PAWTUCKET — It’s a long journey from early September to late November for most football teams. Very few have covered as much distance as the 2010 St. Raphael Academy football team.
The Saints, who dropped down from Division I this year, opened their Division II-B season with a 37-0 loss to Tolman that had been a long time in the making for the Tigers, who were on a mission that night. Two weeks later, the Saints dropped a 16-0 decision to Woonsocket and seemed dead in the water.
What everyone missed was the fact that SRA opened its league schedule against the two best teams in Division II. Tolman would go 7-0 and Woonsocket would finish 6-1. The Saints won their last four league games and earned a berth in the playoffs with a 5-2 record, then beat Johnston in the playoff quarterfinals. They will now face Tolman in the D-II semifinals on Nov. 30 at Max Read Field.
Saints coach Mike Sassi and his staff took a few moments to reflect on this rewarding season before beginning preparations for their Thanksgiving Eve non-leaguer against Johnston, the same team the Saints beat in the D-II quarterfinals by a crazy 56-50 score.
“One thing we reflected on last week,” Sassi said, “is how impressed we have been by the kids. When we were 1-3 on the season, everyone counted us out. We had a fork stuck in us by late September. But the kids kind of cocooned themselves. People wanted to break down our family. The players came closer together, and that is what got us through.”
The Saints had been overscheduled early, especially with their non-league season opener against Division I power Hendricken, a 27-0 loss that got the ball rolling in the wrong direction. Hendricken finished its league season unbeaten and is the best team in the state.
After getting shut out the following week against Tolman, the Saints junked their spread offense and went back to the Wing-T.
“We still try to spread out the field on offense,” Sassi said, “but once we went back under center, that gave us more balance between the run and the pass. We’re around 50-50 now. Our biggest problem with the spread was we weren’t running the ball very well.”
That changed with a 29-12 victory over Pilgrim in the third week of the season. Then came Woonsocket and a stifling defense that shut the Saints out for the third time in four games. (Woonsocket would allow only 20 points in 7 league games.)
This would have been the time for the Saints to lose confidence in each other. Instead, they regrouped and pulled out a 27-21 win over a mediocre West Warwick team that gave them some hope.
Again, the schedule-maker dealt them a tough opponent, this time a non-leaguer against Division I contender Cranston West. The Saints absorbed a 39-13 loss.
They would then win their next three games, opening some eyes with a 20-16 road victory over 2009 Super Bowl finalist Mount Hope that left the playoff door slightly ajar. When SRA followed with a 21-0 victory at Toll Gate, the slow-starting Saints had clinched a playoff berth.
“I think we started showing improvement during our loss to Woonsocket,” Sassi said. “Our senior leaders took charge. Guys like Ricardo Pognon, Jean Charles, Patrick Miranda and Trevor Vasey really began to lead the team.
Pognon, a physical running back, has gained 692 yards rushing on 100 carries, giving his team the type of toughness on the ground it needed to balance the passing skills of quarterback Vasey, a 6-foot-6 kid with the big arm. Vasey has completed 82 of 163 passes this season for 15 touchdowns (and 11 interceptions).
“For a kid his size, Trevor has very good mobility,” Sassi said. “Trevor can throw on the run, and he can throw very well when he’s running to his left. His level of confidence has grown every week.”
Linebackers Pognon, Charles and Miranda lead the team in tackles. Defensive ends Devin Robertson and Chris Ventura have combined for seven sacks this season.
“In general, our defense has been flying to the football,” Sassi said. “I can’t say much about our defense against Johnston the other night. They have been the strength of the team except for that game.”
The Saints would seem to have little motivation against Johnston, which will be thirsting for revenge after losing an epic playoff encounter.
“Our goal is to keep our momentum going,” Sassi said. “There is room for improvement. We need to fix the mistakes we made the last time against Johnston, especially on the defensive side.”
Sassi said his team will be playing to win on Thanksgiving Eve and won’t be resting anyone, even with the Tolman playoff game looming six nights later.
“I would be crazy not to play my starters,” the coach said. “We have told the kids they will play until they’ve got all their work in. It will have been 16 days since we played a game. We need the work.”
Work is one thing the 2010 Saints haven’t shied away from.
“Some teams want to bail and point fingers when they are losing,” Sassi said. “This team became closer.”