FOSTER — Home sweet home? For Ponaganset, home has been anything but sweet this season.
In their first two games on The Reservation, the Chieftains lost heartbreakers to the Division II-B’s top two clubs, West Warwick and Tolman. The Wizards rallied for 14 fourth-quarter points to eke out a 14-12 triumph, and the Tigers used three touchdowns in the second half to grab a 21-14 victory.
On Saturday afternoon, the Chieftains suffered another agonizing loss before a big “Senior Day” gathering, and this one stung a whole lot more than those other defeats.
St. Raphael scored a pair of touchdowns and turned up the heat defensively in the final 7:02 of play to bus home with an exciting 29-23 victory that not only clinched a spot in the upcoming playoffs, but stuck a dagger in the Chieftains’ postseason hopes.
A win by the Chieftains, coupled with Mount Hope’s victory over Pilgrim the previous night, would have improved their league mark to 4-3 and created a three-way tie for third place in the standings between them, the Huskies, and the Saints.
The Chieftains would have seized the II-B’s third seed because it would have had wins over Mount Hope and SRA in their back pockets, and the Huskies would have earned the fourth seed because their 12-8 win over the Saints last weekend gave them that head-to-head tiebreaker.
Instead, it’s the Saints (5-2) who will be the third seed in the quarterfinals that get under way next week, and the Chieftains (3-4) who will be on the outside looking in.
“We were this close,” admitted Ponaganset head coach Brian Gendreau. “I’m proud of my guys because they played hard. We play tough here at home, but it just seems like these games have been a little bit longer than you want them to be.”
The Chieftains held a 17-7 lead at the break thanks to a two-yard touchdown run by Scott Peterson with 1:51 to play in the first half, and after a three-and-out by the Saints, a 33-yard field goal by Peterson with 3.9 seconds to go.
Both teams traded touchdowns at the start of the third quarter, but after a two-yard TD run by Dylan Gadbois with 5:49 on the clock helped give the hosts a 23-14 command, the Chieftains’ offense sputtered on its next four possessions and went three-and-out on its next three.
The Saints cut their deficit to 23-21 with 7:02 left in the game on a one-yard scoring run by Pat Miranda and quarterback Julian Diaz’s third extra point of the contest, and after the Chieftains went three-and-out on their ensuing drive, the Saints tried to strike for the go-ahead points with 4:35 to play.
On six plays, they brought the ball from their 42 to the Chieftains’ 17, but on the following play, Diaz was intercepted by Connor Mathieu at the goal line, and the hosts had the ball on their 32 with 3:01 on the clock and appeared to have the game locked up.
Unfortunately for the Chieftains, they found themselves giving the ball back to the Saints 33 seconds later after three running plays netted just eight yards. But the Saints burned their three time-outs during that possession to stop the clock, and when punter Sam Fasano pinned them on their own 13, it looked like the visitors were again in trouble.
But they weren’t. On their first two plays, Diaz scampered for a long run and completed an 11-yard pass to tight end Davon Robertson to move the ball to the SRA 45.
Diaz (who ended the game completing 12 of his 26 passes for 209 yards) then tossed an incomplete pass, but struck gold on the next play when he located SRA standout Charles Correa with a 55-yard bomb along the hosts’ sideline.
Correa reeled in the long pass at the Chieftains’ 15 despite the tight coverage of Ryan Siner, who then tried to make a diving shoestring tackle at the 7, but only managed to trip up Correa as he dove into the end zone.
“This team can throw the ball,” Gendreau noted of the Saints. “They run their waggle to perfection and they drag those guys over the field, and if you’re not watching, they’re dumping (the ball). And their intermediate routes killed us today. They hit a lot of passes (on those routes).”
Correa then caught a two-point conversion pass from Diaz with a diving grab, and with 1:36 to play, the Saints had the lead and the momentum.
The Chieftains had one last chance to strike when they returned the ensuing kickoff to their 29 and still had two time-outs left. But on their very first play, quarterback Chris Larrabee was sacked by two defensive linemen and fumbled the ball, which the Saints’ Tom Hurley recovered to ice the victory.
While the defeat was very tough to digest, Gendreau offered a valid reason in his post-game thoughts why his team have endured their second-half struggles during some games this season.
“What you see at the end of a game, and what I’ve seen all year long, is our lack of depth,” he said. “We get tired. It’s late in the fourth [quarter] and you can see it on their faces. They’re giving everything they got, but it’s just that they‘re out of gas.
“You look around and you say, ’Who do we have to give so-and-so a break?’ but we don’t have that second-stringer we can just pop right in.”
Gendreau did had a few two-way players deliver solid performances, such as Gadbois, who ended up running for a season- and team-high 81 yards on nine handoffs and had some big carries on the drive that led up to his touchdown.
“Dylan stepped up,” said Gendreau. “He ran a lot and did really well between the tackles, and we needed those bursts up the middle.”
And Fasano, who helped Ponaganset tie the score at 7-7 2:31 into the second quarter with a nine-yard touchdown run, also did a little bit of everything. He added a 42-yard punt late in the third quarter that pinned SRA on its own one, and he intercepted a pass from Diaz on the Chieftains’ 33 in the same quarter.
But the player of the game was undoubtedly Correa, who has 16 touchdowns this season and found every which way to get into the end zone.
His 11-yard run 2:45 into the game gave the visitors a quick 7-0 lead, and in addition to his outstanding game-winning TD grab, he opened the second half with an electrifying 90-yard kickoff return that saw him misplay the ball at the SRA 10, but turn around and break free toward the end zone.
“He’s unbelievable,” said Gendreau. “He’s out of this world. Whether he’s running the ball or catching it or he’s on a kickoff return, it doesn’t make a difference. He’s just so fast and so athletic, and he’s very tough to handle.”