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McGAIR: Let the "real" high school football games begin

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St. Raphael head coach Mike Sassi calls it the start of a new season. In many ways, this weekend’s Rhode Island high school football schedule is just that for the majority of the local teams.

“Last week was great for our program,” said Sassi, a reference to his team’s impressive 21-7 nonleague win over North Kingstown, “but you’re still 0-0.”

The time has come to put what has amounted to nearly four weeks of preseason camp in the rearview mirror. In Divisions I through III, the 2021 campaign begins in earnest Friday night with the opening of league play, a time where teams battle it out for division championships and jockey for position in league standings, all fighting toward a common goal: to make it to that next – and final – “new” – season, a.k.a. the playoffs.

This “new” season swings into action with a “Friday Night Lights” lineup that includes two D-I games (Burrillville at North Kingstown, East Greenwich at Cumberland), three D-II contests (Tolman at West Warwick, St. Raphael at Westerly, Rogers at Lincoln) and one D-III game (North Smithfield/MSC Co-op at Chariho). Save for Rogers-Lincoln and Tolman-West Warwick, all games kick off at 7 p.m.

On Saturday, the games of local note include one D-III game (Narragansett at Central Falls/BVP Co-op, 11 a.m.) and one D-IV contest (Davies Tech at Hope, 11 a.m.).

League-wise, Division IV teams got a head start on the rest of the state last week with games that truly matter. Unlike the other three divisions, those residing in Division IV have the option of a bye week. For example, Davies Tech is off the weekend of Oct. 15-16 while Smithfield has scheduled an out-of-state game on Oct. 22 against Plainfield, Conn. 

For teams not in D-IV, it’s officially go time.

“We’ve had our preseason. The acclimatation period is over. The games count now,” said Lincoln head coach Sean Cavanaugh. “It’s time to see what we’ve got. We’ve talked about how we’re going to define ourselves as a team. Now is the time to see what we’ve got and step up.”

Added Burrillville head coach Gennaro Ferraro, “It’s great any time the scoreboard is lit up. The boys are on high alert. They know that with the proper work put in, we’re going to put forth a quality product on the field.”

The dawn of league play represents a golden chance to see if the foundation that’s been laid over the past several weeks can materialize into a successful season.

“At this point, everything has been installed,” said Ferraro. “I don’t think our identity has been proclaimed yet, but we’re on our way.”

Everyone has a fresh start and every team has high hopes entering league play. From a win-loss perspective, today represents the only time when everyone in Division I, II and III is on equal footing.

After this weekend, though, the process of separating the wheat from the chaff begins in earnest. Contenders will rise to the top, while pretenders are forced to take a backseat. It’s all part of a fascinating journey into the unknown – at least for now.

“It’s a different level of atmosphere,” said Sassi. “The kids understand. We have some unfinished business from this past spring [when the Saints fell to Barrington in the Division II Super Bowl].”

While last week’s non-league contests may not have had any direct bearing on the standings, you have to wonder how much stock or significance is placed on a game that featured an out-of-division opponent.

“Last week was definitely real,” said Sassi. “What I said to my kids once they got on the bus was that this felt more like football than at any point last spring … the atmosphere, the whole bit.”

At this stage, teams hope that the long journey ahead results in playing meaningful football come the first weekend in November. Keeping in the present, there’s more of a priority placed on making sure these young knights of the gridiron can withstand four quarters worth of pounding.

“We’re a few weeks into it now and there’s been some practice time where we can acclimate what they’re going to expect, but it still feels like they’re getting thrown into the fire,” said Cavanaugh. “You’re never comfortable whether it’s Week 1, Week 2, Week 3, or beyond, but there are no complaints. We’re playing football and we’re happy about that.”

The last sentence of Cavanaugh’s statement might as well serve as the catch phrase for the new course that teams are set to embark upon – one that’s taking place during the traditional fall months. The preseason scrimmages and non-league games are all history. Now the high school football games, pitting division opponents against each other, mean something. There’s steak and sizzle that’s undeniable.

Now it’s officially decreed – the games count.

“Everyone seems more tuned in. With that comes excitement,” said Cavanaugh. “You can’t sugarcoat it and say it’s another step on the ladder. It’s game time.”

Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03

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