By BRENDAN McGAIR
A little of this, a little of that …
– Prior to the start of Tuesday’s game at league unbeaten West Warwick, an inquiring mind (me) went up to Shea head coach Matt Pita and asked if he was planning to start transfer Michael Neal, who was finally eligible after sitting out the first nine league games. Pita offered a slight grin as he said no before this reporter took the subject a step further, joking that Pita was probably going to wait for 30 seconds to go by before inserting the 6-foot-6 Neal.
Pita did hold off just a bit longer than anticipated as Neal checked in at 11:52 of the opening half. If the Shea fans in attendance were expecting the senior to hit the ground running and take the Raiders to a different stratosphere, their expectations exceeded those of the Shea coaching staff. Following the Raiders’ 78-68 loss to the host Wizards, Pita cleared up any misconceptions there might be surrounding the team’s newest addition.
“It’s going to be a work in progress,” Pita stated while standing outside the visiting team’s locker.
Those who sat in the stands saw two completely different sides of Neal. In the first half he tried to attack the rim every time he caught the ball. It wasn’t that he was being a selfish teammate; he was probably chomping at the bit to make a contribution after being on ice for so long. Neal recorded just one hoop in the half.
The second half saw a more comfortable Neal, one who showed more patience on the offensive end, swinging the ball instead of looking for his own shot. The play of Neal epitomized the furious charge the Raiders made, moving to within 67-61 with less than four to play after falling behind by as many as 16 points. Neal netted eight points in the final 16 minutes to finish the game with 10.
“I thought Michael was very good in the second half,” noted West Warwick head coach Richard Grenier. “When we doubled down, he found the open man. I don’t think he did that in the first half.”
There’s no doubt the Raiders, now 7-3 in Division II-Central, are a much better team with Neal now aboard. Moving forward, what bears watching is how quickly this new piece can fall in line with the team-first unity that Pita preaches.
Offering an outsider’s perspective, Grenier said, “Michael will have to learn how to play with this team. I think Shea is going to become dangerous with that inside-outside option.”
– Tuesday’s debut of Tolman sophomore Napoleon Johnson could be considered one of mixed results. On the one hand, Johnson’s speed allowed him to get into the teeth of the Chariho defense. His ability to blow by defenders resulted in six trips to the foul line, where Johnson could only muster one make in the Tigers’ 63-48 setback.
– The news that periods in Division III boys’ hockey will be extended to 15 minutes starting next season probably doesn’t sit well with those schools affected by the change. From the $600 fee increase to the struggles of piecing together a team that features enough skaters, schools such as Woonsocket, Tolman and East Providence could potentially be staring at tough decisions regarding the program’s long-term health and validity.
– On the football realignment front, it’s too bad that the changes spell the end of the Tolman-St. Raphael rivalry – at least until the next divisional reconfiguration. The Pawtucket community embraced the renewal of these longtime Thanksgiving dance partners with large crowds (at least by today’s standards) turning out for all three meetings, one of which occurred during the 2010 playoffs.
The Saints and Tigers renewed acquaintances when SRA dropped down from Division I following the 2009 campaign. Now Tolman becomes the team displaced after getting bumped up to the state’s top tier for the next two seasons. Based on the buzz the game generated, perhaps there’s a chance – albeit a slim one – that the Tigers and Saints could clear their respective schedules for a non-league tilt.
Now for the good news as the RIIL placed Shea and St. Raphael on the same “B” side in Division II, which also includes Cumberland. It’ll be interesting to see if the Raiders and Saints can ignite the same sparks that made Tolman-SRA so good for the city.