When the Warwick Vets boys’ soccer team lost early season games to first-place West Warwick and second-place Prout, it knew that its road to a top-four finish and a first-round bye had just gotten a lot longer.
But not too long for the ’Canes.
Since losing to Prout on Sept. 20, Vets hasn’t lost again, as it has won four in a row and seven of its last eight, with the lone exception being a tie against Johnston.
With its two wins last week, combined with a big win over North Smithfield on Oct. 11, Vets is in fourth place in Division III at 9-2-2 and has clinched a top-four seed.
On Oct. 29, when the playoffs open, the ’Canes will be resting and preparing to host a quarterfinal round game on Nov. 2. Vets can finish anywhere from second to fourth depending on its last two games.
“The kids are playing really, really hard,” Vets head coach Mike Kenney said. “They’re motivated. They’re seeing the fruits of their labor over the last couple of years. There’s a lot of positives going on. It’s a great group, and it’s one group of kids this year. There are no separate factions. It’s been a nice cohesive unit.”
The run to a first-round bye started on Sept. 24 with a 2-0 win over St. Raphael but really became a possibility with the victory over North Smithfield. The Northmen are in third place in the division with 30 points, but the ’Canes pulled out the win to rise up the standings.
That brought up a huge game with Cranston East last Wednesday, as Vets was in fourth place and East was just behind in fifth. The winner of the game had the inside track to the bye.
The ’Canes were ready.
“Once we beat North Smithfield and it became a reality, they were a little more fired up for the East game, which was nice,” Kenney said.
Justin Batista and Nikone Soupharath each scored two goals en route to a 4-1 victory. The game, though, was closer and could have been entirely different if not for goalie Mike Riccitelli.
East had two penalty kicks with Vets nursing a 2-1 lead. On the first one the shot hit the post, but on the second one, Riccitelli made a lunging save in the middle of the goal after initially moving to his left, keeping Vets in front.
“The second one I went to go to the left and then it came right down the middle,” Riccitelli said. “I kind of twisted back and ended up getting my knee on it.”
Two days later, Batista scored once and so did Tyler Oliveira, while Riccitelli made eight more saves in a 2-0 win over Burrillville. He made 15 saves combined during the week.
“Mike is having an outstanding year,” Kenney said. “He came in determined this year. He made great strides last year. He improved from his sophomore year tremendously, and this year he’s just continued it.”
Helping Riccitelli out has been a steady defense in front of him, led by Brad Robert, Brandon Gemmell, Jonathan Hunt and Tyler Kurtz. That group has helped Vets shut-out five of its last eight opponents.
“They have confidence right now,” Kenney said. “They’re beat up, but they have confidence that they know the other guy’s got their back.”
Up front, Batista has led the way with 16 points – 11th in the state – while Soupharath has controlled play from his spot in the middle and has 15 points on the year. Both players have 10 goals.
“The two of them now are being marked,” Kenney said. “It’s nice to have the team that has the one-two punch. You can mark one guy, but it’s really tough to mark two.”
The ’Canes have two games remaining in the regular season, and with wins in both of them will likely move up to at least the No. 3 seed and possibly the No. 2 spot. West Warwick is in first place with 37, and Vets cannot reach that number.
Vets is at 7-5-1 Exeter-West Greenwich on Wednesday at 3:30 p.m., then hosts 4-6-2 Davies on Friday at 6:30 p.m. Meanwhile, Prout and North Smithfield play on Tuesday, which will go a long way toward determining where Vets ends up in the standings.
No matter what, though, the ’Canes are confident they can play with anybody. The loss to West Warwick came after they blew a 2-0 lead and gave up a late penalty-kick goal, and the loss to Prout was by a 1-0 margin thanks to a goal by the Crusaders in the final five minutes.
“We were just in the locker room talking about that,” Riccitelli said. “We have a really good shot this year. Those two teams are definitely beatable.”
As of now, Vets already has the most wins as a program since it went 9-3-4 in 2005, and if it wins out it will have the most wins since 2001. Already this is only the ninth time since the program formed in 1966 that it has reached nine wins.
The ’Canes aren’t planning on slowing down.
“Last year was a nice taste, which helps going into the playoffs this year,” Kenney said. “They got the taste. They were the first team in a couple years to get there. But these seniors deserve everything they get now, and it would be nice to go out winning your last game.”