Ponaganset football coach Brian Gendreau has developed a good perspective on two of the toughest teams in Division II this season – unbeaten Tolman and once-beaten Woonsocket. His Chieftains have lost to both Super Bowl contenders.
“Tolman is the fastest team in the league,” Gendreau admitted on Sunday, “but I would say Woonsocket is more balanced. They can run and throw the ball. You can see why they played a 6-0 game earlier this season. Both teams have great defenses.”
Tolman won that early-season meeting over Woonsocket in a battle that illustrated the defensive capabilities of both teams. After six league games, the Tigers have allowed 28 points while Woonsocket has given up just 20.
Gendreau’s Ponaganset team “laid an egg,” in the coach’s words, during a 28-0 home loss to the Villa Novans on Oct. 9. The Chieftains, who returned just two starters from last year’s Division III Super Bowl championship squad, then pushed Tolman during a 26-10 loss this past Friday night in Pawtucket.
The Chieftains ran 62 offensive plays to Tolman’s 48. Ponaganset quarterback Chris Larrabee completed only 11 of 31 passes against Tolman but Gendreau counted “seven or eight dropped passes” after looking at the game film on Saturday.
“One thing we noticed in preparing for Tolman,” Gendreau said, “is that Tolman likes to blitz six or seven players on defense. We like to spread the field with our offensive formations and figured we would be seeing some man-to-man coverage but they played a cover-3. That allowed us to throw underneath their coverage in the middle of the field.”
Larrabee, a first-year starter, displayed solid poise in the pocket as he waited for receivers to come open.
“I think Chris and the St. Ray’s quarterback (Trevor Vasey), are the two best passing quarterbacks in our division,” Gendreau said. “Chris is still learning his position and there are things he doesn’t see yet. But he did a good job against Tolman.”
Ponaganset also got 90 yards rushing from sophomore tailback Scott Peterson, a 6-foot-2, 185-pounder who ran through a lot of tackles attempted by the smaller Tolman defenders.
Ponaganset was able to run the ball effectively behind the left side of its offensive line, which is manned by 6-foot-4, 300-pound left tackle John Greenhalgh, and 6-foot, 260-pound guard Nathan Gould.
“We could run the ball because Tolman was laying back on defense,” Gendreau said. “We would send a man in motion and they would have to cover him. That gave us a numbers advantage in our blocking schemes. If you watch the film, you see that we ran the ball pretty well behind the left side of our line.”
Ponaganset failed to finish three long offensive drives, succumbing to the pressure defense and hard hitting by Tolman’s defensive team. But the Chieftains may have discovered the formula for playoff teams hoping to knock off the Tigers -- run the football, spread the field and pass the ball often enough to keep the linebackers and d-backs honest.
And last but not least: Try to prevent big plays by Tolman’s speedy offensive backfield.
“Their quarterback (Joselito Knapp) is unbelievably fast,” Gendreau said. “Tolman has so much speed coming out of their backfield. They can break a big play from anywhere on the field, and that’s what you have to watch for.”
Tolman ran for 347 yards on 47 carries against Ponaganset. That’s seven yards per carry. But the Tigers only threw the ball three times. They got several runs longer than 20 yards from halfback Ousmane Samb and Knapp. Senior halfback Juan Wilson broke the longest run of the game, a 49-yard touchdown that gave the Tigers an 18-3 lead in the third quarter.
“You can sit on Tolman’s running game,” Gendreau said, getting back to the Tolman-Woonsocket comparison. “Woonsocket can run the ball and they can throw it, too. They have a couple of wide receivers who can make big plays. That No. 10 (Jesse Charette) can take a quick pass over the middle and break it 30 yards or more. He is really an outstanding player.”
Gendreau can also take pride in what his young team is accomplishing this season after moving up from Division III.
“When we played Toll Gate in our league opener, we weren’t ready for the speed of the game,” the coach said. “This is a team that lost 17 seniors to graduation, including three all-staters. But there’s a lot of talent on this team.”
Just about any team in the state would find a spot for Greenhalgh and Gould on the offensive line. They play both ways for Ponaganset. The Chieftains boast another quality two-way player in senior Ethan Walsh, an excellent receiver and defender who also kicked a 32-yard field goal against Tolman, clearing the posts with plenty of distance to spare.
“We always said this would be a rebuilding season,” Gendreau admitted. “I am pleased with our progress, especially playing up in Division II. We have a lot of underclassmen who are making big contributions to the team.”
Ponaganset returns to Pawtucket on Saturday for a 4 p.m. game at Pariseau Field against St. Raphael Academy. The Saints are 4-2 in league play and heading to the playoffs, even though they started their season with a 37-0 loss to Tolman.
“They’ve come a long way since that game,” Gendreau admitted. “Our team has improved a lot, too, since the beginning of the season. We each have a good passing quarterback. It’s going to be an interesting game.”