The winners faced the task of getting ready for the biggest game of the season with just three days of preparation under their belts, as the Rhode Island Interscholastic League opted to maintain the status quo regarding the Super Bowl schedule.
“Not that some of the work wasn’t already done, but mentally, you had to get the kids ready real quick,” recalled Skurka. “Now with this extra time, we can focus on every facet. It’s such a great format.”
The question is, can the Division II playoff format be replicated in all divisions?
“It works in Division II because of the way we’re set up with two sides. If they decide to go with a bigger Division I and condense it down to three divisions, I think it would work for everybody,” Skurka replied. “It’s difficult, though, for the teams that play a league game on Thanksgiving.”
Skurka noted that there are “second season” proposals floating out there, meaning it’s possible that across-the-board changes could be implemented sooner rather than later.
“They’re going to ask us how we liked it and I can almost tell you to a man, every coach is pleased,” Skurka said. “One of the suggestions is that they play each other twice in Division I. You have La Salle-East Providence play early in the year and then have them play again on Thanksgiving to keep the rivalry going, but it would be a game just to play on Thanksgiving.”
Another perk of note of having a significant gap between Thanksgiving and the Super Bowl is giving the players an actual break away from the gridiron grind. Cumberland had Friday and Saturday off before reconvening on Sunday morning. West Warwick was off the entire weekend.
In North Smithfield’s case, head coach Wes Pennington rewarded his players for their 53-20 holiday shellacking of Scituate by giving them Friday off before getting back after the task at hand on Saturday.
It’s entirely different ballgame for teams such as North Smithfield, which ventures to Exeter/West Greenwich Tuesday night for a Division IV semifinal contest. For Cumberland and West Warwick, the usual time constraint worries that tend to crop up for teams still having something at stake post-Thanksgiving have been nullified. The focus is squarely on getting ready for next Sunday’s title matchup at Cranston Stadium, and that’s all.
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03