Everyone has to start somewhere.
Beginning Monday, high school football coaches and players around Rhode Island will officially take the first steps – baby ones, mind you – in a journey that both parties hope culminates with the following symbolic gesture: Dumping a large bucket of ice water on the Super Bowl-winning coach come the first weekend in December.
Call it a shivering, euphoric reward rooted in mission accomplished. A year ago, this was Chris Skurka and his dominating Cumberland High grid outfit, one that captured all 12 of its Division II contests – seven during the regular season, two non-leaguers and three more in the playoffs – en route to providing the town with a celebration fit for a Super Bowl champion.
Time will tell if the Clippers can replicate the lofty heights climbed by their 2012 predecessors. For right now, all Skurka is concerned with is getting back to work following an offseason that to the fifth-year mentor seemed to drag on forever.
“It’s good to move on and start all over again,” stated Skurka when reached by phone over the weekend. “This group has big shoes to fill, which is absolutely true. They have the ability, but what we’ve been telling the kids is that you’ve got to believe in the program and system.
“It’s one of those things where you’ve been there and you know the hard work it takes, but you keep working at it,” Skurka continued. “You don’t worry too much about last year.”
While the 16-player senior class that proved instrumental in delivering the program’s first outright title in 40-plus years has graduated and moved on, Skurka was quick to point out that the cupboard is far from bare. For those that closely tracked Cumberland’s progress a year ago, you may recall that the vast majority of the games were decided by halftime.
Skurka did allow his high-powered unit to return for a few series in the third quarter before turning the reins over to the J.V. members. Undoubtedly, the coaching staff was probably cognizant of the idea that by providing the understudies with a taste of varsity life, the groundwork was being laid for the following season, which in a few weeks will become THIS season.
“It was a tremendous asset that a lot of the young kids were able to play in the games and experience what varsity football is like,” Skurka concurred. “They had great examples to follow.”
A new season also means a chance for new leaders of the 12th-grade variety to emerge. Skurka has already bestowed captain honors on seniors Joe Fine (tailback) and Josh Pizzarelli (defensive lineman). Both have been starting mainstays the past three seasons with Pizzarelli experiencing varsity ball as a ninth grader.
In Chris Hayes, the Clippers welcome back another key defensive cog who led the ’12 Clippers in tackles. Hayes is also a captain.
“We have a good core of kids who really contributed to our success, but there’s a lot of responsibility that goes into being a captain of a football team,” Skurka pointed out. “They (meaning Fine, Pizzarelli and Hayes) have some growing to do in that area, but that will come with time. Hopefully things fall into place and these guys learn their lesson about not taking anyone for granted and see how it goes.”
Preseason camp for Cumberland will feature numerous position battles. The most notable one figures to come at quarterback, where junior Tyler Calabro and Kyle Masse, who according to Skurka played out of position at cornerback last season, will vie to replace the void left behind by Brendan Guerin.
“Unless you’re Tom Brady, you’ve got to get better, and nothing makes you better than having someone who wants the job too. You’ve got to have competition,” was Skurka’s ode to letting the chips fall where they may. “Everyone’s job is up for grabs every year. As a coach, you have a depth chart in your head and have things in mind that you would like to see work out, but you give everyone a fair shake before making those tough decisions and moving forward.”
It’s been common to see R.I. football teams begin practicing one week ahead of the other fall sports. With Thanksgiving falling on Thursday, Nov. 28, which is the latest possible date the holiday can fall, the Interscholastic League deemed that football would have the same start-up date as soccer, cross country, volleyball and field hockey.
“It hurts a little, but everyone is dealing with the same time constraints, which makes for a level playing field,” pointed out Skurka. “If you went back to school after Labor Day, you in essence could have that week back, but no one will be able to practice more because we’ll all be in school.”
The RIIL has strict standards of how preseason practice time is conducted. The first two days are helmets only with shoulder pads introduced later in the week.
“You don’t have any contact until Day 6, which would be Saturday,” Skurka pointed out. “Work can still be accomplished without contact.”
The middle of next week is when teams are allowed to scrimmage other teams. To that end, Cumberland is lined up to face Lincoln and Portsmouth.
Skurka has been informed that the installation of a new, state-of-the-art turf surface at Tucker Field will be complete in time for the Friday, Oct. 4 game against St. Raphael. The pigskin contest is slated to serve as the official christening to the refurbished complex with Skurka noting that a pregame ceremony is in the works.
As for Cumberland’s non-leaguer against Cranston West on Saturday, Sept. 14, Skurka reports that the 2 p.m. kickoff has been shifted to Bryant University’s Bulldog Stadium.
Regarding the R.I. football officials saga, last Tuesday’s gathering at Cranston’s Pawtuxet Athletic Club produced a understanding that would allow members of the Rhode Island Football Officials Association to work R.I. high school games this autumn.
“Our association decided for the betterment of the (RIIL) and the student-athletes to remain registered and work the games,” stated Bruce Guindon, a Pawtucket native and registered official.
The parameters laid out by new official overseer Jim Ashley remain in effect, most notably the one pertaining to the vast majority of RIFOA members getting put on ice the first three weeks of the season. The exception is the 16 R.I. officials who signed on with the Interscholastic League when the RIFOA was considering going in another direction. Those 16 will be allowed to referee games beginning Friday, Sept. 13.
Guindon did mention that there remains a chance that Ashley could end up assigning a R.I. ref who doesn’t fall in the “Sweet 16” category to a game during Weeks 1-3, providing there’s an opening. All of the five-person crews overseeing games in the state’s northern sector – that’s 22 schools – will feature a mixture of Rhode Island and Massachusetts officials.
By comparison, crews assigned to the 19 schools making up the Ocean State’s southern and western tiers will be determined by Rick Bogart of the Southern Connecticut Officials Association with heavy input from Ashley. The only way that a RIFOA member could work a game outside of its northern jurisdiction would be if Bogart informs Ashley that an opening is available.
As far as Injury Fund games go, Guindon said that no assignments have been made.
Staying on topic, the Injury Fund round-robin contests that have served as a dress rehearsal for teams are slated for Thursday, Sept. 5 and Saturday, Sept. 7.
Sept. 5 will be a busy night locally. At Lincoln High’s Ferguson Field, the schedule is as follows: Shea-Woonsocket at 5 p.m., Central Falls-Tolman at 6 p.m., St. Raphael-East Providence at 7 p.m. and Cumberland-Lincoln at 8 p.m.
Over at Smithfield High, Ponaganset will take on North Smithfield at 6 p.m. followed by Johnston-North Providence at 7 and Burrillville-Smithfield an hour later.
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03