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EAST PROVIDENCE â€” Sandy Gorham has the sentiment of the holiday season down pat â€“ from a football perspective, of course. The veteran East Providence High head coach is thankful that his Townies donâ€™t have the playoffs-at-stake drama thatâ€™s hovering over La Salle Academy heading into Thursdayâ€™s renewal of the longest running holiday sports rivalry between any two Rhode Island high schools.
The equation for La Salle, which comes into the Thanksgiving Day game with a 4-3 record in Division I, is simple. A win and the Rams are in the four-team playoff field, while a loss means they will be watching the postseason from the grandstands.
Gorham doesnâ€™t have to bother with such worries. His Townies are postseason-bound, which he openly admits helps in removing some of the tension surrounding the 82nd encounter between East Providence and La Salle.
â€śThey know their playoff lives depend on a win. They need to win in order to keep playing. Thatâ€™s a lot of pressure,â€ť Gorham said Monday night on his way to the La Salle campus, site of the annual Friendship Dinner held in conjunction with the holiday tilt. â€śHopefully we can play a little looser because we know weâ€™re going to the playoffs either way. It does take the pressure off, but we want to go into (the playoffs) with a win and some sort of momentum. Thereâ€™s motivation for us to win this game also, but itâ€™s a relief knowing that weâ€™re in.â€ť
Itâ€™s often said that a little slice of Rhode Island athletic lore is on display every Thanksgiving morning at Pierce Stadium. La Salle leads the all-time series (44-35-2) and has won eight of the last 10 meetings. East Providenceâ€™s last win came in 2006, a 12-8 triumph that spurred the Townies onto the Div. I Super Bowl.
Itâ€™s always a big deal whenever the Townies (5-2 Div. I, 6-3 overall) and Rams get together in a football setting, regardless of whether the game is attached with playoff ramifications or not.
â€śI expect to face a (La Salle) team thatâ€™s going to come out like caged dogs,â€ť Gorham said.
While the Townies know they are in the playoffs, uncertainty abounds regarding who their opponent will be in next Tuesdayâ€™s semifinals. The third seed and a trip to Portsmouth would be secured with a win over La Salle. A loss would result in dropping to the No. 4 seed and facing undefeated and regular season champion Bishop Hendricken in Warwick. Both of E.P.â€™s league losses stem from falling to Portsmouth (24-12 on Oct. 2) and Hendricken (13-7 on Oct. 22).
â€śI donâ€™t know if we match up better versus one team or another. We seem to play Hendricken very well and Portsmouth is so big that they can give any team trouble,â€ť Gorham said. â€śI donâ€™t think a No. 4 seed has ever beat a top seed to go to a Super Bowl, which would be a tremendous challenge.â€ť
The feats turned in by the core of the Townies â€“ quarterback Robbie Delgado, running backs Jalin Braxton and Dominic Leonardo and tight end/defensive end Dana Andrade â€“ have been well-chronicled this season, the quartet representing a major reason why E.P. can talk about the playoffs at this point in time. To Gorham, the contributions of seniors Joe Faria and Ray Bennett canâ€™t be underscored, especially since both had so much to overcome before football could enter the discussion.
â€śHereâ€™s a kid (Faria) who didnâ€™t play at all last year due to academic issues that he had to straighten out. He came out his senior year after having not played as a junior and realized how much he missed playing football and being part of the team,â€ť Gorham went on to say. â€śIt was really great to see him play and see how much fun heâ€™s having. You realize how important it is for these kids to be part of something. Heâ€™s a success story that not too many know about.â€ť
As for Bennett, another one of E.P.â€™s unsung heroes for 2010, Gorham said, â€śRay lost his father a couple of years ago as a sophomore, and to see him develop into a starter as an offensive guard â€¦ heâ€™s come into his own as a person. Heâ€™s overcome a lot of adversity and has been able to come into his own.â€ť
With serious discussions about installing artificial turf at La Salleâ€™s Cimini Field in time for the 2011-12 school year already underway, there may come a day when Pierce Stadium no longer solely hosts the stateâ€™s premier Turkey Day contest. What could be the dealbreaker is whether the upgrades for the Ramsâ€™ field include bleachers for the visiting fans, something that has helped Pierce Stadiumâ€™s cause in maintaining its status as the primary venue through the years.
La Salle will serve as the home team on Thursday.
â€śI think eventually they would like to get the game to La Salle,â€ť said Gorham. â€śWe havenâ€™t talked about that, but there is an underlying affect that they would like to play their home game at home. I can appreciate that.â€ť