PAWTUCKET – Shea High head coach Dino Campopiano had insisted earlier in the week that – when his kids took Pariseau Field on Saturday afternoon – they'd have to worry about Division II-B foe St. Raphael Academy having a distinct advantage.
The reason: The Saints didn't play last weekend due to a bye, so had an extra seven-plus days to prepare for what Campopiano's crew would throw at them.
What was so surprising on this day, Shea dominated both sides of the line of scrimmage in the opening half, rushing for 135 yards on 25 handles and passing for 25 more, while the defense held the Saints to a mere 27 on 11 carries. Likewise, sophomore quarterback Emmanuel Leake didn't complete one of four aerials.
SRA veteran mentor Mike Sassi issued more than a few choice words at his troops during the break, and whatever they were made a world of difference.
The Saints scored on the second snap of the third quarter, courtesy of senior running back Charles Correa's nifty 56-yard TD jaunt, tallied 14 unanswered points in the fourth quarter and rolled to a 22-10 Homecoming victory over the crosstown “rival” Raiders before approximately 300 fans.
With the triumph, SRA improved to 3-3 overall but – more importantly – 3-2 in league action. It also took a major step forward to securing a D-II playoff bid.
“I don't care about overall; we're 3-2 in league, and that's all that matters,” an elated Sassi stated after the contest. “We're now tied for second with Rogers, West Warwick and Central, and the big thing is we own the tiebreakers over Rogers, Central and Shea, the reason being we've beaten all three.”
(The Saints had suffered a 36-14 defeat to West Warwick in the campaign's second week, so the Wizards would have that leverage).
“The thing I'm most proud of, it wasn't just one guy,” he added. “We mixed in a lot of people, and we had multiple guys making big plays.
“We hadn't played a game in 15 days, and I think these guys were hungry to get back to it. They have a heckuva coaching staff over there under Dino, and I have the utmost respect for him. We had that extra time to prepare, really focus on them, and I think that played a key role.
“I'm really happy about our poise, it was much better, and our ability to stay away from crazy turnovers and penalties. We have a senior-sophomore group, and – earlier in the season – we were making those mistakes, jumping offsides. We were much more poised (Saturday), and it's a credit to the sophomores taking the lead of the seniors and our coaching staff.”
Statistically, the Raiders had three rushers over 40 yards, including seniors Chris Fonseca (15 for 85), Jason Almeida (10-62) and Dennis Lloyd (11-46), while classmate and signal caller Aaron Rodrigues completed seven of 19 throws for 95 yards.
As for SRA, Correa finished with 68 yards on five handles, but no one else eclipsed 25 yards on the ground. Meanwhile, Leake provided only one pass reception for 14.
In the end, though, one backbreaking turnover sealed Shea's fate.
Most of the initial period provided “three-and-outs,” with both defenses stuffing the opponents' ground attacks, but the Raiders began to surge toward the end. They maneuvered 47 yards on nine plays to take the pigskin to the SRA 15.
After a five-yard loss, however, officials whistled the Raiders for a lineman not using his mouthpiece, which pulled it back five yards, and the Saints' defense tackled junior Ty'shon Ashe for a two-yard loss. With the ball at the 27, senior Baboucarr Lemon attempted a 45-yard field goal with a slight wind advantage, and he had the line, but the kick fell two yards short.
The Raiders didn't make the same mistake twice. After a 21-yard punt, they took over at the foe's 41 and drove that distance, senior Enrique Baptista hauling in classmate Aaron Rodrigues' two-yard toss in the left section of the end zone.
Lemon's conversion boot sailed through the uprights, and Shea led, 7-0, with 3:06 remaining before halftime.
Campopiano's defense held once more, and Shea took over on the SRA 49 with less than two minutes left. When Rodrigues hit senior Jason Almeida with an 11-yard aerial at the 19, it seemed poised to snare a two-score lead. But an illegal block penalty and three straight incompletions gave the ball back to the Saints, who ran out the clock.
Sassi's contingent didn't need long to notch its initial touchdown. On the second play from scrimmage in the third, Correa swept around the right side and bolted 56 yards.
On the PAT attempt, senior Nick Sisto's boot failed, but referees called a Raider for running into the kicker. With the ball moved up a yard, Sassi and Co. chose to go for the two-point try, and senior defensive end Chris Ventura plunged in to give SRA an 8-7 lead.
Shea responded in kind. It drove 75 yards on 11 snaps, and – halted at the Saints' 5 – Lemon converted a 23-yard field goal, one that issued the visitors a 10-8 advantage.
SRA, which had serious problems staying on the field offensively in the first half, manufactured another stellar possession. Highlighted by Leake's 14-yard aerial to senior Vinny Baccari, not to mention classmate James Berry's 12-yard jaunt, the Saints took the pigskin 69 yards on 13 plays, that ending on Kelly's nine-yard sweep around left end.
Berry's two-point rush failed, but SRA had gained a 14-10 cushion.
The Raiders answered that drive with one of their own, moving from their own 20 to the Saints' 17. On a fourth-and-one, however, the defense buried Fonseca's run off left tackle.
Sassi's bunch couldn't do anything with it, and – after a 30-yard Colby Kingsbury punt – Shea took over on its own 48. Two snaps and eight yards later, Fonseca ran toward right tackle. Stopped two yards behind the line, Correa stripped the ball and raced 54 yards down the left sideline with the TD fumble return.
Berry ran off right guard for the two-pointer, and the Saints cushioned their lead to 22-10.
Kingsbury, a senior defensive back, mustered numerous tackles on one side of the ball, but Sassi noted his blocking just as pivotal over the final 24 minutes.
“We made some adjustments at halftime, changed the blocking scheme,” he said. “When we started to move the ball in the third, he had more than a few key blocks to open up holes for our fullbacks (sophomore Josh Alves, who gained 23 yards on eight handles, and Berry. He's really the one who keyed that first drive.
“He also had a lot of tackles, so he deserves a mention,” he added.
Campopiano, whose club fell to 4-3 overall and 2-3 in league play, explained afterward he was less than thrilled with his squad taking 13 penalties for a minus-87 yards.
“We shot ourselves in the foot on a ton of occasions,” he noted. ““We had our opportunities; we had a lot of drives into their territory, but just couldn't finish them off. We had all those penalties, and you can't do that against a team like Saints.
“I'm not going to take anything away from Mike; they played very well,” he continued. “They came out and scored on their first drive of the second half, and took advantage of the turnover. In my opinion, they just wanted it more than we did. They did what they had to do in the second half to win it.”
“I'm proud of Saints, and I'm happy for Mike. I think this (victory) definitely puts them into the playoffs. I'm happy for him and his team, and I hope they do well in the post-season. Mike deserves it.”