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A dozen teams from the Blackstone Valley will be shooting for the same goal ‚ÄĒ a strong postseason run that hopefully leads them to a state championship ‚ÄĒ these next two weeks when the R.I. playoffs take flight.
In two of the three division tournaments, there are clear favorites ‚Äď unbeaten Barrington High is the team to beat in Division I, while powerful Middletown High leads the way in Division III.
But Division II appears to be wide-open, with a handful of teams capable of rising above the pack and winning the title.
The action begins tonight with a 6 p.m. Division III preliminary-round duel in Providence between Bishop Keough and Juanita Sanchez, but the schedule picks up plenty of steam tomorrow when seven teams play preliminary-round games in their respective divisions.
Here‚Äôs a look at the three divisions and how some of the local teams stack up in each:
All signs point to Barrington as the team to beat, and for good reason. They‚Äôre big, fast, have lots of depth, solid defensively, and averaging a league-best 61.4 points per game.
But Woonsocket coach George Coderre, whose club won the championship a season ago, isn‚Äôt ready to concede the crown to the Eagles just yet.
‚ÄúDon‚Äôt underestimate La Salle or Westerly,‚ÄĚ remarked Coderre. ‚ÄúThey‚Äôre two very good ballclubs. Bay View is maybe just a half step behind them, and Exeter/West Greenwich also has a nice club. There are some very good teams in this tournament and some nice balance up top.‚ÄĚ
The Novans, who finished fourth in the Division I-North with a 10-8 record, will be the only Blackstone Valley team to host a preliminary-round game in this tourney. They will entertain South Kingstown, at 8-10, the fifth seed out of the South, tomorrow at 7 p.m.
The Rebels are coming off an ugly 60-31 defeat to La Salle in their regular-season finale last Saturday afternoon, but Coderre isn‚Äôt putting too much stock in that game.
‚ÄúThey started slowly, but they‚Äôve been playing pretty good basketball over the last month and a half,‚ÄĚ observed Coderre. ‚ÄúThey were a bit overwhelmed by La Salle, but don‚Äôt let that fool you. They have a decent ballclub.‚ÄĚ
La Salle, who at 17-1, is the South‚Äôs top seed, will host Ponaganset, at 6-12, the North‚Äôs eighth seed, tomorrow at 7 p.m., and also on the same day and time is East Providence‚Äôs playoff opener at North Kingstown. The Townies (9-9) are the North‚Äôs fifth seed, and the Skippers (11-7) are the South‚Äôs fourth seed.
‚ÄúI think you have to be impressed with the way Ponaganset has come on lately,‚ÄĚ admitted Coderre. ‚ÄúOnce Leah Lemoine came back (from an injury), it gave them some stability and some senior leadership, and they have some good young talent. They responded and they have played well.
‚ÄúAnd East Providence is another team that is impressive. They also look like they could give a lot of teams a lot of trouble.‚ÄĚ
Also tomorrow at 7 p.m., Cumberland (8-10), the North‚Äôs sixth seed, pays a visit to the South‚Äôs third seed, Exeter/West Greenwich (13-5), and St. Raphael (7-11), the North‚Äôs seventh seed, takes the long bus ride to Westerly (17-1) to face the South‚Äôs second seed.
The quarterfinals will take place on Saturday at Rhode Island College‚Äôs Murray Center, and the semifinals are next Tuesday night back at RIC.
At 17-1, Mount St. Charles has the top seed out of the North and the best regular-season mark among the 16 playoff teams, but unlike Division I, the Mounties or anyone else in the division isn‚Äôt wearing the ‚Äėfavorite‚Äô tag.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs so wide open,‚ÄĚ said Tolman coach Tammy Drape, whose Tigers (9-9) are the sixth seed in the North. ‚ÄúA lot of the teams in Division II seem very similar in many aspects. There just doesn‚Äôt seem to be a clear-cut favorite.‚ÄĚ
Tolman will take on West Warwick (12-6), the third seed from the South, tomorrow at 7 p.m., and if the Tigers top the Wizards, they will face Division II-North rival Johnston on Sunday at 1 p.m. in the first of four quarterfinal-round games at RIC.
‚ÄúI would be very cautious with Johnston, Prout, and West Warwick,‚ÄĚ remarked Drape. ‚ÄúI knew Johnston was going to have a heck of a team and Prout and West Warwick are very good.‚ÄĚ
Burrillville, which won a special ‚Äėplay-in‚Äô game with Central Falls on Monday night, are the final seed out of the North and will look to upset Division II-South champion Prout (16-2) tomorrow at 6:30 p.m. The Broncos have won seven of their last 10 games.
The Mounties, meanwhile, will wait until Thursday to play in their preliminary-round game. They will host Warwick Vets (4-14), the South‚Äôs last seed, in a 7 p.m. matchup.
The Islanders, who dropped down from Division II last year, ruled the division with a 17-1 record that saw them win 12 of their games by 15 or more points.
Defending champion North Smithfield (15-3) is the second seed, and along with the Isles, have byes into next Monday‚Äôs semifinal-round doubleheader at RIC.
The quarterfinal-round game worth watching in this division is Thursday‚Äôs 6 p.m. battle between fourth-seeded Shea (12-6) and fifth-seeded Davies (9-9) at the Raiders‚Äô gym.
Both teams split their regular-season series, with the Raiders evening the score with the Patriots by topping them last Wednesday, 43-33.
If the Koalas (8-10) win tonight‚Äôs preliminary-round game with the Cavaliers, they will return to Providence on Thursday for a 4 p.m. quarterfinal-round affair with third-seeded Central (13-5). The Koalas are enjoying their best season in their nine years as a varsity team.