PAWTUCKET --- Some Thanksgiving series around this part of New England have usually been predictable, and often lopsided affairs year in and year out, while other series have been ones that you can actually throw out the records and expect competitive games.
The latter has certainly been the case with the Shea-Tolman series, which will celebrate its 10th game Wednesday when the two intracity rivals invade McCoy Stadium for a 7 p.m. showdown.
Five of their nine holiday meetings have been decided by seven or less points, and both head coaches are expecting another hard-hitting battle that should be decided by single digits again.
âItâs a great game for the city of Pawtucket,â Shea coach Dino Campopiano said. âItâs a good game for the kids -- itâs an all-rival game -- and like weâve said in the past, no matter what the records are, this has always been a good, clean game and I donât expect anything less this year.â
For both teams, this game will be their personal Super Bowl, because for only the second time in this series, neither team will have a semifinal-round playoff contest to worry about after this oneâs in the books.
The Raiders (3-7 overall, 1-6 in Division II-A), who have won four of the last five meetings with the Tigers, were eliminated from playoff consideration last month, while the Tigers (6-4 overall, 6-1 in Division II-B) earned a spot in the Nov. 12 quarterfinals, only to lose to Cumberland, 13-9.
More than a month ago, the Tigers would have appeared to be a huge favorite in this holiday meeting. While the Raiders were struggling in the Division II-A ranks, the Tigers captured their first four Division II-B games and ruled the last three by a combined 134-30 score.
But then they hit somewhat of a slide and lost three of the next five contests, and no two losses were bigger than the setback to Cumberland and the 33-19 defeat to West Warwick that gave the Wizards the top seed in the Division II-B playoff bracket and the Tigers the No. 2 spot.
âWe told our kids, âItâs all about pride now,â â said Tolman coach Dave Caito. â âHow do you want to end your season? As a senior, how do you want to go out?â This is the 10th anniversary game, and we want to even this series up at 5-5 and get the trophy back.â
While the Tigersâ stock took a little dip over the past few weeks, the Raidersâ value began to rise a bit following back-to-back lopsided losses in September to Westerly and Chariho that saw both teams hammer Shea by more than 25 points.
A close defeat to powerful Central, a 26-7 victory in late October over league rival Warwick Vets, and a 14-0 shutout of Division II foe Ponaganset 11 days ago started turning around the Raidersâ fortunes.
âAt one point of the season, we thought we were in trouble, as far as internal stuff, but we took care of some problems inside the program,â Campopiano said. âFrom then on, itâs been very enjoyable. The kids are working hard and playing well and Iâve been very pleased with their effort and the turnaround.â
While the Tigers will march out a heavy dose of seniors for tomorrow nightâs contest, a group keyed by tri-captains Andre Gilbert, Darion Stubbs, and Dion Rubio, the Raiders will have just three senior starters, veteran tailbacks Travis Gray and Jamal Tucker and Divanir Pereira on defense.
âAnd thatâs fine,â said Campopiano. âA lot of our younger guys have stepped up and done a great job. This group has rallied around each other, and for the last month and a half, the kids have practiced and played very hard.â
Neither coach offered any specific gameplans to topping their opposition, but the Tigers believe that their blueprint to success is what had been missing for untimely moments in their loss to Cumberland -- assignment football.
âThatâs what weâve been stressing all week,â offered Caito. âDo what youâre supposed to do. Against Cumberland, we didnât play very good assignment football at times. We played good football, but at times, we had breakdowns in our assignments and thatâs how they ended up beating us.â
Before taking the field tomorrow, the two teams will continue their pre-game tradition of meeting the night before the game for a friendly spaghetti dinner at 5 p.m. at Shea. Itâs a tradition shared by very, very few holiday rivals, but one that both schools have maintained since their series began in 2002.
Itâs an event both teams keep circled on their calendars, especially Caito and Campopiano, who played football together at Johnston High in the late 1980s, teach at Shea, and remain close friends to this day.
âI think our dinner is special,â said Campopiano. âI think that has to do a lot with (the athletic directors), Mr. (John) Scanlon and Mr. (Ray) McGee, and the way they approach the situation. We obviously want to win, but I think we keep it all in perspective. Weâll play a hard football game, but weâll also look at the traditions and the friendships and be able to keep that on the field.â
âOur main goal is to keep it clean and keep it between the lines,â noted Caito. âEverybodyâs friends, but once we step on the field, itâs all business. We want to beat the heck out of each other, but after that, weâre friends again, so thatâs the whole theme of the dinner.â
Most of the time, a good pre-game dinner usually translated into a close game the following day that was worth the price of admission. Will that be the case again this week?
âI think so,â said Campopiano. âI think the only two times the scores were a little lopsided was the year Tolman had (quarterback Jeff) Costa [in â04] and the year we had (quarterback) Jermaine (Cabagno), (tailback) Matt (Bryson) and those seniors [in â06].
âI think the kids just come to play no matter what the situation is, and like I said, itâs usually a good game and I hope itâs the same way again this year.â
The only thing that could possibly put a damper on the game is rain, which is in the forecast for Tuesday night and most of Wednesday.
âI donât know whatâs going on with the rain coming,â said Caito. âIf it rains, weâre going to try to get McCoy the following morning, and if they donât let us in, weâre going to play at Max Read at 10 a.m. Weâll find out Wednesday afternoon what theyâre going to do with the game.â