FOSTER --- St. Raphael Academy is heading back to the Division II playoffs, but in order to earn their berth, the Saints had to survive a royal barnburner on the road with Ponaganset High on Saturday afternoon.
The Saints scored a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns and turned up the heat defensively in the final 18 minutes of play to bus home with an exciting come-from-behind 29-23 victory that not only clinched their berth, but also snuffed out the Chieftainsâ€™ playoff hopes.
The win hiked the Saintsâ€™ Division II-B record to 5-2 and locked up the II-Bâ€™s No. 3 seed, which translates into a quarterfinal-round duel and a long bus ride down Route 95 to Westerly High and the II-Aâ€™s second-seeded Bulldogs. That game is expected to take place on Friday at 7 p.m.
â€śWeâ€™re a little banged up right now, but weâ€™ll find a way,â€ť Saints head coach Mike Sassi added after receiving congratulatory hugs from his two daughters following the win. â€śWeâ€™ll show up and give Westerly all they can handle.â€ť
The loss dropped the Chieftains to 3-4, but for most of the game, it appeared that it would be them who were going to come away with the victory and the third seed and the Saints who were going to be left out in the cold.
The hosts carried a 17-7 lead into the break, and after SRA standout Charles Correa returned the second halfâ€™s opening kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown, they answered with an 11-play, 86-yard drive that resulted in a two-yard TD run by Dylan Gadbois and a 23-14 lead with 5:49 left in the third quarter.
Things soon went from bad to worse for the Saints on their next drive when quarterback Julian Diaz got intercepted by Sam Fasano on the Ponaganset 33 less than three minutes later, but the visitors refused to throw in the towel.
The Saints cut their deficit to 23-21 with 7:02 left in the game on a one-yard scoring run by Pat Miranda and Diazâ€™s third extra point of the contest, and after the Chieftains went three-and-out on their ensuing drive, the Saints tried to strike for the go-ahead score with 4:35 to play.
On six plays, they brought the ball from their 42 to the Chieftainsâ€™ 17, but on the following play, Diaz was intercepted by Connor Mathieu at the goal line, and the hosts had the ball on their 32 with 3:01 on the clock and appeared to have the game locked up.
Unfortunately for the Chieftains, they found themselves giving the ball back to the Saints 33 seconds later after three running plays netted just eight yards. But the Saints burned their three time-outs during that possession to stop the clock, and when a punt by Fasano pinned them on their own 13, they found themselves with their backs against the wall again.
But they rolled up their sleeves and delivered. On their first two plays, Diaz scampered for a long run and followed that with an 11-yard pass to tight end Davon Robertson that brought the ball to the SRA 45.
Diaz then fired an incomplete pass, but with 1:36 on the clock, he struck gold on the next play when he connected with Correa with a 55-yard bomb along the hostsâ€™ sideline.
Correa reeled in the long pass at the Chieftainsâ€™ 15 despite the tight coverage of Ryan Siner, who then tried to make a diving shoestring tackle at the 7, but only managed to trip up Correa as he dove into the end zone.
â€śWe practice our two-minute drill every week and it finally came into fruition there,â€ť said Sassi. â€śWe played from behind almost the whole game, but give the kids credit because they didnâ€™t quit. Even when we turned the ball over with three minutes left, we were still fighting.â€ť
After Correa then caught a two-point conversion pass from Diaz with a diving grab, the Chieftains, who still had a pair of time-outs left, had one last chance to answer back.
They returned the kickoff to their 29, but on their first play, quarterback Chris Larrabee was sacked and fumbled the ball, and the Saintsâ€™ Tom Hurley fell on the loose ball to seal the victory.
That play sealed a fantastic finish to the contest for the Saintsâ€™ defense, who had some problems containing the Chieftains during the first half and the first series of the second, but forced Ponaganset to go three-and-out on their next three possessions after Gadboisâ€™ touchdown.
â€śI give a lot of credit to my defensive coordinator, Anthony Palladino,â€ť said Sassi. â€śWe were getting ripped in the first half, but he did a good job making some adjustments and changing up the defense in the second half.â€ť
There were plenty of heroes for the Saints on this sensational Saturday, from the ones on their defense to Diazâ€™s afternoon behind center (12-for-26 passing for 209 yards) and a three-touchdown day from Correa, who scored the dayâ€™s first points on an 11-yard run 2:45 into the game.
â€śHeâ€™s unbelievable,â€ť Ponaganset head coach Brian Gendreau said of Correa. â€śHeâ€™s out of this world. Whether heâ€™s running the ball or catching it or heâ€™s on a kickoff return, it doesnâ€™t make a difference. Heâ€™s just so fast and athletic, and heâ€™s very tough to handle.â€ť
ST. RAPHAEL, 29-23
St. Raphael 7 0 7 15 -- 29
Ponaganset 0 17 6 0 -- 23
SRA -- Charles Correa 11 run (Julian Diaz kick)
P -- Sam Fasano 9 run (Scott Peterson kick)
P -- Scott Peterson 2 run (Scott Peterson kick)
P -- Scott Peterson 33 field goal
SRA -- Charles Correa 90 kickoff return (Julian Diaz kick)
P -- Dylan Gadbois 2 run (kick failed)
SRA -- Patrick Miranda 1 run (Julian Diaz kick)
SRA -- Charles Correa 55 pass from Julian Diaz (Charles Correa pass from Julian Diaz)