PAWTUCKET — As is the standard after a football game, Woonsocket High head coach Carnell Henderson walked to the midfield stripe behind his troops and shook hands with opposing players and coaches alike.
He congratulated all for a job well done, then hugged a few St. Raphael Academy assistants before speaking briefly with long-time Saints' mentor Mike Sassi.
Maybe four milliseconds later, he bolted to his squad and leaped into a few of his heftier players' arms, then – after a few choice words, naturally all positive – he led his kids in a classic Villa Novans' chant.
That's how he, and they, celebrated what will be known in the annals of interscholastic grid lore an astonishing, legendary 29-28 overtime victory over the Saints at Pariseau Field on Saturday night.
With it, Woonsocket captured this R.I. Division II Tournament quarterfinal and moved to 8-2 overall. It also earned a semifinal berth against Central, that is expected to be contested at Barry Field on Tuesday, Nov. 27 (after it takes on Cumberland in the traditional Thanksgiving morning clash at Tucker Field).
How the 'Novans came back to reign is unfathomable, especially if you were one of the approximate 250 fans donned in purple-and-gold in the bleachers.
Henderson's crew had held what seemed to be a comfortable 21-13 cushion with just 90 seconds left in regulation. Actually, junior running back Will Andino secured that lead when he hustled 28 yards for the score (with help from senior John Poirier's PAT boot).
The Saints, however, had different ideas. Before the ensuing kickoff, officials whistled the visitors for encroachment, and Poirier was pushed back five yards to his own 35. On the following boot, sophomore James Kelly fielded it at the SRA 20, broke a tackle at the 28, spun to his left and sprinted 80 yards untouched down that sideline to bring his squad to within a two-point conversion.
Sassi called for a timeout, then sent Kelly back in. The latter responded with what seemed an easy blast off left tackle, and the Saints were back in business at 21-all.
They stopped Henderson's bunch, which took over at its own 37 but moved nowhere, then punted to the Saints with 13 seconds left. Sophomore quarterback Emmanuel Leake took a knee, and OT was imminent.
In a high school extra session, each squad has an opportunity to utilize four downs to score from the foe's 10-yard line. If it does, the other team gets possession at the same 10 to equal or surpass that field goal or TD. In simple terms, the one with the most points wins.
On this night, it appeared to be the Saints. On the very first snap, senior Colby Kingsbury ripped through the left tackle and rushed 10 yards with ease; Baccari then drilled the PAT for the 28-21 cushion.
On Woonsocket's turn, Bouchard threw an incompletion, but then connected with senior co-captain Kyle Mulvey for the 10-yard TD.
Henderson immediately called a timeout and huddled with his players. With Poirier by his side, ready to tie it with a kick of his own, he instead sent out his offensive unit.
Seconds later, Mulvey plunged off left tackle, and – when he emerged in the end zone – the sideline 'Novans rushed onto the turf to go ballistic.
When asked why he didn't opt for the simple route (i.e. re-tie it), Henderson grinned, “They had the momentum, and we were playing at their place. Both our running backs (Andino and senior Jalen Evans) were injured (actually, cramping), and we just had to make a play. We completed that pass, and I honestly didn't think we could get them in another overtime (stanza).
“Those two guys (Andino and Evans) are also key parts in my secondary, and John, who wanted the point-after, had pulled a leg muscle,” he added. “I thought we had to win it right there, so we went for it.”
A rather disappointed Sassi stated later, “We had a call in for a (PAT) block, and a regular defensive play. We had a kid miss a tackle and another fell down. What can you do?”
In the end, the SRA defense – led by senior linemen Chris Ventura and Steve Carvalho – played superbly. They held the versatile Evans to just 69 yards on 18 handles. Andino did rush for 122 on 11, but two of those came on TD jaunts of 54 and 28 yards.
Likewise, with Kingsbury patrolling the backfield, Bouchard completed just five of 11 aerials for 57 yards, and two of those were picked.
SRA dominated from the outset. It needed just five plays to amass 60 yards (courtesy of Kelly's inaugural 20-yard kick return), and senior Charles Correa culminated the drive with a 24-yard sprint around left end.
With Baccari's first of two extra points, the Saints led, 7-0 just 2:38 into the contest.
Evans mustered 20 yards on Woonsocket's opening possession, but his last one on a fourth-and-two at the Saints' 30 went nowhere.
Eight plays later, Correa notched his second TD on a one-yard dive, but Mulvey blocked Baccari's attempt with 1:43 still left in the first quarter.
At that point, Correa had manufactured 66 yards and two paydirts on six carries, but he wouldn't play again.
Mulvey returned the following kickoff five yards to near midfield, but that's when officials made a daring call. They whistled Correa for an alleged swing at an opposing player and ejected him not only from the game but also the next one (that according to R.I. Interscholastic League rules).
When Sassi and his staff were notified, they – in a word – flipped. (He chose not to comment afterward).
Still, on its following three possessions, Woonsocket drove deep into enemy territory, but failed to record a point.
In order: On a first-and-10 from the 37, senior Jordan Peguero intercepted Bouchard; on a second-and-four from the Saints' 9, classmate Chris Karalis did the same; and, finally, after a 15-yard Kingsbury shank, the 'Novans started at the SRA 23, but Bouchard's toss to Evans on a fourth-and-four fell to the ground.
Henderson offered a few choice words at the break, and his kids seemingly listened. Andino took the third-quarter kickoff 18 yards to the Woonsocket 35, and Bouchard closed the 11-play drive with a one-yard sneak. Poirier's PAT shaved the deficit to 13-7 with 5:16 left.
The SRA defense stiffened, causing seven negative yards and an incompletion, and Poirier's nine-yard punt gave the Saints the ball at the foe's 28. Yet, on a fourth-and-12 from the 30, Leake's toss fell off Kingsbury's fingertips.
Three snaps after, Andino rushed off right tackle, saw nothing, switched direction and rambled 54 yards for the tying TD. Poirier's try split the uprights, and Henderson and Co. had the 14-13 lead.
On the first play from scrimmage, senior cornerback Kenny Soto intercepted Leake, and the 'Novans took over at the 37. Three snaps later, they had lost a yard and punted with under eight minutes left.
SRA quickly moved from its own 17 to the Woonsocket 45, but three straight incompletions ended it; following a 16-yard Andino rush, a Saints' coach told his defensive captains to allow a score, and Andino did, from 28 yards out. Poirier notched his third extra boot, but the Saints still had life.
(The ploy was reminiscent of the New England Patriots' road win at Denver several years ago. Bill Bellichick ordered a long snapper to send it through the end zone for a safety, and the Pats rallied for the triumph).
Turns out, that's just what happened with the Saints – courtesy of Kelly's incredible 80-yard return.
The rest, however, was history, as Henderson's choice to “go for broke” worked wonders.
“We really didn't play very well, but we have a group of guys who are resilient,” he stated. “We just didn't give up. We made some plays when we had to. We gave up that overtime touchdown and PAT, but the kids did a great job of keeping their heads and coming back. I'm proud of them.”
Offered Sassi: “I don't think (Correa's) absence affected us; I mean, look at how much heart our kids showed, battling back. We were down, 21-13, but returned the kickoff, then got the two-point conversion. They had the heart. We just fell a little short.”