PAWTUCKET — When Shea High and St. Raphael Academy line up for the opening kickoff in a key Division II-B clash at Pariseau Field on Saturday afternoon, it won't be just for bragging rights in this mill city.
It most probably will give the victor the upper hand in earning a post-season bid.
So say the Raiders' Dino Campopiano and the Saints' Mike Sassi, who not only have spent years at the helm of their respective squads but also share nearly two decades of friendship and plenty of gridiron stories.
“I've known Dino a long time,” Sassi explained. “I graduated from Nichols College (in Dudley, Mass.) in 1990, and he graduated in 1994. I remember him coming up for a college visit when I was a senior. I played with his older brother, Dave, for two years, so he came up to see him play, too.
“I was also a defensive coordinator here at Saints when he became an assistant (under then-mentor Todd Vasey); we hit it off right away,” he added. “We have a lot of similarities. We're both hard workers and take the game very seriously, but – first and foremost – we both care about the kids we teach and coach.
“Dino genuinely loves and respects his players; he'll do anything for them.”
That's not all. Sassi and Campopiano have spent years on the Rhode Island Football Coaches Association's Executive Board, and both became Dean of Students at their respective institutions this past year.
“That's another dimension to our academic duties,” Sassi stated. “We not only care about the students and athletes in our own programs, but all of the other schools in Rhode Island as well. Another thing we're doing for this game in particular: Representatives of the American Cancer Society will be there to pass out literature, with this being Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It's also in line with the NFL's 'A Crucial Catch.'
“I've worked closely with Dino for years and coached with him for three, so I consider him a good friend. Maybe I don't see him as much as we used to because we're both so busy, but we do chat from time to time, and we both have mutual respect.
“I'll also say this: We both need to win this game.”
Campopiano – who will enter this road tilt with a 2-2 league mark (4-2 overall), as will SRA (2-3 overall, a loss to Hendricken notwithstanding) – couldn't have agreed more.
“Mike's a good friend of mine, and we get along great; we haven't faced each other in a long time, so this is kind of strange,” he offered, stating the Raiders and Saints have met just once in both coaches' lengthy tenures. That was back in 2001, when SRA earned an 18-7 triumph at Max Read Field.
“But I know it's going to be a big game because we're both 2-2,” he continued. “If we have any aspirations of making the playoffs, which obviously we both want to do, we have to win. I also think it's an important game for the city. You always here about (the rivalries between) Shea-Tolman and Saints-Tolman, but never about Shea-St. Ray's.
“In my opinion, in one season, we all should face each other once. It'd be a great thing for the city, and a lot of people would go. They'd be interested in seeing how we match up.”
With a shrug and grin, he added, “It's going to be a good game. I have a lot of respect for Mike and his kids, and what he's done at Saints. If both teams come to play, it'll be a fantastic game. I don't see either team not coming ready. The atmosphere should be terrific, and I think Pariseau will be rockin'.”
What Campopiano has spent this week focused on is stopping talented senior Charles Correa, who is one of the shiftiest running backs he's seen.
“We've seen them on game film, and they run the ball well,” he said. “You've just got to stop Correa, because he can break one at any time. But there's also (sophomore fullback Josh) Alves, who ran great against Central. That kid (senior receiver Colin) Kingsbury does nice things, too, and the quarterback (Emmanuel Leake) is only a sophomore, but he's getting better. I've seen it.
“You just never know what they're going to come out with (offensively),” he added. “They spread the ball out, they run some Wing-T, some 'Wildcat' with Correa, and also they'll give you a really tight line, like a goal-line, so you've got to prepare for everything.
“I know they had a bye last week, so they had two whole weeks to prepare for us. Knowing Sass the way I do, he may put in a whole new offense.”
Campopiano, however, indicated he has complete faith in his fleet-of-foot ground attack, which includes senior signal caller Aaron Rodriques, sophomore Anthony Almeida, senior Dennis Lloyd and junior Ty'shon Ashe, “who all can catch the ball,” he said.
He also likes what his receiving corps has done in victories, among them seniors William DePina-Gomes, Ecksandro Nunes and Henrique Baptista.
“Ultimately, it's all going to come down to the line play,” he claimed. “In games we've played well, those guys won the battle up front – on both sides of the ball. If we do that, play to our potential, I think we'll be successful; if not, who knows?”
Sassi's main concern is Shea's team speed, “and the fact they have so many different guys who can carry the football,” he stated. “Their quarterback is really good when he gets out of the pocket because he's a dual threat. They run more like a spread Wing-T formation, and they zone block on a lot of plays.
“They've got a lot of different formations, so you've got to make adjustments on the fly,” he continued. “If you adjust wrong, they'll kill you with their speed and quickness. They also have an excellent kicker 9in senior Baboucarr Lemon). The kid just crushes the ball.
“He makes a special sound when he kicks or punts, and I've heard it. Usually you only see one kid a year who makes that sound, and it's unbelievable. I think he's as good a kickoff guy that I've seen in our league, and – with all that speed on those (special) teams – he's a solid weapon for them.”
As for defense, Sassi indicated his buddy loves to utilize pressure (i.e. blitz packages) to keep the opponent off-balance.
“They have multiple people who come and try to disrupt what you want to do offensively,” he said. “We just have to be fundamentally sound, and not make any crazy mistakes. They're a very well-coached team, from Dino down to his assistants. He and his staff do a great job of running systems that suit the athletes on his team.
“We both need to win this game,” he added of the 1:30 p.m. start. “Whoever loses is going to almost certainly have to win out, and rely on help from somebody else, to qualify for the post-season. The key is – and it may sound cliche-ish but it shouldn't – we've got to play 48 minutes of virtually mistake-free football. I think both teams are very evenly-matched, so it should be a good one.”
As for other clashes slated for this weekend: In Division I, East Providence (0-6, 0-3) will try to garner its first win of the season when it travels to Tolman (3-4, 1-4) at 7 tonight.
In Division II-B, Cumberland (5-1, 4-0) will bus to Pilgrim (0-6, 0-4) for another 7 p.m. tilt; while Toll Gate (1-6, 0-4) will battle visiting Woonsocket (3-2, 2-2) in a Division II-A tilt at 1:30 p.m., Saturday.
In D-III action, Lincoln (0-5, 0-4) will host Narragansett (3-3, 2-2) at Ferguson Field Saturday afternoon at 1:30; and Burrillville (2-3, 0-3) will take on host Tiverton (1-6, 1-3) at 7 p.m., Saturday.
Finally, in D-IV, Exeter/West Greenwich (3-2, 2-2) will trek to Central Falls at 6 tonight.