EAST GREENWICH — Not quite 20 hours after Cumberland High had crushed West Warwick, 48-14, in a R.I. Division II grid semifinal, head coach Chris Skurka and his staff sat in a classroom far above the Wellness Center gym floor on Thursday afternoon planning for their next – and final – opponent of 2012.
That will be Woonsocket, which – with a 27-0 pasting of Central, also Wednesday night – earned the right to face the top-seeded Clippers in the D-II Super Bowl at East Greenwich High’s Nick Carcieri Field at noon Sunday.
When asked about the journey his squad has traveled this fall, Skurka recalled his feelings during “two-a-day” workouts back in August.
“I knew we had a good team because we had a lot of returning guys who had made it to the semis last year,” he said. “We had eight starters back on both offense and defense, so our first goal was to rectify what happened last season, when we lost to Chariho down at their place.
“We wanted to get home-field advantage this season,” he added. “We felt that would help matters; we didn’t play very well down there, so (home field) was one of the goals we achieved. The other was to win this semi, which we did (Wednesday) night, and we did very well.”
Against the Wizards, Skurka’s crew had built a 14-0 cushion, but then allowed quarterback Kody Greenhalgh to complete a 45-yard aerial to Trevor Lawton early in the second quarter. Ross Coffua scored on a five-yard plunge the very next snap, and West Warwick seemed to be back in business.
Mere seconds later, however, senior Mitchell Baxter returned the ensuing kickoff 60 yards for the TD, and Tyler Calabro booted the PAT to make it 21-6. The Wizards never recuperated, as Cumberland rattled off 20 more points in the period and took a 41-6 lead at the break.
It coasted the rest of the way, with Baxter, junior back Joe Fine and senior Dan Stock each registering two TDs.
“The momentum had shifted (in enemy favor), but our kids did a great job of taking it right back,” Skurka noted. “They came out really intense and ready to play. I’ve asked them all year to match the other team’s intensity, or surpass it, and they have. That kick return was a prime example.”
It’s been an amazing ride for the Clippers, who rolled to the Division II-B crown with a perfect 7-0 slate and finished the regular season at 9-1 (the lone blemish a 12-6 opening loss to Cranston West on Sept. 7). In fact, during the campaign (excluding playoff tilts), Cumberland outscored its foes, 307-65, meaning its offense averaged 30.7 points per game, the defense a mere 6.5.
Add in the 41-6 quarterfinal victory over Westerly and the 48-16 thumping of the Wizards, and the Clippers’ points-for and points-against averages moved to 33.0-7.1.
Still, “Big Blue” hasn’t been to the Super Bowl since 2004. The season before, in 2003, Skurka was Frank Iannetta’s defensive coordinator in 2003. After that season, with Skurka having left to become a part of Todd Vasey’s staff at Dean College, Cumberland returned to the title tilt in ’04, only to suffer a tough 20-19 defeat to Tolman.
The Clippers were later deemed the champion after Rhode Island Interscholastic League officials discovered the Tigers had utilized an ineligible player.
“It’s in the books as a win, but we around here don’t talk about that as a championship because we didn’t win the game on the field,” stated Skurka of his initial Bowl appearance with Cumberland (he had served as defensive coordinator under St. Raphael Academy mentor Mike Sassi when the Saints snared the 2007 title clash against Hendricken). “This would be the first time Cumberland had won a Super Bowl – that is, if we’re fortunate enough to win it.
“The thing is, Woonsocket is a very good, solid program.”
As for the Villa Novans, they finished the campaign at 6-3 (5-2 in Division II-A) while averaging 19.7 ppg and yielding 16.2. However, they have won five of their last six, including an incredible 29-28 overtime verdict over St. Raphael at Pariseau Field a couple of weeks ago and Wednesday night’s 27-0 semifinal beatdown of Central under portable lights at Barry Field.
Another positive for Woonsocket: It will be trying to collect its third D-II championship plaque in four years, as it manufactured a 28-14 triumph over Tolman at Cranston Stadium in 2010; the year before, it had walloped Mount Hope, 19-0, at the same site.
As for the fact it has capturing five of their last six decisions, ‘Novans chief Carnell Henderson believes his squad is improving.
And why not? In the semifinal alone, seniors Jalen Evans and Will Andino combined for 246 yards and three paydirts. The defense, on the other hand, allowed the Knights just 167 rushing and passing yards; that courtesy of the outstanding play of senior defensive standouts Seydou Niang, Ryan Lagasse and Brian Cahill, to name just a few.
“We’re getting better at the right time,” he offered. “You know, any season you go into is a process, so I think the guys are getting better. If that’s peaking, then I guess so.”
When queried about his club’s disillusioning 32-0 loss to Cumberland at Tucker Field on Thanksgiving morning, Henderson just said, “They were better than us that day, no ifs, ands or buts. There were a lot of things we didn’t do right, and a lot of things they did do right. We need to fix those problems and just play better on Sunday.
“They’re a very good football team,” he continued. “We’ve got to minimize turnovers and penalties. You’ve got to play near-flawless football to beat a team like that. If we limit the mistakes and maximize our opportunities, I think we’ll be OK.
“We have to control the tempo of the game; we can’t get caught up in playing their style of football but our own. They have a lot of different weapons they can call upon, so we need great to play in all phases, there’s no doubt about that.”
Stated Skurka: “In that (holiday) game, you just live in the moment and coach and play to win. Whether they had a bland game plan, I don’t know. We just go out every game and play football. We don’t worry about what could happen down the road. We play one game at a time.
“We’re going to work on our game plan right now,” he added. “We need to execute in all three phases of the game and concentrate on doing what we do every day, every week. We need to take care of the football and make sure we block and tackle, do the fundamentals well. Then we’ll see what happens.”
That said, he strolled back inside the aforementioned room to run through more “X’s and O’s” with his assistants.