North Smithfield head coach Wes Pennington. (Photo/Ernest A. Brown)
When last we saw Wes Pennington and his North Smithfield football troupe, the Northmen were set to embark upon an unprecedented double bye that would encompass three whole weeks between games.
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Such an extended furlough brings up the â€śrest vs. rustâ€ť conundrum that the Detroit Tigers had to wrestle with prior to getting ushered out of the World Series in sweeping fashion at the hands of the eventual champion San Francisco Giants. With that serving as the backdrop, how did Pennington and his assistant coaches navigate a tight rope that would strike a balance between down time and revving up to play meaningful football once again?
Come Friday night at Smithfieldâ€™s Boyle Athletic Complex, break time is officially over when the extremely well-rested Northmen face the host Sentinels in a spicy Division IV matchup, one that figures to go a long way in solving the leagueâ€™s postseason riddle. North Smithfield stands at 3-2, a mark that would earn Pennington & Co. the three seed if the season ended today. Conversely, you have a 3-3 Smithfield squad thatâ€™s presently residing on the outside of the playoff fence.
The buildup for tonightâ€™s clash has been such a long time coming for N.S. that it must be hard to believe that the day is actually at hand. The prolonged layoff, which officially commenced following a 57-8 demolition of the PCD Co-op juggernaut on Saturday, Oct. 13, gave way to a mixture of rest and practice along with taking care of business in the classroom.
During the two weeks in which the Northmen didnâ€™t have a game to prepare for, Pennington adhered to a two-off, three-on practice schedule. Players and coaches stayed apart on Mondays and Tuesdays before reconvening Wednesday through Friday. Naturally the head coach envisioned the week leading up to the Smithfield game as a full week of practice/preparation time, but that was before Hurricane Sandy threw a wrench into those calculated plans.
North Smithfield didnâ€™t have school Monday or Tuesday. In Penningtonâ€™s eyes, the interruption was greeted with not a shred of panic, considering the players had become accustomed to having those days off anyways.
â€śWeâ€™ve been coming in on Wednesdays and having great practices,â€ť Pennington stated. â€ś(The break) allowed us to make sure we were 100 percent ready to go once we kickoff Friday. Weâ€™re a small team [numbers-wise] and a lot of guys play both ways, so itâ€™s tough when youâ€™re preparing week-in and week-out to spend time going over fundamentals. We were able to do that the first week before focusing on Smithfield the following week.â€ť
One player who figured to reap major benefits from â€śNorth Smithfield Idleâ€ť is Mike Cicerone. The junior made his first-ever varsity start at quarterback against PCD, a move that in turn allowed previous starter Dan Jordan to split to the outside and become more of a downfield threat. In addition, Cam Stone, the teamâ€™s rock-steady kicker, has emerged as another pass-catching option whose speed gives meaning to the gridiron catchphrase â€śtake the top off the defense.â€ť
The impetus for making a switch at QB came after North Smithfieldâ€™s 20-10 setback to defending Super Bowl champ Mount Pleasant the week prior to the PCD game. Pennington had noticed that the Kilties were concentrating extra hard to negate the Northmenâ€™s running attack to the point that eight or nine defenders would line up in the box. The aerial component was in danger of becoming lost in the wash, hence why Pennington was more than ready to move a few pieces around the board and come up with a concoction that would allow North Smithfield to emerge from the one-dimensional perception that Mount Pleasant undoubtedly had.
â€śAfter the (Mount Pleasant game), I realized we needed more speed on the edges, which we do now with Dan and Cam along with Justin York and Peter Keenan. Those are four viable guys going down the field to catch balls,â€ť said Pennington. â€śMike did such a great job (against PCD) that Iâ€™m hoping he can carry the load the rest of the way.â€ť
The newfangled Northmen could also feature a player or two moving forward that wasnâ€™t on the coaching staffâ€™s radar at the seasonâ€™s onset. Pennington acknowledged their emergence stems directly from the countless run of first- vs. second-team scrimmages that helped replicate game-esque conditions during the gap between actual contests.
â€śAt the beginning of the season, usually your first team is way ahead of your second team. As the season goes on, (the backups) are able to better challenge (the incumbents),â€ť Pennington noted. â€śNow our second team is actually rising up and challenging the first team, which in turn is making them work harder. We have some solid juniors and sophomores who now understand whatâ€™s going on and are able to push our starters.â€ť
Having consecutive weekends off presented Pennington a prime chance to scout Smithfield in a leave-no-stone-unturned manner. The problem is that during the two weeks he saw Smithfield in person, the Sentinels delivered two completely different results. Smithfield was blasted by Mount Pleasant, 35-6, two Fridays ago while last Saturday saw previously winless PCD spring a 36-29 surprise on the Sentinels.
â€śIâ€™m not sure who Smithfield is; Iâ€™ve seen them play well against some teams and I saw them (against the Kilties),â€ť was the assessment Pennington offered when asked about the recent perplexing nature of the Northmenâ€™s opponent. â€śIt doesnâ€™t take away from our preparation, however.â€ť
Football coaches usually refrain from taking a bigger picture look, instead adhering to a week-to-week approach that helps keep all parties grounded and focused on the immediate task. That said, Pennington understands that in the context of tiebreakers, Fridayâ€™s outcome will allow one team to head down the home stretch feeling mighty confident about the prospect of playing the Tuesday following Thanksgiving.
â€śIn terms of playoffs and seeding, this is a huge game,â€ť said Pennington matter-of-factly. â€śItâ€™s not a matter of what Smithfield has done the last few weeks. Itâ€™s realizing that theyâ€™re on the hot seat just like us and playing for a playoff spot.â€ť
This weekend signals the end of the regular season in Division II, where the only set-in-stone items are the division winners; Cumberland on the II-B side and Johnston in II-A.
Fittingly, the race for playoff spots 2-4 in each sub-division remains up for grabs, and with it the opportunity for one team in each bracket to join the Clippers and Panthers in hosting a quarterfinal-round contest next weekend. St. Raphael is in the discussion to accomplish just that in II-B while Woonsocket finds itself in the mix in II-A.
The Saints and Villa Novans will carry 4-2 records into their respective Saturday afternoon tilts; SRA hosts winless Pilgrim at 4 p.m. at Pariseau Field while Woonsocket welcomes 2-4 Coventry to Barry Field for a 1:30 start. Each aforementioned squad finds itself in a three-way tie for second place, meaning we could be using tiebreaking terminology such as â€śhead-to-head meetingsâ€ť and â€śdefensive points allowedâ€ť in order to separate the crowded pack.
Woonsocket shares the same record as Mount Hope and Westerly; the Novans beat the Bulldogs, but fell to the Huskies. St. Raphael is equal to Rogers and West Warwick with the Saints posting a 1-1 mark against said foes.
Speaking of West Warwick, the Wizards host a Cumberland team on Saturday that has absolutely nothing left to play for in the regular season, meaning it should be interesting to see how Clippers head coach Chris Skurka approaches the task at hand.
As for other clashes this weekend: In Division I, Tolman (2-5) welcomes 0-6 South Kingstown for a Saturday 3 p.m. contest at Max Read Field. The game was originally slated for Friday at Pariseau Field but was pushed back a day in order to give the Rebels additional time to regroup following the hurricane.
One week after garnering its first league win, East Providence (1-4) aims to slow down 4-2 and playoff-bound Portsmouth Friday at Pierce Field.
In Division II-B, Shea will attempt to put an end to its three-game losing streak against league opponents Saturday night at 6 oâ€™clock when 1-5 North Kingstown treks to Max Read Field. The Raiders are 2-4.
In Division III, Burrillville hopes to build off its first league triumph when the Broncos (1-4) venture to Providenceâ€™s East Side for a matchup against 4-2 Moses Brown on Saturday. At 0-6 in league play and 0-7 overall, Lincoln seeks to break into the win column when 2-4 Classical pays a visit to Ferguson Field on Friday.
Finally, in Division IV, Central Falls (2-4) will be put to the test when 6-0 Mount Pleasant stops by Macomber Stadium Friday.