CUMBERLAND — Labeling the Thanksgiving game between Division II playoff participants Woonsocket and Cumberland as meaningless is utter blasphemy – at least in the eyes of the two head coaches.
Yes, there is the bigger picture to consider, stemming mainly from what awaits each squad upon the conclusion of Thursday’s contest at Tucker Field. Come the following Tuesday, the Villa Novans and Clippers will engage in a game of high importance – a semifinal-round clash that will take place at the respective home fields and determine the field for the Division II Super Bowl.
Of course, Central and West Warwick may have something to say about Woonsocket and Cumberland surviving and advancing to meet in what would be a juicy championship-game matchup. The Knights will travel to Barry Field to face the Villa Novans while the Wizards draw the Clippers.
Coaches like Woonsocket’s Carnell Henderson and the Clippers' Chris Skurka understand that looking past one another is a death trap that’s best left locked tight. You play the team that’s next on the schedule, hence why Henderson is readying his squad to face the Clippers while Skurka goes through a similar process in preparation for the Villa Novans.
In other words, both leaders of young men are stressing the importance of giving this rivalry clash the proper attention it deserves. Such proper spin tactics no doubt stem from the fact that Henderson and Skurka are proud pigskin alumni of Woonsocket and Cumberland, respectively.
The two fully comprehend the tradition and pageantry that comes with soon-to-be 49 years’ worth of gridiron excursions and nothing – not even the fact that Thursday marks the first time in seemingly forever that you have playoff squad pitted against fellow playoff squad – is going to alter the mindset.
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“You know you have a great opponent and thinking anything less is disrespecting your opponent. That will never happen in any program that I’m a part of,” Henderson stressed. “That being said, Coach Skurka is a Cumberland guy. He bleeds blue, I bleed maroon. He’s thinking about Thanksgiving just like I’m thinking about Thanksgiving. It’s a football game that I can’t overlook because I don’t think he’s overlooking it.”
Skurka backed Henderson’s declaration of going full-tilt five days before a season-defining contest with, “We’re going to play to win and I don’t want to change anything. I think you’ve got to live in the moment and play each game as if it’s a game you’re trying to win.”
The win-now approach sheds some light on the competitive spirit that figures to make Tucker Field a beehive of excitement leading up to the 10 a.m. kickoff. Yet, while it’s safe to assume that the key players on each side will see time, it will be interesting to see if Henderson and Skurka opt to scale back the playbook and come out in vanilla formations, understanding full well that they could very well cross paths at East Greenwich’s Carcieri Field come Sunday, Dec. 2.
Better to let the coaches use film from previous games as a means to devise strategy rather than lay all the cards on the table in a game that serves as a prime chance to knock off the rust following a near two-week layoff.
“Knowing we have a bigger picture, and that we’re both in line for the bigger picture, to say that it doesn’t skew things, I would be lying,” Henderson noted. “But I also know what’s at stake.
“There are so many games that are circled on the calendar at the beginning of the year when the schedule comes out. One of them is Thanksgiving,” Henderson continued. “That’s embedded in your mind and you can’t change that.”
All time, Cumberland leads Woonsocket, 27-17, with four ties mixed in. Since Henderson took the reins in 2008, his Novans have won three of the four matchups. The lone exception came last season when Skurka achieved his first holiday triumph in what was his third try.
For all the intrigue that surrounds the latest chapter of Woonsocket versus Cumberland, the coaches are doing their best to block out the external noise.
“Coach (Henderson) and myself both agree that you’ve got to take it one day at a time,” stressed Skurka, summoning a coaching cliché that’s deployed whenever the smell of hype is in the air. “We can’t worry about the future.”
The rest of the area’s Thanksgiving football menu includes the following:
Scituate at North Smithfield, 6 p.m.
Season Records: Scituate (0-7 Division IV, 0-9 overall); North Smithfield (4-3 Division IV, 5-3 overall).
Thanksgiving Series Record: Tied, 3-3.
Last Year: North Smithfield defeated Scituate, 60-13.
What’s at Stake: North Smithfield needs to win in order to keep the pressure on North Providence heading into the Cougars’ game against Smithfield on Thanksgiving morning. In the event of the Northmen and Cougars both win, North Smithfield would head into the Division IV playoffs as the No. 4 seed. A North Smithfield win coupled with a North Providence loss would bump the Northmen up to the No. 3 spot, meaning head coach Wes Pennington’s crew would avoid drawing top seed Mount Pleasant in the semis.
Tolman at Shea (at Max Read Field), 7 p.m.
Season Records: Tolman (3-5 Division I, 5-5 overall); Shea (3-4 Division II-B, 5-5 overall)
Thanksgiving Series Record: Tied, 5-5.
Last Year: Tolman defeated Shea, 7-0.
What’s at Stake: A chance for one side to claim the upper hand in the all-time series standings. For both teams, this game will be their personal Super Bowl, because for only the third time in this series, neither the Tigers nor the Raiders will have a semifinal-round playoff contest to worry about after this one’s in the books.
Moses Brown at St. Raphael (at McCoy Stadium), 7 p.m.
Season Records: Moses Brown (6-2 Division III, 7-2 overall); St. Raphael (5-2, Division II-B, 5-4 overall).
Thanksgiving Series Record: First meeting.
What’s at Stake: St. Raphael embarks on its fourth holiday series since 2001, the list of opponents including Bishop Feehan, Rogers and Johnston. Playoff-bound Moses Brown comes to Pawtucket riding a three-game winning streak.
Central Falls at Lincoln, 7 p.m.
Season Records: Central Falls (3-5 Division IV; 3-7 overall); Lincoln (0-8 Division III, 0-9 overall).
Thanksgiving Series Record: Tied, 1-1.
Last Year: Central Falls defeated Lincoln, 34-0.
What’s at Stake: In what has been declared as his final game on the C.F. sidelines, Mo Jackson looks to go out with what would be his 58th career victory spanning 13 seasons. In Lincoln’s case, a win over Central Falls would go a long way in easing the pain in what’s been a long and trying season.
East Providence at La Salle (at Pierce Field), 10 a.m.
Season Records: East Providence (1-6 Division I, 2-8 overall); La Salle (7-0, 8-1 overall)
Thanksgiving Series Record: La Salle leads 46-35-2.
Last Year: La Salle defeated East Providence, 34-13.
What’s at Stake: A tried-and-true R.I. Turkey Day staple on the R.I. sports scene, La Salle looks to complete a perfect regular season against an East Providence squad that has dropped the last five holiday matchups.
Ponaganset at Burrillville, 10 a.m.
Season Records: Ponaganset (3-4 Division III, 3-6 overall); Burrillville (1-6 Division III, 1-8 overall).
Thanksgiving Series Record: Burrillville leads, 14-12.
Last Year: Ponaganset won, 21-0.
What’s at Stake: As one of the few league games contested on the holiday, the Chieftains and Broncos will look to put on a good show for the fans making the trek to Alumni Field – and those watching at home. Game will be televised live on Ocean State Networks (Cox Ch. 5 and High-definition Ch. 1005).