PROVIDENCE – In his final post-game speech of the season near Conley Stadium's midfield stripe, North Smithfield High head coach Wes Pennington conveyed the following to his kids:
“Keep your heads up when you leave. You guys played your hearts out. Sure, it's a tough loss, but you have nothing to be ashamed of. We're proud of you.”
Neither he nor his staff could have said much else after the Northmen suffered a bitter 31-0 defeat to top-seeded Mount Pleasant High in a R.I. Division IV Tournament semifinal on frosty Wednesday night.
With the victory, the Kilties (9-2 overall, 9-0 league) earned their third consecutive berth in the D-IV Super Bowl come Sunday afternoon at Cranston Stadium. As for Pennington's crew, which lost three of its four fumbles and also was picked off once, it finished its campaign at 6-4 overall after posting a 5-3 league season.
“In the end, I think it was just the turnovers,” Pennington noted later. “But I will say this senior class has turned this program around. They went from one win in the span of two years to being a perennial playoff team the last three. That's why I told them they had nothing to be ashamed of – not at all. We didn't truly expect to win this thing, with Mount Pleasant finishing the season 8-0.
“Then again, we were more than willing to try,” he added with a wry smile.
Though the Northmen were shut out, senior Paris Correia mustered 101 yards on 19 handles, while classmate Daniel Jordan added 50 yards on nine. Junior signal caller Mike Cicerone – who's still learning, Pennington stated – completed only three of 10 passes for 22 yards, and was intercepted once.
On the other side, MP rode the coattails of the Zleh brothers, who accounted for 18 of its 31 points, and senior Montrell Hopper, who manufactured 123 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries. Junior Randolph Zleh rushed for 71 yards and a score on just six carries, while freshman Albert Zleh added seven points via his foot.
Still, North Smithfield trailed only 3-0 after the first quarter, that courtesy of the younger Zleh's 27-yard field goal on the Kilties' initial possession.
On the Northmen's second drive of the contest, it maneuvered into MP territory on Cicerone's 20-yard aerial to junior receiver Peter Keenan, but he lost the pigskin on a tackle at the Kilties' 41.
Thanks to sophomore Mark Keenan's 12-yard sack of junior quarterback Antony Townsend, North Smithfield squelched that possession, then drove into the MP zone yet again before being forced to punt.
With 3:28 remaining before intermission, however, Hopper culminated a four-snap, 75-yard possession with a 55-yard TD jaunt down the left sideline, one in which he broke a minimum of three tackles. Albert Zleh's PAT boot made it 10-0.
At the start of the third stanza, the Kilties exploded for 48 yards on five plays and took the ball to the North Smithfield 19 before Mark Keenan pounced on Randoph Zleh's fumble. On a third-and-14 situation from his own 40, Cicerone found Peter Keenan on a 20-yard toss, but a Kiltie stripped it and the elder Zleh recovered at his own 40.
Following two ill motion penalties, Hopper went off right guard for 34 yards, but Albert Zleh eventually missed a 22-yard field goal try wide right.
Thanks to Correia's 47-yard hustle down the right sideline, North Smithfield gained a first down at the MP 24, though – on the very next snap – Randolph Zleh picked off Cicerone and rambled 84 yards for the score. His kid brother split the uprights on the PAT to make it 24-0 with 7:41 remaining in the fourth.
The Northmen then assembled perhaps its finest drive of the game after Correia's 21-yard kickoff return to his own 47. Jordan actually rushed for three yards to bring the ball to the Kilties' 5, but Cicerone was sacked and fumbled, and Hopper took the miscue the 80 yards for MP's final score.
“On the fumble, I thought (Cicerone's) arm was going forward, but the officials said it wasn't,” Pennington said. “We had the ball deep in Mount Pleasant's territory, but then we gave it right back with the pick.
“I think it's going to take a couple of days for the kids to get over this, but – hopefully – they'll rebound, come back and get right into our off-season weight training and workouts. If we hadn't turned it over so many times, this may have been different, but they have one heckuva team over there.”