A day before the one-year anniversary of the greatest upset in Rhode Island Super Bowl history, the Bishop Hendricken football team pushed its way into the history books once more.
The Hawks did it again.
On Sunday afternoon at Cranston Stadium, Hendricken went up against a La Salle team that was an even bigger favorite than it was last year, when the Hawks shocked the Rams for their second consecutive state title.
But for one day – again – the Hawks were better.
They scored first, took a shot from the Rams but then pushed back in dramatic fashion when Jarrid Witherspoon returned an interception for a touchdown in the second quarter. The Hawks never trailed again, adding to their lead, controlling the clock in the second half and converting a fourth down in the final minutes to clinch a 26-20 victory and their third consecutive state championship.
It was a second consecutive stunner.
“It’s exhilarating,” said senior Marco DelVecchio. “We went in as underdogs yet again but we knew we only had to be better than them for one day. They were definitely a better team than us – a lot of skill players and a lot of speed – but we only had to beat them once.”
Still, doing it once shaped up as a difficult task.
If last year’s Super Bowl had the ingredients for an upset – Hendricken improved as the season went on and thrived in the emotional atmosphere – this year’s championship had the ingredients for a coronation.
The Rams went 8-0 in league play and had no trouble with Hendricken in the regular season, winning by three touchdowns just three weeks ago. In the D-I semifinals, the Rams blew out a Portsmouth team that had beaten Hendricken 39-13.
But the Hawks found a way. In the process, they won their third straight championship, something that’s only been done three other times in the Super Bowl era. They’re the first to do it since the 1994-96 Hendricken teams.
“No big secret,” said Hendricken head coach Keith Croft. “My last message to these kids today was, ‘Guys, this game isn’t about X’s and O’s or who has the best players. It’s about who wants it more.’”
The Hawks held the Rams to their lowest point total of the season, and their performance in the early going set that tone. The Rams punted on their first two possessions. After the second, Hendricken broke through, getting a 21-yard touchdown run by Remmington Blue to jump in front.
“When we struck first, I think it gave notice that, ‘We’re here to play today,’” Croft said.
The Rams had an answer, going 72 yards in eight plays to tie the game. A 3-yard run quarterback Anthony Francis capped the drive. After the teams traded punts, Hendricken went back in front on a 28-yard field goal by Bobby Lineberger, but again the Rams responded. They went 62 yards in nine plays, with Francis scoring from a yard out to finish the job and give La Salle its first lead. A botched extra point kept it 13-10.
Two plays later, the Rams recovered a Hendricken fumble near midfield. With 3:12 still left in the first half, they seemed poised to take control.
“We were teetering on the edge,” Croft said.
But the Hawks didn’t fall – instead, they turned the whole game around.
On third-and-11, Francis dropped back and looked for Morris on a swing pass. Witherspoon, a senior defensive end, was right in the path of the throw, and he tipped the ball with one hand, then caught it and took off. He raced 41 yards into the end zone, and suddenly, the Hawks were back in front. Lineberger’s extra point made it 17-13.
“I was pretty much reading Francis’s eyes,” Witherspoon said. “Once I saw him turn to look at Morris, I just jumped it, picked it and went.”
A bouncing kickoff pinned the Rams at their own 9-yard line, and the fired-up Hendricken defense forced a quick three-and-out. The Rams lined up to punt, but Drew Chretien couldn’t handle the snap. He chased after the ball in the end zone with the defense converging, and he ended up kicking the ball off the ground and out into the field of play. That resulted in an illegal kick penalty, and since it occurred in the end zone, Hendricken was awarded a safety.
The Hawks led 19-13 and carried that cushion into halftime.
If they didn’t already believe, they certainly did at that point.
“At halftime, I really felt it,” DelVecchio said. “The juices were flowing, everybody was excited. We won the first quarter, we won the second quarter and we were taking it step by step, just like coach said.”
The next step was to hold on tight, and Hendricken did it to perfection in the third quarter. The Hawks scored once – on a 12-yard touchdown run by Blue with 6:12 left in the quarter that made it 26-13 – but the bigger key was what Hendricken kept La Salle from doing.
The Rams ran just six offensive plays in the third quarter as the Hawks forced a pair of three-and-outs.
“We just slowed them down,” Croft said.
After the second three-and-out, Hendricken put together a drive that made a tough situation even more dire for the Rams. The Hawks started at their own 13 with 4:12 left in the third quarter. A pass interference penalty on a third down and a flag for roughing the punter kept the drive alive, and the Hawks later converted a fourth-and-1 and a third-and-6. It didn’t end until Chris Jeffrey intercepted a pass at the La Salle 33. The Hawks had run 17 plays and taken 8:13 off the clock.
“One of the things I told the team and the coaches before the game was, ‘We need to be the aggressor today. We can’t sit back and allow them to dictate the flow of the game,’” Croft said.
The Rams still had plenty of life, but on the fourth play of the ensuing possession, Romario Rousseau intercepted Francis and gave the ball back to Hendricken. The Hawks couldn’t capitalize, but they took almost three more minutes off the clock before La Salle recovered a fumble at its own 1-yard line.
The Rams had 4:14 to work with, needing two scores – the first of which would have to come from 99 yards out.
La Salle took the first step. Francis found Keon Wilson for 41 yards to convert a third down, before hitting Mitchell DaSilva for 28 yards. Francis then found Tyneil Cooper for 11 yards on a fourth-and-10 then hit Wilson for a 7-yard touchdown. Chretien’s extra point made it 26-20 with 2:16 left.
The Rams then lined up for an onside kick, but Chretien pushed the ball straight out of bounds. The Rams, though, had been flagged for offsides, a dead-ball penalty that would result in a re-kick. This time, Chretien kicked it deep and the Hawks were pinned at their 10-yard line. They took over with 2:12 left, with the Rams still holding all three of their timeouts.
Blue got the call on first and second down and picked up 7 yards to set up a third-and-3. The Hawks went to Blue again and he scampered right to the first down marker. On the measurement, though, he was inches shy, putting the Hawks into fourth down at their own 19-yard line.
Immediately, the Hawks lined up to go for it, but Gill called a timeout after trying to draw the Rams offsides.
The Hawks had a decision to make.
“We were going back and forth,” Croft said. “I had to make the call. My call was, ‘We aren’t giving them the ball back.’ We’re going to try to get the first down and win this game.”
The Hawks moved tackles Nick DeCiantis and Mario McClain to the guard positions, alongside center Joe Vincent. Gill took the snap and dove forward just enough to pick up the first down.
“We did not want to punt the ball,” Gill said. “La Salle is a great team, they could have come back and drove down the field. The coaches, they had confidence in us, and we converted.”
And the Rams never touched the ball again. Hendricken took three knees – and then celebrated.
“It’s a phenomenal feeling,” Blue said. “We’re just carrying on the legacy.”
Blue earned MVP honors. He ran for 160 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries. Gill completed eight of 14 passes for 106 yards. The Hawks gained 318 yards – 212 of which came on the ground – and they overcame three lost fumbles and two interceptions.
On the other side, the defense limited La Salle to 302 yards. Francis completed seven of 21 passes for 137 yards and two interceptions, while rushing for 37 yards and two scores. Morris had 115 yards rushing, but was limited to 17 yards in the second half.
It was a recipe for a monumental upset – another one.
“We weren’t going for a three-peat today,” Croft said. “We were going for a win. That was kind of our message to the kids all week. We’re not trying to battle history – we just want to win this game. That’s all it came down to. Two talented teams and a great game.”