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When push comes to shove during Sundayâ€™s Division II Super Bowl between Woonsocket and Tolman, expect both coaching staffs to put the game in the hands of their defensive units.
Each of these championship football teams depended on their defenses in tough games, perhaps never more so than during their Sept. 24 regular season meeting when the Tigers ground out a 6-0 victory over the Villa Novans.
By the end of the league season, Woonsocket had allowed just 20 points in 7 games. Tolman yielded 28.
â€śDefense is definitely the strength of our team,â€ť Woonsocket coach Carnell Henderson admitted. â€śOffensively, we try to control the tempo of the game but sometimes you can be a little more conservative as a coaching staff, knowing your defense is capable of flipping the field in terms of field position at any time.â€ť
Henderson sees the same philosophy at work when he watches films of Tolmanâ€™s games.
â€śTheir defense plays with a lot of passion,â€ť Henderson said. â€śThey fly around the ball. They are a fast team with a ton of athletes who just want to make plays. Coaching is a bit easier when you have that many good athletes. Dave (Caito) and his staff put those kids in the right places and let them play.â€ť
Caito expects another low-scoring game when these two teams meet on Sunday.
â€śI think it might be a two-to-one game, in terms of touchdowns,â€ť Caito said on Friday. â€śI could see a score of 14-7 or 7-6. Weâ€™re both very good on defense but as coaches we will have to see how the game is flowing. If weâ€™re moving the ball, we might go for it on fourth down at midfield instead of punting. You have to see how the game develops.â€ť
Woonsocket just finished a 21-7 playoff victory over Chariho that saw Villa Novans quarterback Kevin Reyes throw three interceptions in the first half before the Villa Novans took control. Tolman is coming off a 25-12 conquest of St. Raphael Academy in which the Tigers ran the ball on 43 of their 44 offensive plays from scrimmage.
â€śThey donâ€™t have to throw the ball when they are rushing it the way they have been,â€ť Henderson said. â€śTolman went unbeaten in the division, won two playoff games and now they are playing for the state title. Nobody has stopped their running game when it counted. Why should they stop running the ball now?â€ť
Woonsocket gets explosive wide receiver Jesse Charette back for Sundayâ€™s game. He sat out the semifinals with a sore shoulder.
â€śI think Jesse was good enough to go against Chariho,â€ť Henderson said. â€śWe just saw a chance to rest him and we did it.â€ť
Charetteâ€™s presence at wide receiver allows the Villa Novans to spread out Tolmanâ€™s defense. Theoretically, this should open holes between the tackles for sophomore running back Jalen Evans, who surpassed 1,000 yards rushing for the season against Chariho with 102 yards on 24 carries. Woonsocket will also use Orlan Thomas and Edwin Jones as running backs. Both are capable of making big plays.
Tolman counters with a horde of running backs. Senior Ousmane Samb ran for 165 yards against St. Raphael Academy. Quarterback Joselito Knapp is really another running back. He carried 17 times for 83 yards against the Saints. Juan Wilson, Mory Keita and Elvis George also will carry the ball. George limped off the field after re-injuring an ankle against SRA but should be ready to play on Sunday.
Woonsocketâ€™s defense wonâ€™t wear down the way SRAâ€™s defense did in the second half on Tuesday night when Tolman gained 220 of its 283 yards from scrimmage. The Villa Novans are strong and fast and physical.
Woonsocketâ€™s defense begins with the D-Line of ends Geo Heredia and Joe Rodriguez along with tackles Manny Heredia and Desmond Gray. The linebacker corps includes Edwin Jones and Kyle McKellick on the inside. Jarome Robinson and Oswald (Pepe) Torres roam the outside.
Woonsocketâ€™s secondary includes Orlan Thomas, Jesse Charette and Rudy Fernandes.
Tolmanâ€™s defense tends to blitz more often than Woonsocketâ€™s, perhaps to make up for a lack of size, and also to take advantage of the speed of its athletes. The game could come down to a chess match between the opposing coaching staffs as Woonsocket tries to hit quick slant passes behind the blitzing linebackers before Tolman gets to Reyes.
With Sundayâ€™s weather forecast calling for a dry and cold (40 degrees for a high) day, Woonsocketâ€™s passing game could be the decisive factor. Then again, maybe Tolmanâ€™s staff has a few surprise moves up its sleeve.
â€śWeâ€™re not afraid to throw the ball,â€ť Caito said on Wednesday.
The Tigersâ€™ defense matches up well against Woonsocket, beginning with down linemen Jared Battersby and Dion Rubio, two senior leaders who must keep the Villa Novansâ€™ big linemen off Tolmanâ€™s linebackers.
Tolmanâ€™s linebackers are all fast and active, beginning with sophomore Mamour Samb. Ousmane Samb and Andre Gilbert also line up at linebacker. Other key defensive players include Shayne Taylor, Julien Fernandes, Aaron Stone, Rodney Jean-Pierre, Seny Samb and Joselito Knapp.
Sundayâ€™s game could come down to the final drive, just as it did in September when Woonsocket went down the field in the final five minutes but came up short.
â€śFive minutes to go in the game,â€ť Henderson recalled. â€śWe were moving the ball the best we had all game. We dropped a pass. Then we had Jesse (Charette) open and couldnâ€™t get the ball to him. We ran out of downs. They stopped us.â€ť
Both teams have improved in many ways over the ensuing 10 weeks.
â€śWhen the season began, we had some serious questions about this team,â€ť Henderson added. â€śWho are we? That was number one. Whatâ€™s going to be the strength of our team? We knew the potential and ability of these kids but very few of them had played a lot the year before. Oswald Torres and Geo Heredia and Joe Rodrigues played key roles on our Super Bowl team but they were about it in terms of experienced players.
â€śKevin Reyes had never taken a snap from center with the varsity,â€ť Henderson said. â€śJesse Charette missed all of last season with an injury. When we started to win games, the feeling became contagious. It was a matter of getting better each week, knowing the season is a journey. Now we are into the second season and everyone has experience.â€ť
Henderson and his players have answered most of the questions. The defense is the strength of the team. Kevin Reyes can run the offense. Lack of experience is no longer a concern.
Of course, Tolman has answered most of its questions, too. The Tigers and Villa Novans are two similar teams destined to fight for the Division II state title on Sunday. Only one of them can win the game. And when the gameâ€™s outcome is on the line, keep an eye on the two stingiest defenses in Division II.