PAWTUCKET – When analyzing the Division II-B playoff picture, the idiom “down to the wire” comes to mind.
This past weekend’s slate of games resulted in such a shakeup that even the Richter scale went haywire. A number of alleged favorites went down, which in turn open the door for several teams that once upon a time were viewed as playoff onlookers, not playoff contenders.
One game that gave the standings a violent shake was Mt. Hope’s rain-swept 12-8 win against St. Raphael Academy on Saturday, a game played in damp and dreary conditions that resulted in the transformation of Pariseau Field into a puddle-infested swamp ground by the time the nearly two-hour game was complete. Throw in the results from a rain-free Friday where West Warwick upended previously unbeaten Tolman and Ponaganset fell to Pilgrim and what you have is pure and utter congestion with just one week left in the regular season.
“At this time last week, we thought we would be playing for fifth place,” said Mt. Hope head coach Ron Silva.
A word of advice before a quick analysis of the standings: buckle up, because it’s going to be a bumpy ride. Currently there are six teams in the mix for four available spots. Should be pretty entertaining to see how all these moving parts come together.
Tolman and West Warwick are perched at the top, each 5-1. The tie goes to the Wizards based on Friday’s 33-19 win. West Warwick can clinch the regular season title with a win at home against Woonsocket on Saturday. Tolman needs a victory against winless Toll Gate – a contest set for Saturday at the Titans’ complex – to secure a home date in the preliminary round the weekend of Nov. 11-12.
At 4-2, St. Raphael finds itself in sole possession of third place. A victory against Mt. Hope would have wrapped up a second straight postseason berth, but that opportunity is now ancient history. The task at hand is to get past Ponaganset at “The Reservation” on Saturday.
Needless to say a loss to the Chieftains would leave the Saints in a vulnerable predicament when referencing pool records, the first criteria that comes into play when separating two or more teams with identical records. Should the final weekend of the regular season yield wins by Ponaganset and Mt. Hope coupled with a St. Raphael loss, the three teams would each wrap up with a 4-3 record.
If such a tiebreaking scenario comes to fruition, the Chieftains (2-0) and Huskies (1-1) would gain admittance based on posting better records than SRA (0-2) in the mini-group.
“Bottom line is this: we need a ‘W’ to get into the playoffs,” remarked SRA head coach Mike Sassi as the rain pelted his black jacket. “We’ll see what we’re made of. If we don’t win [against the Chieftains], then we don’t deserve to go to the playoffs.”
The playoff aspirations of Ponaganset, Mt. Hope and Pilgrim are based on matching 3-3 records. In what amounts to an elimination game, the Huskies entertain the Patriots Friday night.
With no pun attended, Saturday’s outcome hinged on which team could weather the storm. There was no clear-cut advantage as St. Raphael and Mt. Hope both had to contend with the wet mess.
“Coach (Sassi) and I spoke before the game and we both asked each other which team the weather was going to hurt the most,” said Silva.
Given the unfavorable conditions, it became incumbent upon St. Raphael and Mt. Hope to take extra special care of protecting the ball. The Saints finished with three turnovers to the Huskies’ one, which came on the team’s first offensive series.
Mt. Hope’s mistake developed just as the Huskies were set to cross the goal line. On fourth-and-goal from SRA’s three-yard line, Gian Dimezza coughed up the ball that SRA junior Chris Karalis recovered in the end zone for a touchback.
The lesson was clear: protect the ball with two hands at all times. That proved to be the undoing of St. Raphael speedster Charles Correa on a punt return opportunity with 3:21 left in the first half. Just he was set to cross midfield, Correa ran into a Mt. Hope blocker that succeeded in jarring the ball loose. The Huskies recovered at their own 42.
“He tried to make a move and the guy was able to get a helmet on the ball,” was the explanation Sassi offered.
Mt. Hope’s drive following the Correa turnover got off to a rousing start with Cote Zafiriades breaking off a 52-yard gallop down to the home team’s six. After picking up a yard on first down, Aaron Booth bounced to the outside for the remaining five yards for the game’s first score, coming with 2:17 left until halftime.
The Huskies got the ball to start the second half, which was part of the plan Silva concocted upon winning the coin toss. What ensued was a 12-play, 63-yard march that was kept alive by Mt. Hope’s ability to convert twice on fourth down. One of the conversions was a tipped pass that Gian Dimezza secured for a 10-yard gain down to the Saints’ 17.
“Give them credit, they made the plays when they had to,” Sassi said, referencing directly the catch Dimezza came up with.
SRA’s inability to get its defense off the field surfaced once more when quarterback Kyle Valenzuela tucked the ball in after initially dropping back to pass. The rush covered seven yards and helped set up Booth’s second touchdown, also a five-yard scamper that featured the senior sweeping to the perimeter before gathering a head of steam as he approached the marker.
The Mt. Hope drive ate up 6:21 of game clock. “We deferred for that one reason – to get the ball to start the second half and take some time off,” said Silva.
SRA thought it was on the move after Zach Mays took the ensuing kickoff and raced 77 yards down the far sideline to pay dirt, but a holding penalty at midfield negated the score. The Saints responded by going three-and-out.
SRA remained in a 12-0 hole as the fourth quarter got underway with a punt by Mt. Hope. A hard 10-yard run by Pat Miranda was followed two plays later by a 31-yard pass play to senior Davon Robertson. The next snap produced the Saints’ lone score when quarterback Julian Diaz looked right to find Correa, who took the short pass and raced 20 yards to make it a 12-6 game with 10:43 still to play.
The play represented the lone instance where Correa found an alley in the Huskies’ defense and exploited it. “We doubled down on him the entire game,” noted Silva. “We gave him the respect he deserves.”
St. Raphael’s offense went back to work at its own 18 with 8:03 left. Miranda appeared to be stopped short on fourth-and-three with the Saints needing to get to the 40, but a generous spot resulted in a first down by a nose.
The drive continued with SRA crossing into Mt. Hope territory. Miranda picked up 18 yards that carried the action down to the Huskies’ 28, but that’s where the drive that lasted 15 plays and six minutes, 22 seconds fizzled out. Three straight runs that produced four yards brought up fourth down, where Diaz was intercepted.
Mt. Hope took possession at its own five with the clock flashing 1:41 remaining. The Saints stuffed the Huskies on three runs, though were forced to burn their remaining two timeouts in a bid to get the ball back sooner.
The Huskies lined up to punt from their own two with 40 ticks left. Instead of kicking the ball away and giving Correa a chance to make a play, Mt. Hope opted to take the safety, which occurred when Valenzuela dropped back into the end zone before dropping down oto one knee.
To Silva, giving the Saints two free points was hardly a risky play.
“We didn’t want to take the chance of a bad punt and giving them the ball on the 10-yard line,” said the Mt. Hope coach.
“That was a smart play, especially in this weather,” Sassi said.
SRA’s last chance began with 28.9 seconds left. The drive started at the Mt. Hope 33 and featured two straight incomplete passes before Diaz hit Robertston for a six-yard gain on third down.
Now with 13.2 seconds remaining, Diaz dropped back on fourth down before looking in the direction of Tom Hurley. With the Huskies applying heavy pressure, Diaz got off a pass that resulted in Hurley coming out of the end zone to make a diving bid that came up short.
MT. HOPE, 12-8
Mt. Hope 0-6-6-0 -- 12
St. Raphael 0-0-6-2 -- 8
MH – Aaron Booth 5 run (kick failed).
MH – Booth 5 run (kick failed).
SRA – Charles Correa 20 pass from Julian Diaz (kick failed)
SRA – Safety, Kyle Valenzuela tackled in end zone.