The Division II football playoffs usually provide the most interesting competition every season when Rhode Island teams begin competing for Super Bowl berths.
D-II holds a big advantage over the other three divisions because it is the state’s largest league (16 teams). It invites eight teams to the playoffs instead of the four we find in other divisions. Its quarterfinals are held in the second week of November while the regular season is still going on elsewhere.
This past weekend, four teams advanced out of the D-II quarterfinals. Unbeaten Tolman and once-beaten Woonsocket won their games, as expected, while Chariho and St. Raphael grabbed victories in games that could have been considered toss-ups.
Three of the four semifinalists come from Division II-B: Tolman (7-0), Woonsocket (6-1) and St. Raphael (5-2). Chariho shared the II-A regular season title with a 5-2 record. The Chargers host Woonsocket in the semifinals on Tuesday, Nov. 30, while Tolman will entertain its former Thanksgiving Day rival, St. Raphael, on the same evening.
Here’s where it starts to get interesting. Each of the four semifinalists will play a Thanksgiving game five or six days before the playoffs resume. How will the head coaches handle their traditional holiday games? One local assistant coach posted on his Facebook page that “our starters will probably only play the first half.” That seems logical. Nobody wants to see a key player hurt before the playoffs begin in a “meaningless” Thanksgiving Day game.
Of course, labeling a Thanksgiving Day game meaningless is almost blasphemy in some of these rivalries.
Let’s take a look at each holiday game for the three local D-II playoff teams. Shea High hopes to salvage its season with a victory over Tolman on the night before Thanksgiving. Will Tolman let that happen? There’s a lot of bragging rights at stake in this game.
Woonsocket will face Cumberland on Thanksgiving Day, hoping to maintain its winning ways. The Clippers, like Shea, can make their season a success by upsetting the Villa Novans.
And then we have the SRA-Johnston holiday hookup. The Saints edged Johnston 56-50 in a crazy quarterfinal playoff game this past Saturday night. By the quirk of fate, these two schools have become new Thanksgiving Eve dance partners. The Panthers have every reason in the world to want to beat the Saints. Is the feeling reciprocal?
We get into a very gray and murky area for football coaches when discussing the merits of playing to win and going hard for four quarters less than a week before the playoffs resume. What kind of message does a coach send his team by playing it safe? Not a good one, that’s for sure.
We can expect each of the three local head coaches facing this situation to say his team is playing to win. What each really wants is to jump on his opponent early and then ease off in the second half. That’s not a likely scenario in the SRA-Johnston game. It could happen in the other two contests as Tolman and Woonsocket are solid favorites based on their impressive seasons thus far.
Tolman athletic director John Scanlon has an interesting perspective on his football team’s late November schedule. The Shea-Tolman holiday series has been balanced and successful in its short history. But the Thanksgiving Eve hookup could be lost in the hype for the playoff game between Tolman and SRA.
The Tigers and Saints drew an estimated 1,000 fans to their regular season game back in September. Now they will meet in a rematch with a Super Bowl berth at stake.
“This is a playoff game,” Scanlon said on Monday. “It’s obviously a more important game than the one we played in September. But that game was the first one the two schools had played against each other in 10 years. We had a great crowd for the first game. It was a Friday night and the weather was perfect. For the playoff game, who knows what the weather will be like? This game will be more about football. Two good teams going against each other … I think the real football fans will be there for this game.”
Scanlon is probably talking about alumni from both schools when he talks about “real” fans. If a lot of alumni show up, this could be the biggest football crowd for a high school game in Pawtucket in 20 years.
The Tigers and Saints used to draw crowds that numbered in the thousands. They were Thanksgiving Day rivals for 70 years before the partnership was broken off 10 years ago. They resumed playing this year when St. Raphael dropped down from Division I to Division II. The Interscholastic League did everyone a favor by placing SRA in the same sub-division with Tolman. And now the two teams have done their best to maximize the rivalry once again.
“I like what St. Raphael put on the sign outside their gym for the first game,” Scanlon said. “It said ‘Two great teams, one great city.’ ”
Scanlon said the city’s Parks and Rec Department may move the playoff game over to Shea’s Max Read Field. Pariseau Field is the home for both Tolman and SRA but the field gets increasingly chewed up over the course of a long autumn.
“They’re talking about it,” Scanlon said. “I don’t know what they will decide. We could play in McCoy Stadium, too, but I haven’t called Mike Tamburro (PawSox President) about it. The players love to play inside the stadium. I’m not sure the fans like it as much. The seats are a little farther from the field than at the other two fields.”
If the fans really do come out for this game, there may be too many of them to fit in Max Read Field or Pariseau Field. McCoy might be the best option. (Just my opinion.)