PAWTUCKET — In the end, Tuesday night's Division II semifinal playoff game between Tolman and St. Raphael Academy came down to a few gridiron standbys – halftime adjustments, plays that just missed connecting, and which team wanted it more.
Tolman made the necessary adjustments, St. Raphael dropped a crucial touchdown pass, and the top-seeded Tigers, who trailed 12-7 at halftime, reached deep down within themselves to outlast a courageous Saints team, 25-12, before an estimated crowd of 1,200 fans at Max Read Field.
“We had 13 players on our side,” Tolman's Ousmane Samb said after rushing for 165 yards and scoring three touchdowns. “We won this game for Kyle Coutu and Matt Pina.”
U.S. Marine PFC Coutu died early last year in Afghanistan. Pina was killed in a car accident. The Tigers have played with these fallen teammates in mind ever since.
“We tell the kids that we have 13 players on the field,” Tolman coach Dave Caito said. “There's 11 players out there. Kyle and Matt are right there with them.”
It looked like Tolman had 13 players on the field throughout the entire second half. The Tigers' vaunted running game had been stymied in the first half, save for a 47-yard touchdown run by Samb, but Tolman went 60 yards in 7 plays for the go-ahead score to start the second half, and then went 74 yards in 8 plays to take a 19-12 lead with 6:38 left in the game.
The Saints, who got two touchdown passes from Trevor Vasey in the first half, never established their offense in the second half. Tolman made a defensive adjustment, making sure 6-foot-4 Saints receiver Davon Robertson, who had scored on a 72-yard pass, was accounted for on every play.
The turning point in this game came after Samb scored on a 12-yard run to cap the first possession of the second half. The Saints got the ball and moved to Tolman's 40 on a 10-yard pass from Vasey to Thomas Hurley.
Vasey dropped back on first down and lofted a pass down the left sideline for halfback Charles Correa, who had caught a 25-yard TD pass earlier. Correa had his man beat and tried to make an over-the-head catch as he dove into the end zone but the ball slipped through his hands for an incompletion.
“It's a game of inches,” Saints coach Mike Sassi would say after the game. The coach knew his team, which had lost 37-0 to Tolman back in September, needed to play nearly a perfect game to beat the Tigers. If Correa had caught the ball, it would have been a great catch. On this night, the Saints needed to do great things to prevail, and they almost pulled it off.
“Give them credit,” Caito said. “We beat them pretty good the first time but they really played tough tonight.”
The Saints gained early momentum in this game when they punted after going three-and-out on the first offensive series. Punter Alex Charette bobbled the snap, then squibbed a bouncer that hit a Tolman player near the line of scrimmage. The live ball was recovered by SRA's Newon Sendolo at midfield.
The Saints then moved 32 yards in stunning fashion as Vasey found Robertson for a 17-yard pass to the Tolman 29 and then Correa ran 11 yards to the 18.
Tolman’s defense, so strong all season long, then made two big plays, getting sacks of Vasey by Jared Battersby and Mamour Samb to force a punt.
Charette immediately pinned Tolman down at the Tigers’ 8-yard line with a nifty punt. Tolman made one first down and had to punt.
“We had the fumbled punt and then bad field position,” Caito said. “The game didn’t start well for us.”
It got worse when Tolman’s punt from its 10-yard line was shanked out of bounds 15 yards past the line of scrimmage, giving the Saints a golden opportunity to score first.
With fans from both schools making plenty of noise, the Saints drew first blood when Vasey hit a wide-open Correa for a 25-yard score. Tolman’s defensive back assigned to Correa fell down, leaving the Saints’ speedy sophomore wide open in the flat.
The Saints missed the conversion kick and led, 6-0.
Tolman responded by moving 53 yards in three plays. Samb took an inside handoff and broke clean through the middle of the Saints’ defense, turning on the jets and streaking 47 yards to the end zone.
“We had a couple of blown assignments on that play,” Sassi admitted.
Here is where the idea of a stunning upset began to form in the minds of Saints fans. Three plays after Samb scored, Vasey rolled out of the pocket at his own 28-yard line and found Robertson open with a 30-yard pass. The rangy receiver then cut diagonally across the field and outran Tolman’s secondary to the flag for a touchdown and a 12-7 lead.
That’s how the game stood at halftime.
“We gave a pretty good speech to the kids,” Caito said about the halftime adjustments. “They needed to play harder and better. We made a couple of adjustments in our coverage of (Robertson) and shut him down pretty good in the second half. I don’t think he caught a pass in the second half.”
But it was Tolman’s running game that made the difference, as it has all season. The Tigers only attempted one pass all game. Quarterback Joselito Knapp rolled out several other times but ran the ball every time but one.
Samb and Knapp gained 64 of the 74 yards Tolman covered on the fourth-quarter drive that gave the Tigers a 19-12 lead. They alternated big gains during the final drive that ended with Samb’s five-yard scoring run with 1:59 left on the clock. Samb broke several tackles on a 25-yard run to the 12-yard line that featured both the strength and determination of Tolman’s senior halfback.
Now it’s on to the Division II Super Bowl Sunday against Woonsocket, the game that everyone has been waiting for since Tolman edged the defending champs 6-0 back in September.
“We’re similar teams,” Caito offered. “Two inner-city schools with players who never stop battling.”
Game time is noon on Sunday at Cranston Stadium.