WARWICK — This isn’t the same St. Raphael Academy outfit that started out the year – not by a long shot.
Gone are the lingering memories of a 2-4 beginning that featured shutout losses to Hendricken, Tolman and Woonsocket, while the wins coming at the expense of Pilgrim and West Warwick, two squads with a combined 1-11 in league play. In a frenetic two-week turnaround, SRA has seen its season go from being on the brink to one that will include a postseason appearance for the first time since winning the Division I Super Bowl three years ago.
St. Raphael solidified a playoff spot after a sound 21-0 showing at Toll Gate Saturday, a performance that speaks volumes about just how far Mike Sassi’s club has come. Instead of placing the offensive burden strictly in the hands of quarterback Trevor Vasey, the Saints featured a ball-control style that against the Titans racked up 135 rushing yards on 38 attempts.
Vasey finished with modest numbers – 3-of-7 for 76 yards and a score. Instead of being asked to win the game single-handedly, the senior managed a Saints’ attack that did not turn the ball over.
“In past years we probably had better receivers, but this year we have better running backs,” Vasey said after a jubilant postgame gathering.
“Our receivers are good, but we have fast running backs, which are suited for our scheme.”
Sassi admits that it took some time to realize what “scheme” would best match up with the personnel. The SRA head coach junked the spread offense in favor of a deceptive Wing-T attack after getting held off the scoreboard in consecutive weeks to open the campaign. While the switch helped remove a tremendous amount of pressure off Vasey, it also helped Sassi realize that if the Saints were going to become a factor in Division II, then controlling the clock would be the best means.
“We weren’t running the ball at all when (Vasey) was in the (shot) gun,” said Sassi, his Saints now 4-2 in II-B, good for third place in the subdivision. “In a game like this one (Saturday), you want to keep the defense off the field and get into a ground game, which the Wing-T allows you to do.”
SRA showed just how committed it was to controlling the tempo on its first possession. Facing a fourth-and-1 from its own 29-yard line, Sassi opted to throw caution to the wind. The offense remained on the field, the only difference being that the ball would now be hiked on a different count. Toll Gate bit on the fake as encroachment on the defense was whistled, the five-yard penalty rewarding St. Raphael with a fresh set of downs.
“If they did not jump, I was going to go with a quarterback sneak,” Sassi said afterwards about choosing innovative over conservative, i.e. punt. “I probably would have been raked over the coals if we didn’t make it, but I wanted to show the kids (the difference) between taking a win instead of letting it come to us.”
The players justified their coach’s faith in them in no time. On the ensuing play Vasey rolled to his right and found tight end Davon Robertson for a 40-yard catch-and-run. The next play saw sophomore Charles Correa, who has emerged as a RB/WR hybrid, run a toss sweep to the left side, covering 27 yards untouched for a 7-0 SRA lead. Correa’s day was cut short when the sophomore took a helmet to his left knee in the third quarter, though Sassi didn’t seem overly concerned that the injury was anything more than a mere bruise.
The Titans, who with the loss were eliminated from playoff consideration, spent most of Saturday shooting themselves in the foot. Toll Gate turned the ball over seven times (three interceptions, four fumbles). No Titan miscue was felt more than the one by Anthony Wesley on the opening possession of the second half. After watching a drive fizzle out at SRA’s 4 at the end of the first half, Toll Gate took the kickoff and proceeded to march 50 yards on three rushes by Derick Durand. Wesley then got the ball on first-and-goal from the 9, making a dash to the left side for what seemed an easy Toll Gate score.
As he crossed the goal line Wesley had the ball pop free, SRA senior Calvin Contreras notching the recovery at the 7. Toll Gate would spend the rest of the game in self-destruction mode. Five of the team’s seven offensive series in the second half ended with St. Raphael taking the ball away. After starting out 3-0, the Titans now stand at 3-3, having been blanked three straight weeks.
One Saint who has made significant strides is Robertson, a 6-foot-6 transfer from Swansea. Defensively he used his height to his advantage, viciously swatting back an attempt by Toll Gate quarterback Mitchell Howkins in the second quarter. Robertson was again a thorn in the Titans’ side in the fourth, this time pinning Howkins to the ground for a sack. One play later Robertson furthered his impressive day by adding an interception.
On the offensive side Robertson hauled in a 23-yard scoring strike from Vasey to cap off a 13-point first quarter for the Saints. Originally the pass appeared intended for junior Zachary Mays in the right corner of the end zone. At the last second Robertson entered the picture and wound up making the grab.
“He was a little green to start the year, but like so many guys he’s come a long way,” said Sassi. “He was the fourth option on the TD, but Trevor was able to find him.”
Another key development has been Vasey’s scrambling ability, which in turn has allowed the receivers to either finish or adjust their routes. Though the Titans sacked him twice, Vasey on several occasions was able to buy enough time with his feet so that the Saints would not be hit with a substantial loss.
“People don’t think of him as a scrambler because he’s so big,” said Sassi of Vasey.
“When he gets outside he has such great vision.”
From a team struggling to find its identity to one that can finish no worse than third place – that’s the merry-go-round that has been St. Raphael’s season. If anything, the Saints are a shining example that a team is never completely cooked after only a handful of games.
“We just weren’t ready to go,” said Sassi, “but we’ve gotten better every week.”
Added Vasey, “A lot of people doubted us, but we’ve clicked. Our mentality is so much stronger.”