WOONSOCKET — A single image defined Woonsocket High’s incredulously disappointing 15-14 loss to St. Raphael Academy on Saturday afternoon.
Perhaps 15 minutes after the R.I. Division II quarterfinal defeat, junior running back/linebacker Jaston Robinson exited the Barry Field clubhouse doors and – after being approached by a WHS parent – fell into his arms and sobbed.
As a true-maroon Villa Novan, he had every reason, as a controversial officiating call resulted in the Saints celebrating a dramatic, thrilling victory over one of Rhode Island’s premier programs. And, because of this mighty strange finale, it will be St. Raphael – not Woonsocket – which will battle Cumberland in a tourney semifinal at Tucker Field at 7 p.m., Friday.
To describe: The Saints held a 15-14 cushion with 1:47 remaining in regulation when head coach Mike Sassi indicated to the officiating crew that junior quarterback Emmanuel Leake would take a knee to run out the clock.
On a first-and-10 from his own 21, Leake did just that and lost a yard. With about 1:22 left, however, Leake handed the ball to senior fullback Josh Alves on a second-and-11, and Robinson apparently had ripped the ball from his cradle as he fell to the turf without a gain.
Refs immediately threw their flags and explained SRA would be penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct, noting that because Leake didn’t drop to his knee as previously planned and someone else touched the ball, a 10-yard (half the distance) assessment would be enforced.
Woonsocket mentor Carnell Henderson needed milliseconds to argue the call, stating that it was – in fact – a legal down, and the Saints should face at least a third-and-long, if not earn possession.
Those pleas were denied, as one official explained it was a “dead ball foul,” meaning the play never occurred, and that – with the infraction – Sassi’s bunch would face a second-and-21 from its own 11.
After both coaches spoke with the crew, Leake hit two more knees, and the Saints began their intense, immense celebration.
“I should’ve told the refs that I wanted to run the ball,” Sassi stated after his squad improved to 6-3. “My biggest fear was having to punt the ball. I thought we may have needed to run it on more time so the clock would run down; it was bad math on my part, which is pretty bad considering I teach math.
“On first down, I asked Emmanuel to take a knee, then I tried to run a regular play,” he added. “That was my fault, but there was no intent, except I wanted to make sure we didn’t give the ball away.”
Offered a disgruntled Henderson once his team fell to 7-3 overall and was ousted from the playoff picture: “That was my argument; if there wasn’t (an Alves rush), then they should have put time back on the clock. The other argument was they still called it second down instead of third. They said they had blown the ball dead before it started, but – if that’s the case – there should be more time added on.
“Overall, it was a great effort and a great football game,” he continued. “The Saints came out in the second half and made some adjustments, but I thought we played well, good hard-nosed defense. It’s very rare that a game like this only has one turnover, but we had one, and it cost us.”
In the end, Woonsocket senior tailback Will Andino led all rushers with 131 yards on 25 handles, while Robinson managed 25 on six. Through the air, junior signal caller Miguel Raymond completed seven of 16 passes for 68 yards and a TD, with his main targets senior Josh Trinidad (four snags, 27 yards) and junior tight end Austin Wolter (2-35).
As for the Saints’ three-pronged attack, senior tri-captain Alfred Dorbor hustled for 63 on 17 and fellow captain Josh Alves 41 on a dozen. Leake himself only landed five of 14 aerials, but did so for 128 yards.
All seemed well for the Novans as they entered the final half with a 14-0 cushion, but Sassi and Co. sliced the gap after the opening kickoff. It drove 70 yards on seven snaps, ending on Alves’ one-yard plunge.
Highlighting the possession, which took only 2:52, were Leake’s 23-yard toss to Dorbor and a 21-yarder to senior James Kelly.
Jake Davis booted the PAT, and that moved the Saints a bit closer at 14-7.
Woonsocket did nothing with its next drive, but – with 5:34 remaining in the third – began to roll. On a first-and-10 situation from his own 19, Raymond found Wolter open in the right flat for 19 yards, and – eight plays later – the Novans found themselves at the visitors’ 7.
Raymond underthrew Trinidad on a third-and-five, then tossed behind Wolter stationed near the goal line. Both incompletions gave SRA the ball back.
On the third snap of the fourth period, Leake faded back, hitched to his left and sent an aerial in Kelly’s direction; he snared it on the left hash at about the 45 and sprinted the remaining distance to post a stellar 79-yard scoring reception.
The Saints had lined up Davis to kick the extra point and tie it, but the Novans were called for encroachment; with the pigskin only a yard and a half from paydirt, Sassi sent in Alves, and he was stopped cold at the line of scrimmage. He nevertheless bulled his way into the end zone to give the Pawtucketers the 15-14 lead with 11:26 left to play.
Woonsocket did pose a threat on its next drive, moving to the Saints’ 43, though nothing came of it, and the defense (paced by senior end Steven Toetee, who had a spectacular outing) stopped the Novans’ cold again.
But the hosts did get the ball back for one final opportunity with 2:27 remaining. After two consecutive incompletions, Andino mustered a 17-yard jaunt off right tackle to move the chains, and – on the play – officials tacked on 15 more for a Saints’ personal foul.
With a first-and-10 chance at the 32, Raymond overthrew Trinidad, and Andino looked to get a first down on a bull rush off left tackle.
On his way down, however, he fumbled, and Alves claimed the recovery. That just set up the more than dramatic finish.
“I’m really proud of these guys,” Sassi said as he cradled his youngest daughter in his arms. “Instead of hanging their heads after being down 14-0, they kept fighting. We didn’t get down. We made some adjustments at halftime, and they seemed to work pretty well (one was to tighten his offense into a half-circle around Leake, and run plays from there).
“Emmanuel didn’t complete a lot of passes in the first half, but that’s because he wasn’t stepping into it,” he added. “Defensively, we’re getting better every week. It’s hard to replicate their speed (in practice), and they got the edge on us a few times, but we did a great job of adjusting in the second half. We’re predominantly a junior team, so the experience they’re getting now is only going to help in the future.”
Excepting one possession in the opening two periods, the Novans dominated. They took its initial drive 41 yards on five plays (following a 15-yard SRA facemask infraction) culminating on Raymond’s 18-yard touchdown toss to Wolter. Andino took the direct snap on the two-pointer and plunged off the left guard to give Woonsocket an 8-0 lead with only 2:51 elapsed.
At the start of the second quarter, Henderson’s contingent formulated another solid possession, maneuvering 71 yards on 12 calls ending on Robinson’s one-yard dive off right guard. The Novans prepared to collect the two-pointer, but two penalties – one for a false start, the next for delay of game – pushed them back to the 13.
Raymond’s aerial to Raymond in the back right corner of the end zone, however, fell to the turf. Had Woonsocket hit that, they would’ve snatched a 16-0 cushion.
Immediately, the Saints responded, 47 plays on 12 snaps, but Davis’ 38-yard field goal try fell short and left with 54.6 seconds left before intermission.
Another statistic that didn’t help: Officials whistled the Novans for nine penalties, good for a minus-51 yards. SRA itself Saints had six for a negative 65.
Just a year ago this week, Woonsocket claimed a dramatic, amazing 29-28 quarterfinal decision over the Saints at their Pariseau Field home after an SRA infraction on a PAT gave them a 1.5-yard advantage. Henderson chose to go for a pair, and it succeeded.
The conversion giveth – and taketh away.
“It’s a gift and a curse,” Henderson sighed. “They were going to go for the point after, but then we had the flag. We had the run bottled up, but we didn’t make the tackle. They just made one more play than we did.