NORTH SMITHFIELD – Way back on Sept. 28, North Smithfield High traveled to Exeter/West Greenwich's home gridiron and exhibited perhaps its sloppiest game of the season, but still sustained “only” a 17-14 loss.
The two will meet yet again in a R.I. Division IV Tournament semifinal in West Greenwich at 6 p.m., Tuesday, and – to prepare his troops mentally – Pennington is utilizing not just what happened in that contest but also one that occurred three years ago this same weekend.
“We're trying to concentrate on doing the little things well,” Pennington explained. “I've been thinking back to when we lost to them down there in double overtime. At one point, with about four or five minutes left (in regulation), we were ahead, 30-22.
“I've been reminding the kids of that, the fact (the Scarlet Knights) had been to a couple of championship games, and that their guys knew they had the pedigree, the confidence in each other, to come back and win it,” he added. “They drove the ball down the field and scored, but they still had to get the two-point conversion to tie.
“They did with ease, then eventually won it in double OT. They were able to get those points because of confidence, and we (defensively) looked like deer in the headlights. I've been telling the kids this week that we can't be overwhelmed in that moment. Once they scored the touchdown, we were thinking about that mistake, not (stopping) the conversion; I've been saying, 'It's all about the next play, now what happened previously.'”
At a practice session Sunday afternoon, Pennington admitted he walked his defensive players down to the goal line and set a scene to demonstrate his message. He informed them they were leading, 21-20, late in the fourth, then stated, “OK, what are you going to do? They need the extra point, so are you just going to let them have it? Or are you going to rise to the occasion and try your best to block it?
“What we did three years ago was give them the two-point conversion, and it was a run. They ran it right down our throats. They scored and went on to win. I also said the game could've been over if we just stopped it.”
As for the most recent defeat, Pennington has harped on that as well.
“We were down early, 14-0, and it's because we weren't taking care of the ball,” he noted of his squad, which finished with three fumbles (none lost), an interception and eight penalties for a minus 60 yards. NS eventually came back to tie it at 14-14, but Avenger senior Ian Geyer knocked home a 20-yard field goal with 9:21 left to seal it.
“We started to slow; we allowed them to score two quick touchdowns, and you can't do that against a good, solid, well-coached team,” he added. “Jim (Alves, EWG's chief) does a nice job with those guys. The problem was we let them jump out on top. We need to start playing from the first down of the game. If we do that (this time), we'll be in the ballgame.
“We had to push to try to get back into it, and that's tough, especially against such a good defense. When you keep trying to get something going, you expend a lot of energy, and I think we just ran out of gas in the fourth quarter.”
He recalled one snap in the second quarter that still bothers him.
“We had one mistake where (senior signal caller) Mike (Cicerone) called a play in the huddle on first down, and – with the guys up at the line – he wanted to change the play,” Pennington said. “He was looking at a receiver, but the snap went past him. Next thing we knew, it was second and, like, 26. That's a 'Bad News Bears' kind of play.
“There's no way we can do that and expect to win the game; the teams who are tight, they're the ones who will do that, and we were tight,” he continued. “Still, I did like the fact that our kids fought right to the end. They didn't quit, especially in that first half. Their defense is really strong, but they didn't get down.”
During that loss, senior running back Dwight Anderson amassed 103 yards and a touchdown (with a two-point conversion) on 26 carries – the Scarlet Knights posted 270 ground yards on 46. Meanwhile, senior quarterback Jake Hornoff completed just three of eight tosses for 35 yards, though chipped in 63 more on 10 keepers.
For the Northmen, junior Nick Cicerone (who's doubtful for this playoff tilt with a dislocated elbow) scored on a six-yard option jaunt with 5:09 left before halftime. Matt Lachance then hauled in senior Dylan Nardowy's 65-yard halfback option bomb down the right sideline with 2:32 left in the third, and the latter's PAT boot tied it.
“The thing that worries me is the fact they're disciplined in what they do,” Pennington offered. “It's no secret, and they're not fancy; they don't try to trick you. The backs run hard and they've got a big offensive line which tries to push you around.
“The way to combat that is to play disciplined, hard-nosed football, be willing to be just as tough as they are,” he added. “You don't stop (the ground attack) by side-stepping a ball carrier, but by playing tough and physical. Their QB can run the ball, and (senior running back Dustin VanLuven works off the wing.
“I mean, they were 6-1 in league, and that's not by happenstance.”
The good news: The third-seeded Northmen (6-4 overall, 5-2 league) closed the season just one game behind No. 2-ranked EWG (7-3, 6-1); in addition, they have momentum on their side, claiming two straight in easy fashion.
After crushing Central Falls, 61-8, they traveled to fourth-seeded Scituate on Thanksgiving morning and bused home with a 53-20 blowout.
“I think we gained even more confidence after that win,” he said of the holiday verdict. “The collective attitude is good, and I think our guys are excited, ready to go at it. Since that (semifinal loss three seasons ago), we've been to the playoffs every year. And, since I've been the head coach in our series, the team playing at home has won, so we have beaten them.
“It also means that every kid I've got has played in at least one post-season game, but we haven't won any of the three. I want to see that change this year. We keep knocking on the door, so eventually, it's going to open.
“What I want most for our players to understand is not let the moment overwhelm you but to embrace it,” he continued. “I know it's more intense, but you can't let it affect the way you've played all season. I think it's getting through to them, I really do. (Senior receiver/defensive end) Peter Keenan is a captain, a three-year starter and a heckuva good football player. He's going to have to keep everybody focused, as are the other veterans.
“We're going to have to play the caliber of football we're capable of; I've told them that if they – once the game is over – can say to themselves themselves, 'I gave it everything I had. I left it all out there,' then they can walk off the field with their heads held high. If we give it 120 percent, I'll put our guys up against every team in our division.
“I mean that.”