CUMBERLAND — Cumberland High was officially eliminated from postseason play in Division II back on Oct. 29 when it lost to Central High at Conley Stadium.
Since that 19-6 defeat to the Knights, the Clippers have reeled off two straight victories – a narrow 9-0 shutout of Coventry High and a 31-6 rout of Ponaganset High in a consolation game last Friday.
It’s been a roller-coaster season for Chris Skurka and his youthful squad, one that featured a lot of give-or-take verdicts. But the second-year Cumberland coach has been more than satisfied with the effort, especially down the stretch with no postseason on the horizon.
“The kids are still playing hard so I am proud of them,” said Skurka, during practice on Wednesday afternoon. “At this point, you are playing because you love football and for pride. There is no question on that. They have been giving it everything they have.”
After a slow start where it lost its first four games, including two league contests, Cumberland (4-4 in Div. II-A, 5-6 overall) has been playing competitive football for the last month and a half. In their last seven games, the Clippers have compiled a 5-2 mark.
What has been the difference?
“We have been taking care of the football and not turning it over,” Skurka said. “Earlier in the year we lost to Shea (21-20) in overtime. We lost to the eventual first-place winner (Chariho) 15-0 and it was a 7-0 game for almost three quarters. We are still learning how to win and have reeled off a few wins in a row. We actually had some tough luck on the road. We played two very tight games against Johnston and Central, two playoff teams.”
Even though the playoffs are out of the picture, Cumberland will have a chance to finish on a positive note this Thanksgiving when it welcomes a very speedy and athletic Woonsocket High team to Tucker Field. The Clippers hold the edge in the longstanding rivalry with a 26-16-4 record.
Lately, though, it’s been a different story. The defending Super Bowl champion Novans, who look primed to repeat the magic next month, have beaten the Clippers the last three years on Turkey Day and four of the last five.
In 2009, head coach Carnell Henderson and his Villa Novans earned a 27-14 win at Barry Field. Woonsocket, which handedly defeated Central in last week’s quarterfinal matchup, finished 6-1 in Div. II-B this fall.
“It’s a great rivalry,” Skurka said. “It’s always, in my mind, the game that you mark on your calendar every year as the game you want to win. They are a great football team. Carnell has done an awesome job with them over there. We’re the underdog and they are a playoff football team. We have to go out and play a great game to have a chance to beat them. They obviously have done a great job of rebounding after their Super Bowl win and putting themselves in a position to win it again.”
The Cumberland coach believes the key to his team notching a ‘W’ over its neighborly rival is to not only play mistake-free football, but also contain the Villa Novans’ speed, an attribute that has helped it rack up a league-best 195 points and allowed just 20 points, which is also tops in the division.
“They have great team speed, defensively and offensively,” Skurka said. “We have to play smart football. We have to do what we do best and that’s to keep contain on the edge when playing defense and try to keep them from breaking big plays. I think last year we had given up big plays and that was kind of the difference in the game. We really have to try and limit the big play.”
The Clippers are led by tri-captains Mike Lucena, John Kane and Andre Lussier. The three seniors have shined their brightest over the last couple of weeks, according to Skurka.
“They have done a great job in keeping this team focused considering that we haven’t been in the playoffs and actually won two straight games,” he said. “It’s really hard to do that as a high school team. We have some youth out here. We have a great group of seniors - Ben Elliott, Moe Allam, Tommy Carroll and Michaelangelo Federici. All those guys have just done an outstanding job in keeping this team focused, playing for pride, playing because they love football and like playing for Cumberland High School. You don’t find that often.”
Credit also has to go to sophomore Trent Vasey, who took over quarterbacking duties two weeks ago.
“He’s done a good job as a sophomore. He can carry the football. He can manage the offense,” Skurka said. “The kids have really rallied around him and done a good job.”
If the game does turn out to be a nail-biter, the Clippers have an added weapon in standout kicker Chad Bacon, who has been nearly flawless on extra-point attempts and has booted three field goals, including a 41-yarder.
“It’s a great thing to have to rely on your kicking team sometimes,” Skurka said. “Obviously, he has done a great job for us. If I had to put him on the football field to kick a field goal, I feel like we are in good position for that.”
Even if everything goes as planned, the CHS coach still knows it’s going to be tough to stop the talented Novans.
“We have to go out and manage the clock the best that we can, play mistake-free football and just do the best that we can,” Skurka said. “They are a very good football team and it will take us a lot to beat Woonsocket. We have to go out and feel like we have to do everything we can to win the game.”