FOSTER — Bad timing may best describe Ponaganset High’s move up to the Division II ranks this season.
Behind a talented core of players that included a pair of all-staters in Nick Keeling and Josh Morgan, the Chieftains captured the last two of the past three Div. III crowns to convince the alignment committee that it was time for a move to the higher division.
The only problem for first-year head coach Brian Gendreau and his Chieftains this fall is Keeling, Morgan and several more of their teammates graduated this past June. Not surprisingly, a rebuilding year turned into a 2-5 league record and sixth place in Div. II-B.
Considering what his squad was up against, Gendreau wasn’t disappointed with how his Chieftains fared this fall.
“It looks like a total loss because of what we have done the last five years. And when you compare it to the last two years, it’s tough to do that,” he said. “We are in a different division where we are playing schools that have players two and three times our size. Plus it’s a rebuilding year where we lost a lot of players from last year. I look at it what coaches say afterwards; coaches that we have faced.”
One of those coaches was St. Raphael’s Mike Sassi, whose playoff-bound team defeated the Chieftains, 27-12, on Nov. 6. Gendreau noted that Sassi was particularly impressed with Ponaganset’s closer-than-it-looks 26-10 loss to first-place Tolman.
“He said what we did against Tolman was so impressive and the same thing against his team,” the PHS coach recalled. “He said how we have a lot of to build on.”
This year’s Ponaganset team, which wraps up its season on Thanksgiving Day against host Burrillville, featured an abundance of players that will be suiting up next year as well. The offense was led by a pair of juniors - quarterback Chris Larrabee and wide receiver Connor Mathieu. There’s also sophomore tailback/linebacker Scott Peterson, junior tight end/split end Will Girard (four sacks) and sophomore lineman Kyle Lussier, who had more than 100 tackles this year.
Three of the Chieftains offensive linemen also consisted of underclassmen.
“These guys were thrown into playing tough competition,” Gendreau said. “It’s so promising for next season. It’s something to look ahead.”
Before looking ahead to next year’s team, Ponaganset will be looking to take care of business in its holiday conquest against the Broncos. The rivalry has been taking place since 1986 and Burrillville leads the series with a 13-11 mark.
But it’s been the Chieftains the last three years that have come out on top, including their 30-19 win at The Reservation last year.
Burrillville, which competed in Div. III this year after several years tough years in Div. II, goes into the matchup somewhat banged up with a few injuries. The Broncos may also have a bruised ego, too.
Burrillville (4-4 in the league) was eliminated from the postseason in its last game on Nov. 12 with a 28-26 loss to Middletown.
Gendreau is well aware that the Broncos latest setback will certainly put fire in their eyes.
“No question about it,” he said. “They were on the verge of making the playoffs and not being able to go in is going to leave a sour taste in their mouths. They want to go out on top, especially the seniors.”
Burrillville offers numerous weapons for the Chieftains to contend with, particularly on offense.
Quarterback Roger Blanchard leads an offense that racked up 192 points in the Broncos eight league games.
“I watched them on film,” Gendreau said. “They run the football well. They pass well. They are well-coached and well-disciplined. They are going to be a tough team….We have to be able to establish the run early in the game. When we have done that we have been successful. We also have to be able to contain their quarterback, he runs extremely well.”
It appears to be a toss up who will leave the field with a victory in this matchup. No matter what, pride will certainly be a motivational tool for both squads.
“For most of the seniors, this is the last time they’ll ever play football. I saw it today,” said Gendreau, earlier in the week. “We had a really good practice. My seniors want it.”
“We’d like to finish on a high note,” he added. “It’s not for me. It’s for the seniors, who have spent four years in the program. This will be their last time on the field. It certainly would be nice to come out on top.”