PAWTUCKET --- You would think that a team that captured its league title with a 16-0 record and won 13 of those games by 19 or more points would be an overwhelming favorite to win a state championship.
Instead, St. Raphael is merely one of the schools in a âteams to beatâ group that has its eyes set on achieving Division II glory a week from Saturday at URIâs Ryan Center.
Sure, the Saints are the top seed and fresh off a superb Division II-Central campaign, their first perfect regular season in 14 years. But second-seeded Rogers also went 16-0 for the second straight year to win the East title, and the Vikings won all but one of their games by 17 or more points.
The team that didnât get blown out by Rogers, third-seeded Coventry, went 15-1 to capture the South crown and also had its share of lopsided victories. And to further demonstrate how deep the tournamentâs field is, the next five seeds after the Knotty Oakers each won more than 10 games.
âWe have a tough league,â SRA head coach Fred Saunders noted before his teamâs Monday afternoon practice. âWe knew that it was going to be a tough tournament and it certainly shaped out to be that. But we feel comfortable. If we play the way that weâre capable of playing, we should be fine.â
The Saints will launch the postseason on Thursday at 7 p.m. when they host Mount St. Charles in an opening-round matchup at SRAâs Alumni Hall.
A victory puts the Saints into Sundayâs 6 p.m. quarterfinals at Rhode Island Collegeâs Murray Center against the winner of the first-round game between eighth-seeded Johnston and ninth-seeded West Warwick.
And if the Saints reach the semifinals on Wednesday, March 19, they could wind up facing one of the few teams that gave them fits during the regular season, fourth-seeded Scituate, the North champion.
âI really like Scituate,â added Saunders, whose crew only beat the Spartans by three (41-38) back on Feb. 4. âThey played us really tough. They move really well without the ball, they have a lot of quick guards, and they handle pressure fairly well. Theyâre a very good team.â
When asked about the teams he liked in the tournament, Saunders was quick to mention Scituate first because SRA faced the Spartans during the season, but he didnât stop there.
âRogers has been the class of the division for the last two years,â he added, âso we certainly know how good they are. They have two formidable players on their team, their point guard and their post player. Theyâre going to be a tough matchup.
âCoventry had a great season. They have a 6-foot-2 player, Alyssa Derrick, and sheâs going to be a handful for anybody. And then you have Prout and West Warwick, who played in a strong (South) division, and thereâs Mount Hope. As you can tell, Division II is a very strong league.â
Last season was a splendid one for the Saints, who went 14-2 to earn a share of the Central crown with Moses Brown. But that was overshadowed by the Saintsâ 44-40 loss in the quarterfinals to the Quakers.
Most of the players from that team, such as the Gonzalez sisters, Becca and Danyel, Seun Shittu, and Kaylee Oliver, still remember that loss all too well, and according to Saunders, they donât want to experience that feeling again.
âI definitely know thereâs a sense of relief and accomplishment in going 16-0, but this teamâs certainly looking forward to the playoffs,â he added. âWe want to make sure that we have a much better showing that we did last year. I think the kids have that in the back of their heads, and they certainly want to prove that they were a better team than they were last year.â
Joining the Saints in the Division II tourney is another local team, Lincoln, which at 9-7, is the 12th seed and will bus to Wakefield to battle fifth-seeded Prout (12-4) on Wednesday at 7 p.m. and seek its first playoff triumph in six seasons.
The Lions, who won three of their last four games, will battle the winner of the opening-round contest between the Spartans and 13th-seeded Tiverton in Sundayâs quarterfinals if they upset the Crusaders.
The only other Blackstone Valley team with an excellent shot at earning a berth in the state finals is North Smithfield, which repeated as Division III-North champions and is the second seed in the Division III tournament.
Unless an epic disaster occurs between now and the finals, two-time league champion Juanita Sanchez is expected to be in the title game, and for good reason. The Cavaliers, who have lost just once in the last three years, went 14-0 and won all of their games by 23 or more points.
But who will they oppose? The Northmen, who went 10-2, have a bye into Mondayâs 6 p.m. semifinals back at RIC and will take on the winner of the quarterfinal-round contest between third-seeded Middletown (10-4) and the survivor of the âplay-inâ game between Shea and Rocky Hill.
The Islanders, who have lost to the Cavaliers in each of the last two Division III title games, fell to the Northmen by a 32-29 score back on Feb. 11.
The 8 p.m. semifinal will feature the Cavaliers and the winner of Thursdayâs 5:30 p.m. quarterfinal-round matchup between fifth-seeded Davies (6-6) and fourth-seeded Central (10-4) at the Providence Career & Technical Academy field house.
The Patriots, who are fielding one of their youngest lineups in years, had an off-night in its lone regular-season matchup with the Knights, losing 47-34 on Jan. 28. But they have played well as of late and won their last three, with the big win of the bunch coming last Tuesday against the Northmen, 49-36.
Only one local team is in the Division I field, Cumberland, which went 4-14 and clinched the 12th and final seed thanks to its 45-27 win over Woonsocket last Friday.
Awaiting the Clippers, who are back in the playoffs after a two-year absence, is tonightâs 7 p.m. first-round matchup in South Kingstown against the fifth-seeded Rebels (14-4). S.K. hammered the Clippers, 77-39, in their crossover affair on Jan. 17 in South County.
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