NORTH SMITHFIELD — It’s never an easy task to go from an 0-9 season to a playoff campaign in just two seasons, and second-year North Smithfield head coach Wes Pennington recognized that last week when he talked about his Northmen’s past, present, and future.
The Northmen are enjoying one of their finest seasons and will be marching to the playoffs for the first time in the team’s 43-year history. Their 5-2 mark was their best record since 1997 and good enough for a third-place finish in the Division IV circuit and the No. 3 seed in next week’s postseason.
They’ve come a very long way from their winless performance in 2008 and one-win season in ’07, and Pennington was quick to point out that it took a successful bridge year by his Northmen last season to help this year’s squad have a season to remember.
“When you go 0-9, there has to be a spark somewhere that ignites something and last year’s team was the spark,” offered Pennington. “They learned how to fight in football games and play with the better teams in the division.”
The Northmen finished last year with a 3-5 mark in the league, but went into mid-November still fighting for the final playoff berth.
And that fighting spirit continued into this year with their splendid season that saw them lead the division in least points allowed per game (12.4) and nearly knock off the top two seeds in the playoffs, unbeaten Mount Pleasant and Exeter/West Greenwich (7-1), during the regular season.
In both contests, the Northmen got off to very slow starts, and despite coming back strong in the second half, they weren’t able to come away with a ‘W’.
“That also shows we’re still young,” admitted Pennington. “Against Exeter/West Greenwich, we gave up 18 points to them before we started playing and we lost by four and had a touchdown called back (with less than four minutes to play) that would have put us ahead in that game.
“In the Mount Pleasant game, we were down 21-0 at halftime and we came back in the second half and outscored them 22-7. If we would have stopped them from scoring their last touchdown in the fourth quarter, we would have won that game.”
While Pennington knows he can’t turn back time and change the fortunes of those losses, he knows his Northmen can take of business in next Tuesday’s semifinal-round game against the Scarlet Knights, and if they win that clash, then possibly in the finals against the Kilties.
“I think both teams know that if they take away a few plays here and there when they played us, the game goes in a different way,” he added. “Maybe because of that, they will go into the playoffs a little bit apprehensive of us and we will go into there believing we can win.”
The Northmen are carrying just 25 players on their roster, but they received contributions from several different players, excellent leadership from their senior tri-captains, Peter Mancini, Dylan Kill and Nathan Lussier, and a few pleasant surprises that have stepped up their play.
One of those surprises is Lussier, who has been a jack-of-all-trades for the Northmen and established himself as one of the league’s premier kickoff returners.
“He didn’t play much until this year, but he’s been a big contributor for us,” noted Pennington. “Nate plays cornerback, he plays wide receiver, he punts for us, and he returns kicks, and it seems like every time he touches the ball, he’s either taking it for big yardage or all the way for touchdowns.”
Another breakthrough performer is sophomore tailback Paris Correia. As a freshman, he was dismissed from the team near the end of the season for breaking team rules, but this season, he has cracked the starting lineup and produced a handful of 100-yard games.
“He came back as a sophomore with more determination,” said Pennington. “He’s saved us in a few games and carried us in a couple of other games. It’s going to be great to see his development over the next couple of years.”
Another first-year starter, senior quarterback Tim Kennett, has also enjoyed a spectacular season, while on defense, Pennington believes he has “the best linebackers in the division” in junior Chris Mancini and sophomore Ryan Masnyk, who also doubles as N.S.’s center.
“Those guys hold our defense together,” he admitted. “Our defense is what it is because of those two guys. Some of the hits and aggressiveness that the defense has all stems from them and they bring it every week. Every game, you see someone on the other team get lit up by one of those two guys.”
While Pennington hopes his Northmen bring out their best in the playoffs, they still have a score to settle on Wednesday night when they host Scituate High in the fifth installment of their holiday series.
The Northmen rolled to a 24-0 victory over the Spartans in their first game in 2006, but since then, the series has belonged to Scituate, which has won the last three meetings and the ’08 and ’09 games by multiple touchdowns.
“When we started (playing) at the beginning of the season, I told the team, ‘There’s a few monkeys we need to get off our backs,’ ” added Pennington. “This is one of those (monkeys), so this is a big game for us, and everyone wants to play against Scituate because they haven’t been successful against these guys.”
On paper, the Northmen are heavy favorites against the Spartans, who enter the game with a 1-8 record (1-6 in the division) and have been outscored by nearly a 3-to-1 margin (297-110), but Pennington isn’t looking past them.
“They’re going to be excited to play us because every kid on their team has had success against us,” he said. “Why wouldn’t they come in with any type of confidence? This is going to be a good game for us to play and it’s going to be a good preparation for what were going to be doing on Tuesday.”