CUMBERLAND â€” If the old adage â€śdefense wins championshipsâ€ť is indeed true, then Cumberland and Chariho should be in prime shape to win their next two playoff games and take home the coveted Division II championship next Sunday.
Both teams finished 1-2 in the 16-team league with the fewest points allowed in division play (the Chargers yielded 73, the Clippers 77), and thanks to their exceptional defenses, either squad hasnâ€™t lost a game since September.
But the latter will change tonight when the two Division II-A foes meet on the Chargersâ€™ field in faraway, obscure Wood River Junction. And while one team will watch an impressive win streak come to an end, the other will advance to Sundayâ€™s Super Bowl at high noon at Cranston Stadium.
The Clippers, who are 8-3 overall (5-2 in II-A action) and enjoying their best season since 2004, will try to reach the finals for the first time since that year, when they lost to Tolman, but were awarded the title the following year when it was revealed that the Tigers used an illegible player in that game.
The Clippers will also try to extend their win streak to eight games, a stretch that began after a 14-7 defeat at home on Sept. 30 to Westerly dropped them to 1-3. Prior to that loss, they were coming off a heartbreaking 20-13 setback at Chariho, which at 6-1, ended up winning the regular-season title.
â€śWeâ€™ve been playing good football,â€ť noted Cumberland coach Chris Skurka. â€śWe were 1-3, but I felt like we were still a very good football team. And the kids, to their credit, stayed focused, and we won our next seven and havenâ€™t really looked back.â€ť
While the Clippersâ€™ win streak is impressive, itâ€™s only the second-best in the division. The Chargers (10-1 overall) have rattled off nine wins in a row after dropping their II-A opener to Westerly, 16-0, back on Sept. 16.
Like the Clippers, the Chargersâ€™ calling card is their defense. Theyâ€™ve been adept at stopping the run and harassing quarterbacks behind a defensive line that features three 230-pounders, and their linebacking corps and secondary have also played very well.
The Clippers also have their share of playmakers. Senior tri-captain Mitchell Gaboury (100 tackles) is the teamâ€™s top linebacker, junior Tom Lararas (six interceptions) leads the secondary, and senior tri-captains Brian Buxton and Anthony Comastra key the defensive line.
Linebackers Joe Fine and Joshua Pizzarello and cornerback Ryan Gaumond have also enjoyed excellent sophomore seasons.
â€śI think thatâ€™s kind of the reason why weâ€™re both in the playoffs,â€ť remarked Skurka. â€śDefense wins championships, and both of us have put pretty good defenses together.â€ť
Offensively, the Clippers have mixed it up with the arm of junior quarterback Brendan Guerin and their multi-headed ground game that features junior Erik Travers, Gaumond, and Fine.
But the Chargers opt to do the majority of their damage on the ground. They have only had 67 pass attempts this season, and their top two running backs, seniors Colton Place (878 rushing yards, 15 touchdowns) and Jordan Cassidy (657 yards, eight TDs), have averaged more than six yards per carry.
When the Chargers have thrown the ball, quarterback Jansen Williamson has primarily gone to wide receiver Brandon Cahoon, who has reeled in 18 of his teamâ€™s 33 receptions and five touchdowns.
â€śObviously, they like to pound it,â€ť offered Skurka. â€śThey like to keep the ball on the ground, and just looking at their stats, they like to run the ball probably around 80 percent of the time. Thatâ€™s one of their focuses, and if we can make them a passing team, then obviously weâ€™ve done our job.â€ť
Stopping the run will be a key for the Clippers. So will be taking good care of the football, something they didnâ€™t do at critical times in their September loss to the Chargers.
â€śWe fumbled on the goal line earlier in the game, and we turned the ball over at midfield a couple of times and gave them great field position,â€ť said Skurka, â€śso taking care of the football is our emphasis, especially with the forecast for rain again.â€ť
While the turnovers left a sour taste in the Clippersâ€™ mouth, so did the gameâ€™s finish, which saw the Clippers use a game-ending, eight-minute drive to bring the ball to the Chargersâ€™ three. But on fourth-and-goal, an incomplete pass in the end zone ended the suspense and the game.
â€śThat was a real close game,â€ť recalled Skurka. â€śBut that a long time ago. All weâ€™re focused on is going down there and playing our best football.â€ť
The other semifinal-round contest will be a couple of exits away down Route 95, as Central will visit Westerly in another matchup of II-A opponents.