PAWTUCKET -– It’s just a natural fit, having Tolman and Shea as Thanksgiving rivals. The holiday series may still be in its early stages — Wednesday night at Max Read Field marks the ninth installment, with each side winning four — but the way the two sides appreciate what the game truly means, it’s as if the Tigers and Raiders have been doing this for many moons.
For that, the credit belongs to the two men responsible for shepherding the programs: Tolman’s Dave Caito and Dino Campopiano of Shea.
“The change initiated when (former Pawtucket state senator) Lowell Kinch called (Shea athletic director) Ray McGee, who then called me,” responded Tolman AD John Scanlon when asked how Tolman-Shea on Turkey Day came about. “Ray and I both agreed that without Dave and Dino onboard it wasn’t going to go. We spoke to them and they were all for it. They were big proponents.”
Many around the city are aware that Campopiano and Caito were teammates at Johnston High and that prior to becoming Tolman’s head coach, Caito was an assistant under Campopiano at Shea. Plus Caito teaches Phys. Ed at Shea, meaning that he gets to interact with the Raider players on a five-day-a-week basis.
“I think it would work regardless of who the coaches are, but I think it’s a better rivalry because Dave and I are friends,” said Campopiano. “We’ve never had a problem with the kids outside of the game, but I think (the history the two coaches share) helps to bring something special. We said from the first day that we wouldn’t let this affect our friendship.”
Caito didn’t mince words when declaring how beneficial the kinship between himself and Campopiano has been in making Tolman vs. Shea more than just your garden variety holiday rivalry.
“I think the kids feed off of that,” Caito said, noting the dinner gathering the two teams schedule the day prior to the game. “For the kids it’s a friendly rivalry and we’re friends for 364 days out of the year. (Gameday) is the one day we don’t talk or chitchat much. Once we step on the field, they are our enemies for four quarters. It’s a pride thing for both schools.”
Campopiano added that it’s not uncommon for the two coaching staffs to huddle up in the same room and chew the fat afterwards. “It’s a natural rivalry, but it’s a good rivalry for a lot of reasons. I think it’s a special thing for the city of Pawtucket.”
As for the football aspect, the Tigers and Raiders reside on opposite ends of the spectrum. Tolman, which went undefeated (7-0) and allowed the second fewest points in Division II (26), will continue playing after Wednesday, hosting St. Raphael Academy in the semifinals the following Tuesday. Meanwhile Shea missed the playoffs by one game, though the season was highlighted by a come-from-behind overtime win at Cumberland and a victory at Chariho, which wound up winning the II-A side.
The scenario of one side having to worry about what lies ahead while the other knows that the season is over after Wednesday is a familiar refrain in this series. The most recent example occured two years ago, when Shea made its season by squashing semifinal-bound Tolman, 39-6, inside McCoy Stadium. The defeat was so demoralizing for the Tigers that Caito and his staff privately wondered if Tolman could regroup in time to face Cumberland five days later (the Tigers went on to shutout the Clippers, 29-0, before falling in overtime to South Kingstown in the Super Bowl).
“This makes (Shea’s) season, and we know that going in,” said Caito. “It would be vice-versa if Dino was undefeated. I would be giving the speech that we could be one of the teams to give them a loss.”
Added Campopiano, “It’s unfortunate that we’re not in the playoffs, but we look at it as a chance for the seniors to go out with a good memory and something for the underclassmen to build on. We’re going to go out, play hard and be prepared and that night the best team will come out ahead.”
Caito says the conundrum of preserving the team’s health with an eye towards St. Raphael isn’t really one at all. If the Tigers are locked in a tight game with the Raiders, then expect to see the likes of Ousmane Samb and Joselito Knapp.
“If you play (for the future), then you play timid. We just want to play our starters as long as they can play,” said the Tolman head coach. “If it’s close in the fourth quarter, our starters are staying in. We’re going for the win, that’s the bottom line. Whatever happens happens.”
“Tolman is in a tough spot,” said Campopiano. “Most schools probably wouldn’t play their starters because they have a big game a few days later, but Dave isn’t like that. His kids want to win because it is a rivalry game. Throughout the state we’re one of the true rivalries – us, East Providence-La Salle and Cranston East-Cranston West.”
Prior to Wednesday’s game the Tolman football community will honor the late Pfc. Kyle J. Coutu by retiring his jersey. Scanlon mentioned that the U.S. Marine Corps honor guard will be on hand to perform the national anthem.
“Nobody wore 77 this year,” Scanlon said, “and nobody will wear 77 anymore.”