In September, when the preseason edition of the Rhode Island Sports Media Poll was released, two teams were the overwhelming picks at the top – Bishop Hendricken and Cranston East.
Almost three months later, the Rhode Island high school football landscape ended up exactly the way everyone thought it would.
Hendricken and Cranston East are in the Super Bowl.
“I felt coming into the season that East was probably the best team in the state,” said Hendricken head coach Keith Croft. “I was hopeful that, as the year progressed and knowing our team like I know them, they would get stronger at the end of the season. I was hopeful we’d be there.”
With Hendricken’s 36-15 win over Portsmouth on Tuesday and East’s 46-13 win over Barrington, the two teams punched their tickets. As it turns out, Croft was right in his early-season assessment, he just had it reversed.
All season long, Hendricken was the best team in the state. It had one slip-up – a 7-0 loss to eventual top-seeded Barrington – but was still the most dominant team, finishing with a 7-1 record. The Hawks’ 162-point differential was by far the most in Division I, even though Hendricken ended up as the No. 2 seed.
And East was the team that had to progress and get stronger by the end of the season. After a tough, early-season loss to Barrington, the Thunderbolts lost to both Hendricken Portsmouth to drop to 2-3 in D-I, putting it in a must-win situation the rest of the year.
East responded, winning three consecutive regular season games to end the season, finish 5-3 and qualify for the playoffs as the No. 4 seed. It crushed top-seeded Barrington in Tuesday’s semifinal.
“We didn’t know where the season was going,” said East head coach Tom Centore. “It started after the Barrington game, it was a little bit of a letdown. Then beating East Providence and really playing a poor game against Hendricken and then getting beat by Portsmouth, we didn’t know which way the season might go.”
The ’Bolts know now – the season has taken them to within a game of the state championship. They haven’t been to a Division I Super Bowl since the last time they won one, 1987.
They’ve also reached the big game in historic fashion. The win over Barrington in the semifinals was the first victory for a No. 4 seed over a No. 1 seed in the 16-year history of the current playoff format.
“We played so well last night,” Centore said of the playoff game. “I think we’ve been getting better every week. It’s made a huge difference for us. Obviously we have some weapons offensively. I think the one key is the last three or four weeks is how our defense has played.”
Hendricken is also on the verge of history, albeit a different kind. The Hawks have won the last three Division I Super Bowls and are vying to become the first team in the Super Bowl era to win four in a row.
But winning a fourth isn’t Hendricken’s focus. Rather, it wants to win the one on Sunday.
“It really is a new year,” said Hendricken senior receiver/linebacker Mike Scarcella, who had two touchdown receptions in the semifinal win over Portsmouth. “Especially with having those three championships behind us, the seniors this year, they have that pressure. We’ve been there before, we’ve experienced good leadership but now it’s our turn to lead the team ourselves. Now it’s our turn to demonstrate what those seniors have already done.”
It’ll be a challenge against an East team that boasts the most impressive offense in the state and a defense that has rapidly improved over the last month.
The ’Bolts scored a D-I-high 287 points this season, thanks largely to a high-powered passing game. Quarterback Alex Corvese is leaving his mark as perhaps the best player at that position to ever play at East. He has thrown 28 touchdown passes compared to just three interceptions, and he leads the state with 2,712 passing yards.
Of course, it helps to have talented players to throw to, and East has that in spades. The ’Bolts have the top two receivers in the state statistically in senior Marven Beauvais and junior Marquem Monroe, who can also line up in the backfield and run the ball. A third receiver – senior Jimmy Saab – has been a consistent option as well, and senior Dan Cornelio has emerged recently as another viable target.
That group hasn’t been held down all season long – except against Hendricken.
The Hawks won the regular season match-up 35-7 on Oct. 18, limiting Corvese to just 167 passing yards on 12 of 26 passing. Monroe had only two catches for one yard and Beauvais was held to 58 yards on six catches.
It was the ’Bolts’ worst offensive performance of the season, but that partly due to Hendricken’s depth in the secondary. With standouts Lee Moses, Power Kanga, Matt Duffie and Mitch Lucci leading the way, the Hawks’ secondary is perhaps the best in Rhode Island.
“Our DB’s are really good,” Hendricken quarterback Patrick Gill said. “We’re going to work on pass coverage and work as hard as we can.”
Defensively, East has grown significantly since giving up 41 points to Barrington, 35 to Hendricken and 31 to Portsmouth. It allowed just 13 to a playoff-contending La Salle team and shut down Cranston West on Thanksgiving. Against Barrington, it forced turnovers and kept the team in front.
“I haven’t seen much of them, but from what I hear the offensive firepower is clearly there,” Croft said. “I don’t think that ever left. I think their defense has really started playing well. They’re a scary team. With that offense and a defense that’s playing good, we’ll see.”
Even with East’s defense getting better, it won’t be easy containing Hendricken’s dynamic offense either. The Hawks scored the second-most points in D-I with 250 and really exploded against the ’Bolts in the regular season. In that game, Hendricken ran for an eye-popping 475 yards, with star back Remington Blue accounting for 205 of them.
Plus, the Hawks’ offense doesn’t stop with Blue. Receiver Lee Moses is considered to be one of the best in the state and has five receiving touchdowns this season, and Scarcella is a weapon who scored twice on long passes in the semifinal win over Portsmouth. Lucci is also in the mix on offense.
Quarterback Patrick Gill has shown the ability to throw and run – as he accounted for four touchdowns on Tuesday – and back Gary Gibbs has provided a change of pace.
For all of East’s big-play ability and offensive weapons, Hendricken has quite a bit itself.
“I think our defense matches up well with their offense, and I think their offense matches up well with our offense,” Croft said. “I think we have similar offenses. Yeah, we like to run the ball a little bit more than they want to, but they’re good at what they do, we’re good at what we do. We like to grind it, but a lot of our guys have made big plays.”
Both teams are expecting a closer game than the first time they met. Hendricken knows firsthand that a regular season meeting can be thrown out the window come playoff time – the last two years it has been blown out by La Salle during the season only to upset the Rams in the Super Bowl. This year, it’s the Hawks who are the favorite.
East, meanwhile, is simply a different team – a better team – than it was when the two teams met the first time.
“We weren’t ready,” Centore said of the first Hendricken game. “We just weren’t ready. It was just not a good night in many ways. Things that had come very easily to us in the offensive game started not to. We didn’t do what we needed to do. Unfortunately when we got behind, we didn’t come through.”
The ’Bolts are hoping to make this one different. Since moving up to Division I in 2010, Hendricken is the only team that East has not beaten. Last season, the Hawks eliminated East in the semifinals.
This is the fourth match-up between the teams in two seasons.
“It’s the only team we haven’t beaten yet in four years,” Centore said. “Other teams we’ve beaten have beaten them. It just doesn’t make any sense. I think sometimes it’s that mental factor of getting over that hump.”
Sunday’s game will be a battle of titans, two teams with storied program histories that have separated themselves from the pack and are playing some of their best football at the right time.
The game will be played at Cranston Stadium at 12 p.m.
One of them, the two teams everyone predicted to be in this very spot, will become a champion.
“What happened in the regular season doesn’t matter anymore,” Gill said. “That’s behind us. We’re going to work hard this week in practice, prepare for them. We’re going to work the hardest we’ve ever worked, and hopefully we can get a state championship.”