EAST GREENWICH — Erik Travers gulped down a pre-game meal of eggs, bacon and toast on Sunday morning, he knew from the feeling in his stomach that he was about to play the most important game of his life.
“My nerves were going full blast,” said the Cumberland High senior running back. “I thought I was going to throw up. I still don't know how I kept it down.”
A few hours later, Travers stood on the sideline at Nick Carcieri Field, setting of the R.I. Division II Super Bowl pitting Cumberland against archrival Woonsocket. Travers had gone from nervous to incredulous – he and his fellow Clippers had achieved a near-perfect, 49-0 victory over the Villa Novans, and he had just been named the winner of the Frank Morey Memorial Award, as the D-II Super Bowl’s Most Valuable Player.
“My mind's going crazy right now,” said Travers, who couldn't have scripted a better finish to his high school football career – 103 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 23 carries. “All I know is, during pre-game warmups, I talked to the guys. I said, 'We have one more promise we need to keep for Coach (Chris Skurka). We have to bring it home! Let's do it!' and we did.
“This feeling is something I'll never forget,” he said. “I don't know if I'll ever come down from this.”
Skurka and his student athletes gave the town, the school and their fans a beautiful early Christmas gift – their first undisputed Super Bowl championship. Eight years ago, Cumberland was awarded the championship despite losing the D-II title game to Tolman, 20-19, after Interscholastic League officials discovered the Tigers had used an ineligible player.
With Sunday’s triumph, the Clippers finished a remarkable 12-1 overall record, their lone blemish a 12-6 loss to Division I non-league foe Cranston West – in their season opener. In contrast with that inauspicious beginning, the Clippers closed out their campaign in fine style – on Thanksgiving morning, Skurka's crew rolled to a 32-0 blowout of Woonsocket; 10 days later, it forced the 'Novans into six turnovers and converted all but one into touchdowns.
Led by a defensive front line of junior Joshua Pizzarelli and seniors Andrew Bartlett and Kenny deHertogh III, and a linebacker corps of juniors Joe Fine and Chris Hayes, and senior Jake Gaboury – the Cumberland defense held Woonsocket senior quarterback Brett Bouchard to just six completions in 15 pass attempts, for 67 yards, and intercepted him four times.
They also sacked him twice, with one causing a fumble, while containing the Novans’ stellar senior running back Jalen Evans to 63 yards on 12 carries.
“Defensively, we ran the same scheme all year,” Skurka said after the game. “We like to bring a lot of pressure and force a quarterback into mistakes. The kids bought into that idea from day one. I've always told them, 'If you believe in it, you will be successful.’”
Besides Travers, others contributing to the Clipper cause on offense included Joe Fine, who ran for 56 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries, while senior backfield mate Dan Stock added 40 on four. And senior quarterback Brendan Guerin mustered a career day, completing 14 of 18 throws for 143 yards and two touchdowns, both to senior tri-captain Mitchell Baxter.
Baxter led the Clippers’ receivers with six receptions for 54 yards, while fellow senior Tom Lazaras snagged four catches for 44 yards. Lazaras also picked off two Woonsocket passes and recovered a fumble while playing defensive back.
“This was all about ball control and hanging onto the football,” Skurka said. “I knew they were going to come out with a big wave of emotion, with this being the Super Bowl, and I told the kids, 'If we survive that first wave, things will go our way.'
“I have a lot of respect for Coach (Carnell) Henderson and what's he done at Woonsocket; they've been to three of the last four (D-II) Bowl games,” he added.
“We have a lot of respect for them and what they've accomplished, but I can't be any prouder of our guys.” ***
The 'Novans started the game cautiously, winning the coin toss and electing to defer, thinking that if anything went wrong in the first half, they'd receive the opening boot in the third quarter.
But Cumberland took immediate advantage and assembled a game-opening 70-yard, 10-play drive that took 5:23, and culminated on Travers' one-yard dive off right guard. Sophomore Tyler Calabro split the uprights on his first of seven PAT kicks, and the Clippers gained the 7-0 advantage.
“That was huge,” Travers noted. “It gave us momentum. Once we scored that first one, we didn't look back. It kept our mood going.”
Henderson's bunch seemed as if it might answer quickly. Senior tri-captain Kyle Mulvey's 20-yard kick return gave them good field position and the Novans’ offense maneuvered 44 yards on just five snaps. Yet, with the ball on the Clippers' 26, Evans was dropped for a loss on a combined tackle by Pizzarelli and Bartlett, and Bouchard's ensuing deep strike attempt to Mulvey down the right sideline missed the target.
Cumberland used its second possession to drive 72 yards downfield, and on the 15th play, Baxter caught Guerin's throw in the right section of the end zone with 9:09 left before intermission. Calabro's boot made it 14-0.
On Woonsocket’s first play of their next series, junior Will Andino fumbled at his own 20, and Lazaras pounced on it. Guerin needed four plays to get to the Woonsocket 7, but a one-yard loss and a five-yard delay of game penalty pushed it back to the 13. Lazaras attempted a 29-yard field goal, but it sailed two feet wide left.
The 'Novans managed one first down on its ensuing drive, but were forced to punt, giving Cumberland a first-and-10 at its own 45 with just 1:47 left before halftime. It made the most of its opportunity, Baxter sealing the eight-play possession with a 10-yard TD catch with 9.3 seconds remaining.
Henderson's sqaud had a promising start in the third quarter when Bouchard found Mulvey on a 21-yard connection and Andino took a counter off left tackle nine more yards to the Clippers' 29. But Bouchard’s next throw fell incomplete, and on third-and-one, senior tri-captain Trent Vasey sacked Bouchard and forced a fumble.
Bartlett jumped on it at the Cumberland 45, and the champions needed nine plays to find the end zone again, on Travers' seven-yard left-end sweep with 5:33 left.
On Woonsocket's next series, deHertogh snatched a tipped pass from Bouchard and returned it six yards to the 3. Two plays later, Travers plunged in from the 2 to give the Clippers a 35-0 lead.
With just under 20 seconds remaining in the third, Lazaras got his first interception at the Cumberland 31 and brought it back 13 yards, and Skurka's contingent took advantage once more, with Fine scoring on a rush off right guard from the 1. On the next series, Lazaras struck again, picking off Bouchard and returning it 27 yards to the 14.
Travers' 14-yard run around right end made it 49-0.
In a last-ditch effort to spoil Cumberland's shutout, the 'Novans put together their best drive of the day, with Evans hustling for 46 yards on five carries. On his last carry, Woonsocket had pushed the pigskin to their opponent’s 19. Bouchard's eight-yard run took it down to the 11, but two plays later Baxter intercepted a would-be touchdown pass to Mulvey at the 1-yard line.
Afterwards, Lazaras headed a small group that gave Skurka a “Gatorade” shower. Skurka just turned and offered a wry smile.
“They're tough, that's all I can say,” Henderson said after accepting the state finalist plaque from Rhode Island Interscholastic League officials. “They're definitely the best defense we've seen. They've got a great football team.
“We had too many turnovers, and it's like they came at the worst possible times,” he added. “But you've got to take your hat off to that defense; they caused a lot of them. When you're that fundamentally sound, that's what's going to happen.”
After Travers accepted his MVP laurel, Lazaras stood virtually alone on his sideline, smiling wide as he peered up at the celebrating CHS fans.
“Man, this is just unbelievable!” he said. “I don't have words for it. All I can say is we have a great coach Chris Skurka, and I've got great teammates. They made all of this possible.”
BOWL BRIEFS: Senior left guard Cameron Lazenberry limped off the field with an apparent leg injury with 2:02 left in the first period, and didn't return. Skurka indicated later it wasn't serious while stating junior Chris Hayes did a masterful job in his teammate's stead … Cumberland, which rushed 39 times for 198 yards, didn't punt once the entire afternoon; the only series it didn't score was on Lazaras' missed field goal … Fine added 12 receiving yards on two catches and finished with 68 all-purpose yards … Vasey, with his father, Dean College head coach Todd, in the stands, caught one pass for 25 yards, and contributed mightily to the defensive stops … For Woonsocket, Mulvey had 35 yards on four receptions in his grid finale, while classmate Chris Holman had one for 21 and Andino one for 11 … Mulvey posted 35 yards on two kickoff returns, while Andino added 30 on three, Francisco Torres managed seven on one and Josh Trinidad four more on another.