For the eight football teams that succeeded in qualifying for the Division II postseason, the objective is crystal clear – survive to play the Tuesday following Thanksgiving.
Of the three local participants, only one team is guaranteed a coveted spot in the semifinals. Woonsocket and St. Raphael will lock helmets in a quarterfinal-round clash at Pariseau Field come 6 o’clock Saturday night. Meanwhile, Cumberland rolls out the welcome mat for Westerly, which ventures to Tucker Field Friday.
The Saints head into the playoffs as the No. 2 seed in II-B while the Novans are the third seed from II-A. Their side of the bracket includes No. 1 II-A Johnston and No. 4 II-B Central. The Knights travel to Johnston on Friday.
Cumberland and Westerly are paired with No. 2 II-A Mt. Hope and No. 3 II-B West Warwick. The latter two squads will meet Saturday night in Bristol.
There is some recent history between SRA and Woonsocket. The two squads resided in the same Division II subdivision for the past two seasons, the Villa Novans pinning a 16-0 shutout on the Saints in 2010 while St. Raphael returned the favor in 2011, romping to a 33-0 final.
Even though the personnel for both teams has changed since meeting last, each head coach – SRA’s Mike Sassi and Carnell Henderson of Woonsocket – was asked Monday afternoon if there’s anything scheme-wise that can be gleaned that would benefit the sides when forming a game plan.
“They seem to have a lot of kids back from last year’s (Woonsocket) team,” said Sassi. “They were young last year. Obviously their running back (senior Jalen Evans) is as good as there is in Division II, so we have to worry about him.”
“I know they still have an athlete over there that makes plays for them both running and catching,” stated Henderson, referring to Saints senior Charles Correa. “It’s still early in the week as far as (finalizing strategy), but as of right now, I know their team is going to be disciplined and well-coached. From that perspective, you know what you’re going to get. Now it’s a matter of looking at them on film.”
For the third consecutive season, the Saints finished league play at 5-2. In the past, the mark resulted in a No. 3 seed and a subsequent first-round road playoff game. This time, 5-2 was solid enough to land St. Raphael a home date, as Saturday will serve as the program’s first home playoff game since 2007, when as a Division I member, the Saints held on for a 7-6 semifinal win against Cranston West.
“One of the reasons why we wanted to play at Pariseau is that it’s a reward for the kids and one last chance to play on that field,” Sassi acknowledged, as his team will play its Thanksgiving Eve game inside McCoy Stadium against Moses Brown.
The Saints will carry a four-game winning streak into Saturday’s tilt. Sassi said some major soul-searching took place the Monday following a humbling 28-0 loss to Cumberland back on Sept. 29. At the time, St. Raphael was 1-2 in league play, having dropped two straight.
“We had a big meeting regarding how poorly we were doing up until that point when dealing with adversity,” Sassi recalled. “I’m so proud of how the kids have been able to move forward. The game against Central [a 14-10 win on Oct. 5 that featured a late goal line stand by SRA’s defense] showed a lot of character and started the winning streak we’ve been on.”
While SRA is a team clearly on the rise, Woonsocket has been forced to withstand a rash of injuries that has forced Henderson to shuffle the deck. During the closing stages of last Saturday’s 21-8 Novan win against Coventry, senior Jaston Robinson went down with a right knee injury while carrying the ball that resulted in the senior getting taken out of Barry Field in an ambulance.
“They were trying to schedule an MRI for him (Monday). Once that happens, we’ll see if there’s any ligament damage and go from there,” said Henderson, whose Woonsocket unit are already down one significant playmaker in D’Andre Thomas (high left ankle sprain).
Undefeated Cumberland (7-0) enters the postseason as a team that’s been lethal on both sides of the ball. The 236 points the Clippers scored represents the second-most in the league behind Johnston’s 270. Defensively, Cumberland surrendered a Division II-low 41 points.
As the head coaches from all the participating teams will attest to, what took place during the regular season is now ancient history. Translation: Westerly, a squad that went 4-3 in II-A, stands on equal footing with Cumberland despite the substantial difference in win-loss records.
Thanks to Exeter/West Greenwich’s 34-14 setback to Hope last Saturday, North Smithfield officially qualified for the four-team Division IV tournament. This marks the third consecutive season that head coach Wes Pennington and his staff are taking the Northmen to the playoffs.