FOSTER — Ponaganset High may have lost to division-leader Tolman High, 21-14, yet the loss hardly placed a damper on the Chieftains’ playoff outlook.
For one thing, Ponaganset was already a step ahead prior to taking the field Saturday afternoon at “The Reservation.” The Chieftains were awarded a crucial league win earlier in the week when it was revealed that Mt. Hope had used an eligible player during the Sept. 18 meeting between the sides. That day saw the Huskies bowl over the Chieftains by a 34-7 count, but Ponaganset was awarded a 1-0 victory thanks to the original outcome being overturn.
As a result, Ponaganset entered the weekend as one of three Division II-B teams with just one loss, St. Raphael and West Warwick representing the other two. With unbeaten Tolman on deck, Ponaganset was presented a golden opportunity to shake up the division even further.
A win against the Tigers meant a share of first place, but even more importantly for the Chieftains, a win Saturday would have given them the crucial head-to-head matchup that figured to serve as a valuable trump card down the road once seeding is determined.
As poet Robert Burns once wrote, “the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray.” The Chieftains (3-2, 5-2 overall) owned the upper hand against the Tigers for much of the contest, the home team riding the momentum of a blocked punt — Ryan Siner crashed the party deep in Tolman territory with Dylan Gadbois pouncing on the live ball in the end zone for a 7-0 lead at the 7:11 mark of the first quarter – to hold a normally potent Tigers’ offense without a single point in the first half.
Then came the second half, which saw Tolman (5-0, 5-2 overall) explode for 21 unanswered points to grab a 21-7 lead with 7:38 remaining. Now looking at a two-touchdown deficit, Ponaganset put together a 12-play, 81-yard drive that was capped off on a three-yard touchdown from quarterback Chris Larrabee to all-purpose threat Scott Peterson, who was a major thorn in the Tigers’ side.
While Brian Gendreau was pleased that the Chieftains were able to string together a lengthy drive, the Ponaganset head coach revealed afterwards that he wished his team would have scored a bit sooner. The scoring march covered four minutes, 18 seconds as the Chieftains twice converted on fourth down. The second instance came on fourth-and-goal from the Tolman 3-yard line with Larrabee rolling to his left to find Peterson.
“You almost score with an awkward time left,” noted Gendreau about Peterson’s touchdown haul at the 3:15 mark of the final quarter. “It’s almost too soon to try the onside (kick). We had two timeouts left, so we needed a stop or two.”
Now it was Tolman’s turn to feel the heat as the Tigers took over at their own 22 with 3:03 left. The game-ending drive started off with a 12-yard run gallop by Andre Gilbert, who scored on a three-yard run on the Tigers’ opening offensive series of the second half. Gendreau used his second timeout after Tolman running back Mory Keita picked up five yards on first down, then burned his final one after Ponaganset’s defense knocked Tolman back three yards on second down.
Looking at a third-and-eight from the 36, Tolman’s Keita cut through an opening on the left side, turning it into an 11-yard gain that gave the visitors a first down that in essence sealed Ponaganset’s fate with under two minutes remaining.
“We were just banking on our defense to make a big play in the end,” said Gendreau.
Certainly Peterson took care of the big-play department for Ponaganset, the junior finishing with 31 yards on four catches. Defensively he managed to disrupt the Tigers on several occasions with two sacks (both in the second quarter) while hitting Tolman runner Homlin Taylor in the backfield for a nine-yard loss.
“Peterson is a beast,” said Gendreau. “(Assistant coach James) Cook designs some nice defenses. Our alignment really made it for (Peterson) to get a little bit more free than he normally does.”
The Chieftains slowed down the Tigers’ scoring spree when Siner delivered his second big play on special teams. Another block on a Tolman punt attempt gave Ponaganset a new lease on life at the home team’s 38 at 9:50 of the fourth quarter. The Chieftains, who trailed 14-7 at that point, then picked a bad time to turn the ball over, as Larrabee had the ball knocked out of his grasp with a Tolman defender recovering at the Ponaganset 40.
The Tigers then went ahead 21-7 when quarterback Luis Rodrigues hit wideout Justin Otis in stride from 39 yards out. The 39-yard scoring play came after the officials yelled up to the press box to stop playing music while actual plays were taking place. Not a tune was spun over the final 7:38.
Despite the loss, the Chieftains remain in very good shape. It’s possible that Ponaganset can sew up a playoff berth as soon as this Friday at Pilgrim with a home date against St. Raphael set for Nov. 5.
“Having that forfeit win is a gift, but it’s only a gift if you can make something of it,” said Gendreau. “Now it comes down to us finishing strong.
In a nice display, both the Tigers and Chieftains participated in the American Cancer Society’s “A Crucial Catch” campaign, which is designed to raise funds/promote awareness regarding breast cancer. The teams got into the spirit by wearing pink socks with the Tolman players sporting a pink ribbon decal on the back of their helmets.
Also, Caito took up a collection, the end result a $50 contribution that the coach presented the Ponaganset ticket collectors upon Tolman’s arrival.