PAWTUCKET – Rest is always welcome – just so as long as rust doesn’t start to form.
Eleven days will have elapsed since St. Raphael Academy’s last game – a tough-to-swallow 77-75 loss to Coventry in the Division I quarterfinals on Feb. 21 – and the next time the Saints participate in a meaningful affair. Their reintroduction to spirited competition, complete with three referees and a neutral setting, is set for Friday night against Westerly High in the new all-inclusive state tournament at the Providence Career & Technical Academy Fieldhouse.
Tom “Saar” Sorrentine has encountered just about every possible scenario in his two-plus decades on the Saints’ bench, but there’s no chapter in the coaches’ manual to help steer a team through a long layoff. In order to avoid boredom and prevent bad habits from seeping in, Sorrentine went right after it in the aftermath of relinquishing an 18-point second-half lead to Coventry. He settled on a plan of attack that would consist of rest, practice time and two scrimmages, the belief that the latter component would allow the Saints to maintain their competitive sanity.
“I think we got it mapped out the way we want it,” said Sorrentine shortly before Monday’s practice wrapped up. “It’s not like we went the whole time without getting after it.”
Added senior Trevor Vasey, “A game like Coventry, it definitely left us antsy and wanting to get back on the floor.”
SRA, seeded fifth in the states, ventured to Tiverton, a fellow participant in this 16-team field, late last week for a controlled scrimmage. That means, according to Sorrentine, that the teams played three 16-minute intervals, two of which were purposely held under game conditions. Last night, a trip to division rival Portsmouth – a team that took both games against St. Raphael in the regular season – was on the docket.
“We pretty much know how everyone on our team plays and how to defend each other in certain ways,” Vasey said. “We faced Portsmouth twice, but it definitely gives us a different look. Tiverton, we’ve never seen them play.”
“We’ve got to get used to playing different teams,” went on junior Cesar Mejia. “The teams we’re facing in the scrimmages, they’ll get us prepared for what we’re facing.”
“You’re never going to get anywhere if you keep practicing every day,” Sorrentine continued, noting he was pleased with how the Tiverton scrimmage turned out.
Monday’s practice session consisted of endless shooting drills, followed by 5-on-4 and 4-on-3 fastbreak sets, with suicide laps doled out to the losing team. Sorrentine also devoted time to reinforcing where everyone is supposed to be on the press break and stressing the importance on screening away from the ball in a half-court setting.
Such items may seem monotonous and trivial for a team that’s biding its time, waiting ever so patiently for Friday’s 6 p.m. tip-off to arrive. If there’s one item that Saints can take away from their nearly two-week furlough, it’s best to not engage in a New Year’s Eve countdown. That can only distract you from the task at hand, which is to correct the errors that surfaced during a 3-4 finish to the Div. I season.
The time off has also allowed Sorrentine to tinker with some items. Come Friday, expect to see the 6-foot-6 Vasey spend more time in the post after spending most of his varsity career roaming around the perimeter. The idea of giving SRA a scoring presence down low was hatched by Vasey himself after realizing the Saints were becoming far too predictable offensively, that there was no inside-outside balance like there was during a 10-2 start.
“I’ve been playing outside my whole life, but I knew I would be a better team if I played inside,” said Vasey. “Whatever it takes at this point.”
“It seems like we’re getting kind of getting into sync now,” Sorrentine noted. “The other thing about (being idle for so long) is that you’re not getting the wear and tear. We should be fresh and ready to play. It’s not like we’re in a grind of playing day after day. I think we’re going to have everyone healthy, so we’re not going to have any excuses.”
St. Raphael’s last two games offer a cold reality of what can happen when not everyone, from the notable contributors to the supporting cast, is on the same page. The high-powered trio of Vasey, Mejia, and sophomore Charles Correa combined for 24 points in a 61-46 loss to Hendricken on Feb. 16. All three responded by combining to score 67 of the Saints’ 75 points against the Oakers, meaning hardly any help came from the rest of the squad.
If the Saints are going to avoid being a one-and-done casualty, then not only do Vasey, Mejia, and Correa have to perform at a high clip, but someone from the group of Davon Robertson, Ben Pillsbury, Jordan Peguero, Jazz Robinson, and Franklin Batista also needs to step from out of the shadows and into the forefront.
“When we have the three of us score and two other guys, we usually win,” Vasey said.
“All five guys on the floor need to put in the work and the guys off the bench help us out,” Mejia furthered.
The plan is to talk specifically about Westerly, the No. 12 seed, the closer game day approaches, as Sorrentine figures there’s no sense in preparing for an opponent well in advance. The Bulldog that figures to draw the most attention is sophomore Austin Cilley, who popped off for 33 points against South Kingstown High earlier in the season.
Vasey and his St. Raphael teammates know they no longer of the luxury of knowing that another game lies in the weeds regardless of Friday’s outcome. It’s do-or-die from here on out, which naturally has created a sense of urgency in the SRA camp.
“I’ve taken it that the last tournament was an equivalent to the Big East Tournament. It matters, but this is the real deal,” Vasey said. “Obviously, we wanted to win both, but a state championship is definitely more important.”
Should St. Raphael advance out of the first round, its run in the statewide tournament would continue Monday night (8 o’clock start) against the survivor of No. 4 Coventry and No. 13 West Warwick.