WOONSOCKET — As a vice principal at Woonsocket High, Carnell Henderson appreciates how important a responsible senior class is to the school’s younger students, who watch their older colleagues and see how they handle certain situations.
As head football coach, Henderson knows his team depends upon senior leadership to carry the younger players through some of the tougher moments in a season full of challenges.
With the 2010 season building to a climax over the next two weeks, Henderson feels confident his Villa Novans are ready for the biggest test of their young careers.
“We have had a lot of seniors step up,” Henderson admitted a few days ago. “They understood what our goals and mission were from the start. These seniors have been with me since I became the head coach (in 2008). We have 19 of them on the roster and they have really accepted the responsibility handed down to them by last year’s seniors.”
Woonsocket, of course, is coming off a Division II Super Bowl championship season. Many key seniors from that squad graduated, leaving a gaping hole for this year’s upperclassmen to fill. Players like Joell Sherrod, Kevin Reyes, Joe Rodrigues, Geo Heredia and Oswald Torres have become leaders instead of role players.
“It goes beyond the captains,” Henderson said, speaking of his senior players. “All of our seniors have stepped up this year.”
The Villa Novans finished 6-1 during the Division II-B season, losing 6-0 to unbeaten Tolman back in September. They visit Cumberland on Thanksgiving morning for their regular season finale, then get back to work on Friday as they begin preparations for their Nov. 30 playoff semifinal game at Chariho.
“We are focusing on Cumberland in practice,” Henderson said. “That’s our next game. Our whole thing with this team has been to concentrate on the next game. You can never look past an opponent. You always have to give them the respect they deserve.”
Henderson said he views the Cumberland game as “another chance for us to get better as a team.”
But one wonders, how much better can Woonsocket get? The Villa Novans outscored their opponents 195-20 during the regular season. Tolman (7-0) outscored its foes, 162-28. Both teams obviously are led by their defenses. Woonsocket has achieved a better balance on offense, running the ball effectively and getting nine touchdowns through the air.
If quarterback Kevin Reyes can find elusive wide receiver Jesse Charette in some open space, the Villa Novans can score in a heartbeat. If they want to run the ball, sophomore Jalen Evans and junior Orlan Thomas have emerged as a strong 1-2 punch. Thomas rushed for 144 yards on 17 carries in Woonsocket’s 34-14 playoff win over Central. Evans added 91 yards on 12 totes.
Reyes connected with Reyes for a 37-yard touchdown pass early in that game, establishing the passing threat that makes Woonsocket’s offense so difficult to defend against. Evans opened the scoring with a 35-yard run and Thomas followed Charette’s score with a 39-yard touchdown run.
Not to be outdone, unsung senior Edwin Jones scored on a 35-yard run of his own as Woonsocket built up a 34-0 lead after three quarters against Central.
Combine an explosive offense with a defense that allowed an average of less than three points per game and you get a Woonsocket team that is playing very well at the moment. The Cumberland game offers a chance to keep improving, as Henderson suggested, and to sustain momentum for a team that will have been idle for almost two weeks after the Central win.
The Clippers, who have won five of their last seven six games, will provide a stiff test for Woonsocket. That’s the best scenario possible for the Villa Novans, who need to be pushed hard in game conditions after sitting idle for 13 days.
There will be no excuses when the playoffs resume on the Tuesday following Thanksgiving. Woonsocket will bus down to Wood River Junction and try to defeat a Chariho team that stands between the Villa Novans and a return trip to the D-II Super Bowl.
“Chariho is a big and physical football team,” Henderson said when asked a direct question about the teams remaining in the playoffs. “As a coaching staff, we will look at film of Chariho but our coaching in practice will be entirely on Cumberland. And then when the Cumberland game is over, we will start preparing our players for Chariho.”