CRANSTON — In many ways, the tenor of these Governor’s Cup clashes, pitting the top high school football seniors in Rhode Island and Connecticut, resembles that of a typical “big brother, little brother” exchange.
Try as little brother may, big brother puts him in his place every single time, reminding the younger sibling that there’s a chain of command he needs to adhere to. Going back to the main topic at hand, it seems “big brother” Connecticut enjoys the perks that go along with such a distinction, as the Nutmeg State contingent has captured the last nine meetings against their counterparts from the Ocean State.
The 14th edition of this “Border War” tussle is set for this Saturday night with University of Connecticut’s Rentschler Field serving as the backdrop. It remains to be seen whether the status quo reigns supreme or for a refreshing change of pace, the R.I. representatives actually win a game in this more-often-than-not lopsided series.
The current cast of locals, under the direction of Cumberland High head coach Chris Skurka, may not have any firm ties to this all-star clash, which represents a one-shot deal for a group that only a few weeks ago were receiving high school diplomas.
That said, they understand that Connecticut has owned the upper hand for almost a decade, and nothing would bring them more joy than going into the books as the squad that reversed the trend.
“I know we haven’t beaten them in a few years, but this team can take that next step,” states Tolman’s Homlin Taylor, who as a cornerback is being asked to anchor Team Rhode Island’s secondary. “Everyone has been putting in the time and effort. By doing that, we’ve come together as a team and as a family and I really think we can go get this.”
Added St. Raphael’s Davon Robertson, one of four team-appointed captains, “We represent Rhode Island football and we have to care about that compared to ourselves. I want Rhode Island to be looked at as fertile ground for football.”
Taylor and Robertson are two of several local players on the roster, which – according to Skurka – was as high as 50 participants before settling on its present 41-player count. Robertson is one of five St. Raphael players, along with Tom Hurley, Zach Mays, Patrick Miranda and Cory Tweedie.
Taylor and Andre Gilbert are the Tolman representatives with Jamal Tucker (Shea), Kevin Deschamps (Burrillville), Jalin Braxton (East Providence), Victor Adewusi (East Providence) and Mitchell Gaboury (Cumberland) also on the team.
While the goal is to get every player a good amount of snaps, Skurka admitted that the idea of this being a friendly all-star game gets thrown out the window should Saturday’s clash develop into a white-knuckle affair.
“If there’s a hot hand and we’re in a position to win the game … it’s kind of important for the state of Rhode Island to come out and compete in this game,” Skurka said prior to Thursday’s practice at Cranston West High. “The players understand that it’s a football game that Rhode Island needs to put its best foot forward.”
In order for that to come to fruition, players who are used to a certain scheme and system must unite under one umbrella – in a timely fashion no less. Thursday marked the 10th practice held with Friday representing a travel day of sorts along with any fine-tuning that can be done in a typical walkthrough setting.
“The challenge with the all-star team is to take on a group of kids who have been successful at their schools and implementing a new system on both sides of the ball,” Skurka explained. “We’ve definitely made a lot of progress since June 18 [the first day the Rhode Islanders held practice].”
While there are no restrictions on offense, Skurka mentioned that the defense is sort of handicapped due to a number of rules that are designed to level out the playing field.
“There’s no blitzing on first or second down, but you can blitz on third down. There are certain coverages you can’t play,” revealed Skurka. “It’s an adjustment that everyone has to make.”
The other challenge for Skurka and his assistant coaches to decipher is to take players who may have been two-way performers for their high schools and make them concentrate on a specific side of the ball. Tomlin and Roberston are two players who fit such a description. With the Tigers, Tomlin would take handoffs at running back in addition to his cornerback duties.
“I had to pick a position that I knew I had to be good at,” remarked Tomlin, who this fall will attend Mount Ida College in Newton, Mass.
In Robertson’s case, the double-edged sword of being both a prolific pass-catching tight end and a defensive end has been placed in its holster. With the R.I. gridders, Robertson has been lining up on the edge, the hope that his quick first step will allow him entry into Connecticut’s backfield.
“We only have four ‘D-linemen’ at this point,” said Robertson, who will head to New Hampshire’s Philip Exeter Academy, a prep school.
Then there’s the realm of preparing for an opponent without the aid of film study.
“We have tape from previous years and can kind of make assumptions off of that, but at the beginning of the game, it’s sort of a crapshoot,” Skurka said. “You can kind of research the head coach, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to run the same system he did during the regular season. That’s what makes it an all-star game; you’ve got to adjust on the fly.”