Tonightâ€™s the night. High school footballâ€™s version of the â€˜Sweet Sixteenâ€™. Four teams in each of the stateâ€™s four divisions battling for the right to be the eight that will play for a Super Bowl championship this weekend.
Three local teams â€” Cumberland, Woonsocket, and North Smithfield â€” are among the 16 that will suit up tonight in their respective semifinal-round games, with the Clippers and Villa Novans playing Division II games in the friendly confines of their home fields and the Northmen heading to Providence for a Division IV contest.
The Clippers, who stormed to a 7-0 record to win the Division II-B regular-season championship this year, will entertain one of the teams they defeated along the way, West Warwick, at Tucker Field, and the Villa Novans, who were 5-2 in Division II-B play and 7-3 overall, will face a II-A team, Central, under the glow of portable lights at Barry Field.
The Northmen, meanwhile, have the toughest task in the form of a showdown with undefeated Mount Pleasant at Conley Stadium. The Kilties (8-0) have experienced only a few competitive games this season, but one of them was a 20-10 victory over the Northmen (5-3) back on Oct. 6 in North Smithfield.
If any of the three teams win tonight, they will play for a championship on Sunday. The Division II Super Bowl is at high noon at East Greenwich High, while the Division IV Super Bowl is at 3 p.m. at Cranston Stadium.
Hereâ€™s a brief look at each of tonightâ€™s three local games:
West Warwick at Cumberland
Three weeks ago, folks around the Division II circuit were predicting a Super Bowl between the two undefeated teams, the II-Bâ€™s Cumberland and II-Aâ€™s Johnston. But when Central upset Johnston in overtime in their quarterfinal-round game, that made the Clippers the clear favorite to win their first championship since 2004.
But standing in their path to East Greenwich are the Wizards, who were 4-3 in the division (8-3 overall), but played some of their best football down the stretch to secure one of the II-Bâ€™s final playoff spots.
The Clippers outscored their seven division opponents by a 236-41 margin and beat six of them by more than 18 points. The only team to give them somewhat of a problem? The Wizards, who lost by a 33-20 score (no thanks to 21 third-quarter points by Cumberland) in the two sidesâ€™ regular-season finale.
The Clippersâ€™ defense, which has been spectacular this season, will be in for another tough test tonight, as the Wizards boast a rifle-armed quarterback in sophomore Kody Greenlaugh and another standout in the backfield in junior Austin Paygai. Greenlaugh threw for over 1,000 yards this season and fired 20 touchdown passes, four in the Wizardsâ€™ 35-26 quarterfinal-round victory over Mount Hope, and Paygai ran for over 1,500 yards and scored 18 touchdowns.
But the Clippers have their own arsenal of weapons. Senior quarterback Brendan Guerin passed for 1,217 yards (most of the yardage going to senior Mitchell Baxter and Trent Vasey) and 16 TDs against just two interceptions, and seniors Erik Travers and Dan Stock and junior Joe Fine lead a balanced assault out of the backfield.
Fine and Stock also led the Clippers with 11 touchdowns each, and defensively, Chris Hayes and Fine at linebacker and Vasey at defensive end have also been stellar.
Central at Woonsocket
Every postseason, thereâ€™s usually one ballclub that rises to the ocassion and pulls off a big upset, and three weeks ago, that team was Central (4-3 in II-A play, 5-5 overall), which escaped Johnston with its quarterfinal-round triumph over the heavily-favored Panthers.
The Knights will try to carry the momentum of that victory into tonightâ€™s showdown with the Villa Novans, who won four straight games before losing on Thanksgiving morning to the Clippers.
Central doesnâ€™t have many players that jump out on the stat sheet, but the Knights do have their share of playmakers, starting with sophomore quarterback Leonard Brown and continuing with running backs and senior tri-captains Carlos Magnum and Kwame Ireland. Defensively, the Knightsâ€™ other senior tri-captain, defensive tackle Clarence Gallop, helps give Central some decent size up front and leads a unit that was among the divisionâ€™s leaders in fewest points allowed.
Itâ€™s no secret who leads the Novansâ€™ attack, senior tailback Jalen Evans, who bounced back from an injury-filled junior year to rush for over 1,000 yards and score 13 of Woonsocketâ€™s 28 touchdowns this season.
But Woonsocket has been far from a one-player team. Junior tailback Will Andino also scored six TDs and produced some big yardage at critical times during the year, and senior quarterback Brett Bouchard quietly tossed seven touchdown passes. The Villa Novansâ€™ senior captains, wide receiver/defensive back Kyle Mulvey and linemen Brian Cahill and Ryan Lagasse, also make this team go.
North Smithfield at Mount Pleasant
The Northmen, like Central, will be vying to pull an upset of their own and derail the Kilties in their pursuit of their third straight Division IV title. The Kilties outscored their eight league opponents by a 301-88 margin, but only two teams managed to take the defending champs the distance before losing by 10 points, North Providence in their season opener, 40-30, and the Northmen.
Itâ€™s been some time since the Northmen came through with an impressive victory. They punched their ticket to the playoffs with a well-played 42-17 victory over Smithfield back on Nov. 2, but they followed that game up with an 8-7 loss to Central Falls and then an expectedly easy Thanksgiving Eve victory over the worst team in the state, Scituate. Beating the Kilties and reaching their first Super Bowl in the programâ€™s 45-year history would be indeed spectacular.
The Kilties, which dresses just 30 players, like to do the bulk of their damage on the ground. One of the top players from the last two championship seasons, senior Montrell Hopper, and freshman phenom Albert Zieh, each have scored 13 touchdowns and ran for over 1,500 yards, and their mammoth line, which features a 355-pound tackle in Brian Miller and a 250-pound center in Olu Animashaun, has been a big key to the running game.
The Northmen, who have lost in the semifinals of the Division IV playoffs the last two years, will try to make their third time back to this round the charm behind one of the smallest teams in the state numbers-wise (24), but one that is sparked by a group of seniors determined to get to the Super Bowl.
Running back and multi 1,000-yard rusher Paris Correia, quarterback Dan Jordan, linemen Anthony Cabral and Ryan Masnyk, and wide receiver Justin York lead the 12th graders, and junior Peter Keenan is another valuable player.