WOONSOCKET --- For the third time in the last four years, Woonsocket is heading to the Division II Super Bowl. And the Villa Novans earned that right to advance thanks to two of the things that helped them win the championship in 2009 and ’10 – a strong ground game and a stellar defensive effort.
Senior Jalen Evans and junior Will Andino teamed up to rush for 246 yards and three touchdowns, and the Novans’ ‘D’ limited the Knights to 167 total yards to help produce a 27-0 semifinal-round triumph on Wednesday night under the brightness of portable lights at Barry Field.
This game was actually a close one heading into the final minutes of the third quarter and the Knights (5-6) looking to cut into a 13-0 deficit with a long drive that took them inside the Novans’ 25.
But when Central turned the ball over on downs at the 23, Woonsocket (8-3) responded with a longer drive that absorbed more than nine minutes off the clock and resulted in a two-yard TD keeper up the middle by quarterback Brett Bouchard with 4:02 left in the game that pretty much sewed up the ‘W’.
The win was the fourth in the last five games for the Novans, and they will have a chance to topple the team that handed them their last loss, Thanksgiving Day rival Cumberland, for all the marbles.
The Clippers, who pinned an ugly 32-0 defeat on the Novans last week at Tucker Field, also came away with a 48-14 thrashing of West Warwick last night in their semifinal-rounder back at Tucker. Now the two rivals will clash in an all-Blackstone Valley showdown for the title on Sunday at high noon at East Greenwich High.
“Like I told the guys after that game, I don’t know anybody that’s ever lost in a Thanksgiving matchup and had a chance to redeem themselves,” said Woonsocket head coach Carnell Henderson. “That’s what these guys have and that’s what we have as a football program. We’ll start to get ready for Cumberland tomorrow and tune it up on Sunday.”
One group of players that were ready for the Knights was the Villa Novans’ defense, which limited the Knights to 57 second-half yards, and most importantly, forced them to go 0-for-3 on drives inside the Novans’ 25.
“Our defense did a phenomenal job,” said Henderson. “My defensive coordinator, Derek Grinkin, really tuned up for this game, and as you could see, he put our players in the right spots. It was a bend-but-don’t-break defense, and the first couple times (Central) got down [inside the 25], our kids just dug in and found a way to make a play and get the offense the football back.”
And when the offense had the ball, they made things happen. Thanks to some solid blocking up front by the likes of linemen such as Levi Walker and Shawn Ingram, the Novans consistently won the battles up front and created some quality space for Evans and Andino to operate.
Andino finished the night with one of the best efforts of his high school career, as he ran for 143 yards on 16 carries and capped the Novans’ scoring with a 2-yard touchdown run with 3:13 to play. Evans, who picked up 91 yards on the ground in the first half, ended up with 103 on 22 handoffs and scored the Novans’ first two touchdowns.
“Our offensive line and our running backs did a great job,” said Henderson. “Central has an explosive football team with a lot of weapons, and they showed you that by beating a tough team in Johnston. But we thought we could run the football and control the tempo, and that started with our front.”
The night didn’t get off to a smooth start for the Novans. The Knights opened the game on offense, and on four plays, they moved the ball from their 38 to the Villa Novans’ 14. But the drive stalled there, as two carries and a recovered fumble by Central produced just six yards, and on fourth down, quarterback Leonard Brown’s pass into the end zone fell incomplete.
The Novans scored their first TD on the second play of the second quarter on a 20-yard run around the right pilon by Evans, which came after an unsportsmanlike penalty by Woonsocket pushed them back 15 yards. That capped a seven-play, 71-yard drive that saw Andino open it by breaking off a 48-yard run along the Novans’ sideline and John Poirier tack on the first of his three extra points after the score.
The Knights tried to answer back with a scoring drive of their own, but when they went three-and-out, they were forced to punt from their own 7. But the punt was mishandled by a Novans’ returner, and the Knights pounced on it at their 35.
On seven straight carries, six by tailback Kwame Ireland (who led Central’s ground game with 67 yards on 17 carries), the Knights found themselves with a first-and-10 on the Novans’ 18.
Central picked up three yards on a pair of carries up the middle, but lost nine on Seydou Niang’s second sack of the contest. On fourth down, Brown again tried to find a receiver in the end zone, but his throw was off the mark.
The score remained a seven-point contest until Evans produced his second touchdown on a 1-yard run that he also took around the right pilon with 6:06 to play in the third quarter. That came after the hosts recovered a fumble by the Knights at their 20 on the fifth play of the quarter. Five straight runs brought the ball to the one-foot mark, and Evans took it to the end zone on a pitch to his right.
The game was called to a halt with 1:32 to play in the game after a scrum by both teams near midfield broke out after a carry by a Novans’ player went for three yards. Before that play, the Knights had been called for back-to-back unsportsmanlike penalties.
Once order was quickly restored and both teams marched back to their sidelines, the teams skipped the traditional handshake line. The Villa Novans immediately went to their locker room, but came back out to the bleachers minutes later to celebrate their victory with their fans.