PAWTUCKET — After dropping one-goal verdicts in each of the past two Division I state title matches, could the third time be the charm for Shea High this fall?
Veteran head coach Pierre Ridore certainly thinks so, even though he graduated a half dozen key starters, and he let his feelings be known early Monday afternoon before his team boarded its bus for a preseason scrimmage against two-time defending Division II champion Smithfield.
“The goal is to win the state finals this year,” he said. “The last two years, we were close, but not close enough. But we honestly believe that we can get it done. We had a good team with a lot of talent, and if we keep working hard, we’ll be there at the end again.”
While Ridore and his talented team remain optimistic, he knows this season is not going to be an easy one. Not only do they have to fill in the blanks left behind by graduation, especially in the scoring department, but the schedule is shorter – there’s just one 15-school Division I field – and equally as tough as it was a season ago.
“We only have 14 regular-season games,” reported Ridore, who won the Division I-East title last season with an 11-3-4 record. “Honestly, I don’t like it myself. We used to play each team in our division twice and that added three or four games to our schedule, but that’s changed. There are some weeks we will only play once, and I think there’s one time this year that we’ll have to wait six or seven days before we have our next game.”
With such a shortened schedule, every game will obviously be significant, but September offers three dates that will be highlighted in yellow marker on the Raiders’ calendars.
After kicking off their season on Friday, Sept. 7 on their McKinnon-Alves Complex pitch with a 5 p.m. contest against Portsmouth, the Raiders have two difficult showdowns on their hands the following week against North Kingstown and defending champion La Salle.
“I think North Kingstown is going to be strong,” remarked Ridore. “They have their whole team returning and they added a couple of key pieces. Barrington had a really good goalkeeper, so in a playoff situation, if that kid is on, he will shut anybody out, so you can’t overlook them, and La Salle should also be very good again.”
On Tuesday, Sept. 25, McKinnon-Alves promises to be a full house for the 5 p.m. clash between the Raiders and crosstown rival Tolman, which is making its Division I debut after going 13-1-2 in Division II play last season.
“It should be fun,” said Ridore. “All the kids know each other and they talk a lot of trash to each other during the offseason. But this game actually counts now, as compared to the last few years when we played them in the Injury Fund. It should definitely be an exciting game.”
Another week to keep an eye on is the first week of October when the Raiders visit neighboring foe Central Falls on Tuesday, Oct. 2, at Macomber Stadium, and three days later, host Central in what has traditionally been a hard-fought, physical matchup.
The game with Barrington, which features First-Team All-State keeper Andrew Jones and edged Shea in the 2010 title game, is Friday, Oct. 12.
In between the matches against Tolman and Central Falls will be a marquee non-league matchup on Saturday, Sept. 29 between the Raiders and one of the nation’s top-ranked high school teams, Martin Luther King High School of New York City, which has seized 13 state championships in the past 16 years.
“Every year they’re ranked in the top five in the country,” said Ridore. “We’re going to playing the game in the old stadium where Pele used to play when he played for the New York Cosmos. That’s exciting for the kids.”
But before the Raiders can look ahead to that contest in New York or their Division I schedule, they have to focus on continuing what has been a productive preseason camp and finding a way to replace some of the veteran standouts that has fueled their team over the past three seasons.
Striker Emerson Barros, a three-time All-State and two-time All-New England striker, is now at Monroe College in New York, which was the No. 2-ranked junior college squad in the country a season ago, and midfielder Joao Cardoso, an all-around talent, has also graduated.
“We lost a lot of key players, but we have some good players back that didn’t get an opportunity to play because we had Emerson, Joao, and some of our other guys,” admitted Ridore. “We had a deep bench, but now it’s time for those guys to step up.”
Leading the Raiders’ attack is one of the state’s top all-around players in senior center midfielder Issifou Kankarafou, who is a two-time captain for Shea and a Second Team All-State pick from a year ago. He will be joined by seniors Adilson DaRosa and William Neves to give Shea arguably the best midfield in R.I.
Junior defensive standout William Baah will make the move to sweeper, and offensively, senior forward Ienik Spencer will join Kankarafou and DaRosa among the players Shea needs “to step up and get on the scoring sheet a little bit more,” said Ridore.
“Our midfielder should be strong and our defense and goalkeeping should be strong,” continued Ridore. “The question mark is if we will be able to keep up our scoring like we did when we had Emerson and Joao. We can’t depend on one or two players to do all the scoring. Everyone knows that they have to do extra to get on the scoring sheet, and we’re going to have a really aggressive team that’s looking to score.”
While the Raiders’ goals are to fill in the blanks offensively and return to the state championship match, they also know what they need to do in order to continue their successful run.
“I don’t know what to expect from any of the teams in our division,” said Ridore, “but like I tell my guys, if we take care of our business and work harder than anyone else, we’ll definitely have a successful season. Don’t worry about the other teams and what they’re doing. We have a good team that I really like and I expect us to be successful this year.”