Sports editor emeritus
PAWTUCKET — St. Raphael Academy is fielding a young football team this season that needs to minimize mistakes to reach its full potential.
“We only return three starters on each side of the ball from last year’s team,” head coach Mike Sassi was saying after the Saints lost a very winnable game against Rogers High of Newport on Saturday afternoon at Pariseau Field.
“I told the kids I can’t fault their effort,” Sassi said following the excruciating 24-20 loss. “But we made some bad mistakes in the first half. We’re going to have to show more intestinal fortitude to win games.”
The two teams went after each other all afternoon. Rogers came out in an old-fashioned I formation on offense while the Saints pounded away with their running game. After Rogers held the ball for nearly seven minutes on its opening drive, the Saints’ defense forced a stop. SRA took over on downs and went 65 yards in 7 plays, capping the drive with a 33-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Emmanuel Leake to receiver Alcino Aviles-Soares.
Rogers responded with a 12-play, 75-yard scoring march. Khalil Moon caught a 30-yard TD pass to end this drive. The Saints then took one play to go back ahead 14-6 on an 80-yard kickoff return by Alfred Dorbor three minutes into the second quarter.
Rogers again responded with a long drive, going 65 yards in 12 plays to pull within 14-12 with just 2:52 left in the first half.
Here came the Saints’ first big mistake. They went three-and-out and had to punt at the 1:43 mark. Punting into the wind, the ball went straight up in the air, landed and bounced 10 yards backwards, downed on the Saints’ 20-yard line.
On what appeared to be the final play of the half, the Saints’ defense broke up a pass in the middle of the end zone. But the referees called pass interference and gave Rogers one last play after time had run out. (A half cannot end on a penalty.) Rogers scored on a 3-yard run by Issac Garcia to take an 18-14 lead into halftime.
The Saints went back ahead 20-18 on the final play of the third quarter. Facing 4th-and-21 from the Vikings’ 29, Leake lofted a pass into the hands of James Kelly at the goal line for a crucial score and an indication of what this team can do when the pressure is on.
SRA then forced an important turnover on the next series when Dorbor intercepted a pass at the Rogers 40 and returned it 23 yards. But the offense missed a golden opportunity, turning the ball over on downs at the 9-yard line as a Leake pass fell short in the end zone.
Rogers took over and marched down the field on a series of power runs, reaching the Saints’ 27 and setting up the biggest play of the game. Facing 2nd-and-18 from the Saints’ 27, Rogers QB Quraan Bostic passed over the middle and saw his throw picked off at the goal line by linebacker Josh Alves with 4:01 left in the game.
Alves returned the ball 15 yards. When the play was completed, a yellow flag lay on the ground near where Bostic had been knocked to the ground after he threw the ball.
“The officials ruled we hit him in the face,” Sassi said. “That’s a penalty. Hands to the face.”
The call gave Rogers another life and the Vikings took advantage, running four plays to cover the final 12 yards and go ahead 24-20 with 2:24 left on a 3-yard run by Garcia.
Of course, the determined Saints would not go down without one last spirited attempt to win the game. They covered a squib kickoff at their own 36 and quickly advanced to Rogers’ 18-yard line with 1:01 left.
Dorbor gained five yards on first down. Leake then had a swing pass dropped in the right flat. On third down, Garcia stepped in front of a pass intended for Kelly in the end zone, intercepted and returned the football 20 yards with 40 seconds left on the scoreboard clock.
Rogers ran out the clock and left Pawtucket with a hard-earned victory in the Division II-B opener for both sides. The Saints gathered at midfield after post-game handshakes and listened to their coach tell them they had to do better and that the season is young. There is time to improve.
Next up for SRA is West Warwick in a 7 p.m. home game on Friday night at Pariseau Field. The Wizards fell short 28-22 to North Kingstown on Saturday.
“It’s a good group of kids,” Sassi said. “We’ll get better.”