PAWTUCKET --- The last memory Shea High soccer fans have of last year’s magnificent season was a cruel, unpleasant one.
It was on a cold November night at Rhode Island College, and Shea had just suffered a 2-1 loss to Barrington High in the Division I championship game. It was a duel that saw Shea allow a couple of easy goals in the opening half and come very close to tying the score on a few occasions during the second half.
While the Eagles and their fans were celebrating their title near the bleachers, Shea head coach Pierre Ridore was huddled with his players near midfield, consoling the seniors who played their final high school games, but telling his juniors and sophomores, “Let this drive us to do better next year.”
Turns out those words were not lost upon those young players. The Raiders began their workouts for the upcoming season on Monday, and after four days of training, it looks like the memory of last year’s loss to the Eagles hasn’t diminished.
“Since last year ended, our returning guys have been waiting for this season to start,” said Ridore. “We’re looking very good, and this team’s seems very, very focused. There’s not a lot of playing around in practice. Everyone seems a lot more focused when they’re training and they’re working very hard.”
With eight returning starters, including All-State striker Emerson Barros and midfielder Joao Cardoso, highlighting their roster and an insatiable hunger to bring out their best soccer this season, it’s no secret what the Raiders’ No. 1 goal is this season.
“Our goal is absolutely to win the state championship,” admitted Ridore, who graduated just four seniors, including veteran talent Gerson Gomes. “I think talent-wise, I like our chances, and if someone can show me a more talented team than us skill-wise, I’d love to see that team.
“We are very talented, but my job is to make sure that they stay focused the whole season and play disciplined. If we can do that, then we will definitely have a very, very good season.”
The Raiders made the move to Division I last season after a dominant three-year span in Division II in which they went 40-3-7 from 2007-09 and copped the Division II state title in 2007.
The Raiders went 12-1-5 last season, suffering its lone defeat to the Eagles in October in Barrington, and midway through the season, they were ranked as high as seventh in the country by a prominent national soccer coaches poll.
“Last year, our goal was to win the state championship, but because that was our first year in Division I, we didn’t know what to expect,” offered Ridore. “But this year, we know what to expect and we know that all the other teams are going to be gunning for us.”
One player that figures to have a bulls-eye on his back is Barros, a two-time All-Stater who is blessed with speed and a powerful shot. The senior standout scored 24 goals last season after netting 32 as a sophomore in the D-II ranks.
Another player to watch for is center midfielder Issifou Kankarafou, who was recently named the Raiders’ captain and is coming off a superb showing at the Samurai Sportswear Combine last month in Canton, Ohio, where he joined 84 other elite high school players from the U.S. and Canada.
“He did great,” added Ridore. “He played in a couple of games and he led all the players in assists with three. There were a few Division I and II colleges that were there that are absolutely interested in him.”
And as for being named a captain, Ridore said, “He’s going to be a junior this year, but he earned the respect of his teammates to be their leader, so I expect a great season from him.”
Cardoso, a junior who is one of the team’s finest all-around players, will join Kankarafou in the center midfield, junior Julio Ramos, a defensive talent with a powerful leg, is back at sweeper, and senior goalkeeper Julio Garcia is also back after recording nine shutouts last season.
Sophomore Ienik Spencer, who netted a dozen goals as a freshman standout, is back up front with Barros. Junior William Neves is back to help solidify the Raiders’ midfield, and junior Elvys Varela also returns as the right defender.
As for the new starters, junior Delcio Rocha, who has been a valuable reserve for the past two seasons, will be the stopper, sophomore William Baah, who starred on the junior varsity team last year, will fill in as the left defender, and junior Richard Baffour is in the midfield.
“All of our returning starters are definitely better than they were last season,” said Ridore, “and the players filling in the other three spots are ready to make the big step as starters. They‘re ready.”
Junior Adilson DaRosa, who could start on almost any other team in the state, will be the Raiders’ supersub and see plenty of action in the midfield and as a forward.
While most soccer enthusiasts across the state are pointing to the Raiders as the team to beat this year, Ridore knows that he’s playing in a tough division and there are quite a few other teams that are also going to vie for the title.
“I’m sure La Salle is going to be tough,” reported Ridore. “Barrington lost six starters from last season, but they’re still be going to be in the thick of things. Portsmouth’s returning 10 starters from last season’s team and they’re going to be strong, and South Kingstown is also going to be good.”
To prepare his players for the season, which begins on Friday, Sept. 2 against East Providence at Pierce Field, Ridore has lined up preseason scrimmages against North Providence, North Smithfield, defending Division II champion Smithfield, and Barrington.
“Everyone’s been talking about playing and they can’t wait to do better this year,” Ridore said of his players. “Coming so close last year, only to lose, it’s not a good feeling at all, and they really can’t wait to start playing. They’re looking to have an exciting season, and it should be very interesting and fun.”