PAWTUCKET — Moments after St. Raphael Academy had claimed a controversial, down-to-the-wire, stunning 15-14 triumph over Woonsocket High on Saturday afternoon, head coach Mike Sassi stood at Barry Field with his youngest daughter in his arms speaking with media types.
When asked if he would revel in the come-from-behind win in a R.I. Division II quarterfinal for at least a few hours, Sassi smiled, “I'm already done enjoying it. I'll be thinking about Cumberland on the bus ride home … It was a heckuva battle last time (early October), but they made some plays in the fourth quarter that we didn't.”
Fast forward to Sunday afternoon, and Sassi – after a near four-hour meeting with his coaching staff at the Saints' Alumni & Wellness Center – expounded upon the victory and what it means to his squad.
“I did think about it on the bus; it's a sickness I have,” Sassi joked. “You go back to the '07 season when we were undefeated, and we played Hendricken in the Super Bowl at Pierce (Memorial Stadium). We won that game, but I was thinking about the next game (naturally, there wasn't one).
“(The win Saturday), I stood with my team on the sideline when it was over, and I was still so intense I couldn't let it go. I started thinking about the next one.
“I'm extremely happy for the kids, especially the seniors,” he continued. “You know what? I'm also happy for last year's seniors. The way we lost that game (a 29-28 triple-overtime quarterfinal loss to these same Villa Novans a season ago this same week), that was probably one of the top three toughest losses I've had in my career.
“We were the team up 13-0 at halftime, but then things slowly went downhill. This win is really satisfying, but we have a lot more work ahead.”
Last November, Woonsocket surged back to claim its bid to the semifinal by way of a two-point conversion. This time, with the Saints behind 14-7 early in the fourth, junior quarterback Emmanuel Leake completed a 79-yard touchdown toss to classmate James Kelly, and Sassi's crew lined up for the PAT kick to tie it.
After Carnell Henderson's Novans had been whistled for an encroachment infraction, the officials moved the ball 1.5 yards closer, and Sassi opted for the two-point conversion to take the lead.
Fellow junior Josh Alves took the handoff off left guard and was halted just shy of the line of scrimmage, but eventually bulled his way into the end zone for the 15-14 advantage.
Woonsocket tried in vain to regain the lead.
“I could've looked either really smart or really stupid, but Josh made me look smart,” Sassi offered. “There were numerous reasons I went for the 'two' there; first, our center had bounced the snap to the holder after our first TD, and, second, we were only a yard-and-a-half away. I had all the confidence in the world our offensive line would get it done.
“Josh was stopped, but he somehow pushed it in. That's one thing I'll say about that kid; when he's contacted, those legs are still driving. He got hit about a yard behind the line of scrimmage, but he was still churning. He was determined to get in the end zone.
“I really didn't think it was going to end 15-14 at that point, because we both were moving the ball,” he added. “The thing I'm most proud of was our kids didn't quit down 14-0. We kept playing. We made some adjustments at halftime, and the kids seemed to understand those adjustments. We (as coaches) also let them know that this wasn't over.
“Faced with the same situation earlier in the season, I don't think we would've won this game. We've just come a long way as a team. You just can't take away from the experience (factor). We're a very young team; I like to say we're junior-based. It took us a while to figure out who we were, put a finger on what we did best.
“Early on, we were 1-2 in league (II-B) and 1-3 overall, and it was hard to figure out what our identity was because we're so young, but we were able to accelerate the learning process. We did that with repetitions, and it was a matter of the kids buying into what we were teaching them.
“The younger kids had to get used to varsity speed and learning how to be productive. They began going out and making plays.”
Sassi also noted he was particularly displeased with the way his Saints started the tilt against Woonsocket. He indicated he saw his players' minds spinning.
The way he phrased it: “They were thinking, 'Oh, my God! We're in the playoffs!' They were like deer stuck in the headlights, but their confidence grew as time went on, and they discovered, 'Hey, we can play with these guys.'”
As for the next task at hand, SRA will travel to Tucker Field to take on the Clippers for the second time this season. During the initial contest – one that had been slated for Friday, Oct. 4 at Cumberland but was postponed because the new field turf there wasn't ready – the Saints dropped a 24-17 verdict at Max Read Field.
“We were up, 17-10, with about eight minutes left, but they converted a screen pass on a third-and-10, and in their own territory,” he stated. “That went 'yard.' Then we got stopped and had to punt the ball, and they scored again with about 30 seconds left. They completed a long pass down the middle, and that set up their final TD.
“The good thing was we played good defense for three quarters – we had only allowed three points going into the fourth – but then we made some really bad plays,” he continued. “We dropped a punt, we fumbled; we just did a bad job of respecting the ball, and that's the bottom line.”
When asked if his club could manufacture a victory over the Clippers if the Saints played the same way they did against the Novans in the final half on Saturday, Sassi offered, “I don't know. It's a different team.”
He also explained how well Cumberland (7-2) prepares for each game, and the fact he knows a lot about its mentor, Chris Skurka.
“Chris is an excellent coach; he was my defensive coordinator (at St. Raphael) when we won the state championship back in '07,” he said. “He's also one of my better friends in the coaching world. He knows as well as anyone (regarding) how to defend my offense.
“He also knows I'm a pain in the butt to prepare for because I'm always mixing things up,” he added with a chuckle. “That's one of the running jokes in our coaching fraternity. Still, Chris does a great job of readying his kids.”
It's Sassi's “M.O.,” refusing to yield as little information about his game plan as possible. In fact, when faced with the query, “What specifically do you think you need to do to win?” he balked.
Remaining right in character, he merely stated, “It's great to keep our season going. That's one of the reasons coaches coach and players play. Everyone wants to be in the hunt to raise a trophy at the end of the year.
“It's really that simple; we need to take care of the football. I don't think you can put your finger on any one thing. They're the defending state Division II champions, and – the way they've played (this campaign) – they deserve to be there. We're happy to be in the state semis. After all, it's better than the alternative.
“We'll see what happens.”