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Woonsocket High head coach Carnell Henderson believes it, and so does Shea mentor Dino Campopiano.
Both understand that those teams that make up the stateâ€™s Division I is still superior in talent, but that the league in which they compete is the toughest from top to bottom.
Really, who can argue? This season, the Villa Novans will face in their II-A bracket the likes of Coventry, Chariho, Johnston and Mount Hope, while Campopianoâ€™s Raiders will have the task of battling defending league champion Cumberland, St. Raphael, North Kingstown, Central and Rogers in II-B.
â€śItâ€™s so competitive and so deep, itâ€™s really hard to do well,â€ť Campopiano stated at a recent practice at Max Read Field. â€śObviously, Division I is still the cream of the crop, but D-II, I believe, is the most competitive because thatâ€™s where most of the teams fit.
â€śOf course, Iâ€™m talking about most of the boysâ€™ sports,â€ť he added with a grin. â€śI canâ€™t speak for the females.â€ť
Likewise, most teams in the Blackstone Valley area (five) belong to that second tier, and all of them will begin action tonight and Saturday. How they fare should indicate how well theyâ€™re conditioned and prepared for the task at hand.
To discover more about your squad of choice and what it may deliver this fall, these thumbnail sketches on each should help.
Head coach: Jeff Lapierre (first year)
2012 results: 4-8 overall, 3-5 Division IV
Key players: Alex Gonzalez, senior, C/LB/DT; Malik Velasquez, junior, QB/DB; Julian Soares, senior, TE/FS; Israel Hernandez, senior, WR/SS; Danny Teixeira, junior, OT/OLB; Carlos Hernandez, freshman, WR/DE; Chris Fontes, sophomore, C/DT; Luis Gracia, sophomore, RB/CB; John Valdez, junior, OT/DT; Jared Ferreira, junior, WR/LB.
Outlook: The Warriors return only a few starters on each side of the ball, so theyâ€™re rather young and inexperienced, but Lapierre loves how a core group of players have taken it upon themselves to mentor their younger teammates at their positions. He indicated those who have provided such leadership include Velasquez, Gonzalez and Ferreira. In an Injury Fund scrimmage on Sept. 5, CF suffered a 35-0 beating to Division I foe Tolman, but Lapierreâ€™s crew looked fantastic on its opening drive, not so good on ensuing possessions.
Coach Lapierreâ€™s take: â€śCertainly, our goal is to make the playoffs, just like always. Iâ€™m not going to minimize how young we are overall, but we do have some upperclassmen to lead the way. Iâ€™m sure youâ€™ve heard this before â€“ call it a rehearsed answer â€“ but weâ€™ve got to get better every day. We have to tighten up the loose screws, figure out why we werenâ€™t so successful in the Injury Fund game. Weâ€™ve watched game films and pointed out to the players why we werenâ€™t successful on this or that play. Weâ€™re hoping that we get better (in practices) before we face Middletown, (its opponent tonight at 7 at Gaudet Middle School).
Head coach: Chris Skurka
2012 results: 12-1 overall, 8-0 Division II
Key players: Chris Hayes, senior, TE/LB; Josh Pizzarelli, senior, OG/DE; Kyle Masse, senior, WR/CB; Joe Fine, junior, FB/LB; Tyler Calabro, junior, QB/FS; John Sikie, senior, OT/DE; Jared Talbert, junior, RB.
Outlook: Skurka explained he has five offensive returning starters and six defensively from a team that raked all D-II foes and compiled an amazing 12-1 overall mark (the lone defeat a 7-6 verdict to Cranston West in its non-league opener. His 2012 Clippers also crushed Westerly (41-6) and West Warwick (48-12) in two playoff tilts before trouncing Thanksgiving Day rival Woonsocket (again), 49-0, in the Super Bowl last December. His club outscored its opponents, on average, 36-6.
Coach Skurkaâ€™s take: â€śThe season we had, I think it was good for the town. The kids who won that championship worked so hard, and I was more pleased for them. We had set the goal the year before to win the title, especially after losing the semifinal to Chariho, 14-7. (The seniorsâ€™) goal as juniors was to get back to the semis, and then go from there. This time, itâ€™s going to take the kids taking it one game at a time, just like last season. You canâ€™t look ahead. Youâ€™ve got to stay healthy; last year, we were blessed with very few injuries, and weâ€™re going to need the same luck this time.â€ť
Head coach: Mike Sassi
2012 results: 6-4 overall, 5-2 Division II. (lost to Woonsocket, 29-28, in quarterfinal)
Key players: Kevin Garcia, senior, OG/DL; Josh Alves, senior, FB/MLB; Emmanuel Leake, senior, QB/CB; Alfred Dorbor, junior, RB, DB; James Kelly, junior, RB/FS; Bob Bracken, senior, TE/LB; Kaleel Harley, sophomore, WR/SS.
Outlook: That triple-overtime defeat to the Villa Novans last still doesnâ€™t sit well with Sassi, but he says this new group is working hard and has a desire to improve. He returns only three offensive and defensive starters, but almost all are at the skill positions, including Leake, Alves and Garcia, his tri-captains. He admitted he and his staff tried four different centers to bolster the offensive line, but senior Gage Crossett has looked good, so has made the move from guard.
Coach Sassiâ€™s take: â€śItâ€™s still too early to tell just how young we are on the offensive line; our left guard is sophomore Josh Johnson, and our right tackle a first-year kid and hockey player, (junior) Nathan Duffy, and theyâ€™re not bad. Weâ€™re still a work in progress, but weâ€™re getting better. Like the Red Sox, we have a lot of hard-working kids; weâ€™re just going to have to open some holes to get our backs some openings. As for (signal caller) Leake, we also have to give him time to find the open receivers. He started seven or eight games last season, so itâ€™s time for him to step up. Bracken brings some toughness to our team, and he leads by example. Weâ€™ll see how the early part of the season goes.â€ť
Head coach: Dino Campopiano
2012 results: 5-5 overall (3-4 Division II)
Key players: Tyâ€™Shon Ashe, senior, QB/FS; Lee McCarty, senior, WR/LB/QB; Evan Mathias, junior, RB/LB; Kevin Lopes, senior, WR/LB; Alfred Dorbor, senior, RB/CB; Mommadou Mbaye, junior, RB/CB; Jared Mainville, junior, DE; Leandro DeBrito, sophomore, WR/DE/K; Bryan Mosqueira, sophomore, OL/DL; Yanique Duarte, freshman, RB.
Outlook: The Raiders eked out a 7-0 victory over Woonsocket in their Injury Fund meeting on Sept. 5, and displayed both speed and aggressiveness both offensively and defensively. On the downside, Campopiano has only two starters returning, and none on the offensive line. For Shea to be successful, those comprising that line must give Ashe time to work his magic with his arm, and his backfield mates holes to penetrate. How quickly the coachâ€™s youngsters jell will go along way in dictating the Raidersâ€™ success moving the ball, and getting off the field defensively. He loves how the freshman Duarte has looked in preseason workouts; Campopiano claimed heâ€™s a tough runner with good speed and can â€ścut on a dime.â€ť
Coach Campopianoâ€™s take: â€śI hate calling my teams young, but this on is as fvar as experience goes. Still, theyâ€™ve done a great job all through camp. Theyâ€™re working hard and doing everything I or my coaches have asked them. I think we have a lot of team speed, but the line hasnâ€™t seen much time on the varsity level. Theyâ€™re working their butts off, and theyâ€™re doing everything they can to get better. You canâ€™t ask for more than that.â€ť
Head coach: Dave Waycott
2012 results: 0-8, Division III
Key players: Tyge Joyce, Senior OL/DB; Cory Gaskell, Senior RB/LB; Giovanni Gray, Senior OL/DL; Joshua Etienne, Senior OL/DL; Daniel Escobar, Senior QB/DB; Michael Morra, Junior RB/LB.
Outlook: Saying that the past two seasons have been a struggle for the Lions would be an understatement â€“ one win in 16 league chances and zero wins at Ferguson Field. What happened in the past stays in the past, as Waycott is cautiously optimistic that this yearâ€™s squad possesses the necessary ingredients to be competitive week in and week out. â€¦ One player to keep an eye on his sophomore Thaddeus Moss, whose father is former NFL receiving great Randy Moss. Listed at 6-foot-4, Thaddeus enrolled at Lincoln High late last spring and will factor prominently on both sides of the ball. Heâ€™s listed a tight end and defensive end. â€¦ Waycott noted that he has a stable of running backs, which in turn could lead to some interesting formations. â€¦ The offensive line will return three starters with fresh faces at both guard spots and center. â€¦ Numbers wise, Waycott reports that he has close to 80 kids between the varsity and junior varsity. There are 29 sophomores in the program. â€¦ Waycottâ€™s staff is comprised of five new assistant coaches.
Coach Waycottâ€™s take: â€śTheyâ€™re tired of getting stomped on. Theyâ€™re ready. I say that, but we still have a lot of evaluating to do. Everything is there, however. Right now, Iâ€™m very happy with the way things have evolved.â€ť
Head coach: Dave Caito
2012 results: 6-5 overall, 3-5 Division I
Key players: Daniel Stubbs, senior, OG/DT; Prince Johnson, junior, RB/CB; Corey Hughes, junior, QB/CB; Cody Bizier, senior, RB-OLB; Nate Gagnon, junior, OG/DT.
Outlook: The Tigers missed out on a playoff berth last season by one spot, finishing behind league and La Salle, Hendricken, Cranston East and Portsmouth, respectively. Caito will bring back only a few starters on each side of the ball, but does believe that can and will be just the foundation his squad will need. They include Stubbs, Gagnon and Bizier. The good news: Tolman looked superb in a 34-0 Injury Fund blowout of Central Falls on Sept. 5.
Coach Caitoâ€™s take: â€śThe thing weâ€™ve been stressing in practice is getting a little bit better every single day. (Against CF), it was our offensive lineâ€™s first varsity start together, but they made an audible on the line on the very first play, and Johnson went 82 yards for the touchdown. The line changed the play from a blast, which may have picked up eight, nine yards, to a belly (outside), and it went for the first score. We give them that leeway. The line is really starting to jell, and weâ€™re going to need that to continue. I think we can earn a playoff spot this year, but itâ€™s the toughest division (top to bottom) in the state, and weâ€™re starting off against the four teams that made the playoffs last season. Cranston East, which finished third, then La Salle (first), Hendricken (second) and then Portsmouth. They werenâ€™t that favorable with our schedule. Weâ€™ve gotten better in every scrimmage weâ€™ve had, so weâ€™ll see. I call this group a bunch of construction workers. Thatâ€™s their mindset, come to work every day and buckle down on their jobs.â€ť
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03