On the surface, Friday night’s game won’t mean anything for the Bishop Hendricken football team, at least not in terms of its place in the standings. Win or lose, the Hawks will be the No. 2 seed in the Division I playoffs.
But the game is Hendricken-La Salle, and regardless of what is actually at stake, the game means quite a bit.
It always does.
“The game means everything,” Hendricken head coach Keith Croft said. “It’s Hendricken and La Salle. We still want to win. We’re competitive by nature. We want to win every game on our schedule.”
This year’s showdown between two of Rhode Island’s most storied football programs – and the two that have thoroughly dominated the landscape in recent seasons – will have a decidedly different backdrop than past meetings.
Hendricken is on a quest for its fourth straight Super Bowl title, the last two of which came in upset fashion over previously unbeaten La Salle teams. The Hawks are 6-1 in Division I, ranked No. 2 in the state and a lock for the postseason already.
They’ll host No. 3 seed Portsmouth in the D-I semifinals when the postseason opens up on Tuesday, Dec. 3. They are, however, coming off their first loss of the season, a 7-0 defeat to unbeaten Barrington this past Friday.
Getting back on the right track is as important as anything right now for Hendricken, which doesn’t want to head into the postseason with consecutive losses. The program hasn’t lost two straight league games since 2008.
Coming off the defeat to the Eagles, a game that decided first place in the division, Hendricken is doing its best to regroup and avoid another letdown.
“It’s been a little more difficult to turn the page because it was a game that we all wanted,” Croft said. “The coaches wanted it, the players wanted it, the fans wanted it. But you know, it’s Ram week, so you have to turn the page. You don’t have a choice.”
The last two “Ram Weeks” have featured unbeaten La Salle teams traveling to Hendricken and dominating the Hawks on their way to unbeaten regular seasons.
This year, even after Hendricken’s loss to Barrington, it’s the Rams who are the substantial underdogs.
La Salle is 3-3 in Division I and is battling with Cranston East, Cranston West and East Providence for the No. 4 seed in the D-I playoffs. The Rams, ranked fifth in the state, lost 36-13 last week to Cranston East, giving the ’Bolts control of their own destiny, while leaving La Salle needing at least a split in its final two games and an East loss to Cranston West on Thanksgiving to have a shot at getting in.
La Salle could make its path a lot easier by winning on Friday.
“They have every reason in the world to want to win this game,” Croft said. “Honestly it’s such a big rivalry that records don’t really matter. The fan bases are into it. If you name any of the big rivalries around Rhode Island, you really don’t need extra motivation.”
Still, if there was ever a time for extra motivation on the La Salle side, it’s now. It hasn’t missed the playoffs since 1999, but a loss on Friday night would push it to the brink of elimination.
In fact, a loss would give the Rams four league losses for the first time this century. Their three losses this season marks just the second time they’ve hit that number since 2000. This is the first time in four years that neither Hendricken nor La Salle is undefeated.
“I think the atmosphere will probably be a little different,” Croft said. “There’s so much that’s at stake for them. For us, I don’t think we’ll notice a lot of differences.”
And just because La Salle is struggling a little more than usual, that doesn’t mean it’s not a dangerous team. The Rams nearly handed Barrington its first loss of the season two weeks ago in a 7-6 defeat, and though they’re younger than they have been the past few years, they still have weapons all over the field.
It starts on the ground, where La Salle is one of the most physical teams in the state. Junior running back Don’Trae’ Odufunade is the team’s leading rusher with almost 800 yards and six touchdowns, while senior Louis Varrichione and sophomore Kyron Lopes also get in on the action.
Paving the way is lineman Gian Calise, who is imposing at 265 pounds.
The Rams can throw, too, and have one of the best receivers in the state in senior Keon Wilson. A key part of the last two Super Bowl runner-up teams, Wilson has 34 catches for 597 yards and seven touchdowns this season. No one else on the team has more than eight catches.
The player in charge of throwing the ball is sophomore Jace Pena, who struggled some early in the season but has progressed into a serviceable signal caller. He’s thrown for nine touchdowns this year. Lopes also takes snaps in the wildcat formation on occasion.
Still, the offense hasn’t exactly taken off so far this year. Only winless Tolman and Cranston West have scored fewer points in D-I than the Rams.
“Running game is very solid,” Croft said. “They have a lot of athletes on the field. Typical La Salle team – aggressive, physical, athletic.”
Defensively, the Rams are paced by linebacker Brendan Lippe, as well as standout sophomore C.J. Waite and Nick Varrichione. They’ve allowed the third-fewest points in D-I, as only Hendricken – which has allowed a stingy 66 points in seven games – and Barrington are better.
Naturally, the Hawks have some of the best players in the state on their roster too, with running back Remington Blue, receivers Lee Moses, Michael Scarcella and Mitch Lucci, quarterback Patrick Gill, linebacker Tom St. Pierre and defensive backs Matt Duffie and Power Kanga, to name a few.
But the adage about throwing the records out the window when these two teams meet is usually accurate. Hendricken should be the favorite on paper, yet the past has shown that with these two teams, that doesn’t always mean that much.
Throw in the Hawks’ already-locked up playoff spot and the Rams’ desperation, and the game could go any number of ways.
Really, that’s the beauty of Hendricken-La Salle – there’s always something at stake.
“I tell the kids this all the time,” Croft said. “This is what you came to Hendricken for, for to beat La Salle. It’s still an intense atmosphere.”