It wasn’t easy the first time the Bishop Hendricken football team played Cranston East this season, and it wasn’t easy during the first half of Wednesday night’s Division I semifinal game with the ’Bolts either.
But it sure looked easy in the second half.
The Hawks ran 35 plays after the break, and every single one of them was a run. The result was a dominant final two quarters in which Hendricken turned a 14-7 halftime deficit into a 35-21 victory and a place in the D-I Super Bowl for the fourth consecutive season.
Both teams came into the game with matching 6-2 regular season records. Hendricken was the No. 2 seed, while East was No. 3, and the Hawks had beaten the ’Bolts 21-14 in week five.
This time, it wasn’t quite as close, as the second half made all the difference for the two-time defending champions.
“They are a great team and it was a great game,” Hendricken junior running back Remmington Blue said. “My o-line, they just did a great job. We just came out, ran the ball in the second half and got it done.”
Blue was the second-half catalyst on the ground, as he ran the ball 27 times for 189 yards, 180 of which came on 22 second-half carries.
He scored the game-tying touchdown on Hendricken’s first drive of the second half on a 19-yard scamper up the middle, and he scored the final touchdown with 2:50 remaining to put the game on ice.
“[Offensive coordinator Frank] Pantaleo, he said to me a couple times at half, ‘What do you want to do? You want to stay with Remmy, or Power [Kanga]?’ I said, ‘He smells the end zone right now, keep him in,’” Hendricken head coach Keith Croft said of Blue. “He’s a junior, he’s been a workhorse for us and I trust his ball security.”
Hendricken rushed for only 69 yards in the first half, as the East defense held the Hawks in check for most of the time.
On the other side of the ball, the ’Bolts looked poised. They opened the scoring just 2:08 into the game when quarterback Alex Corvese hit Marquem Monroe on a fade pass up the left side that resulted in a 75-yard touchdown. Logan McConaghy’s extra point made it 7-0 East.
Hendricken punted on its opening possession, regained the ball after East muffed the punt, but then turned the ball over on downs.
Armed with momentum, the ’Bolts went on a 13-play drive, but it stalled at Hendricken’s 38, and they were forced to punt.
Quickly, the Hawks tied the score. Quarterback Patrick Gill found Jarrid Witherspoon for a 50-yard completion on second down, and then Gill ran the ball in from 34 yards out on the next play. Kicker Robert Campbell – filling in for the injured Bobby Lineberger – hit the extra point to tie the score.
East came back and took the lead at 14-7 on their next drive, as they seamlessly moved down the field before Corvese ran in from 16 yards out for the score and the lead at halftime.
Hendricken – which twice had the ball inside the East 30 and came away with no points on either trip – wasn’t ready to panic.
“Like I told the kids at the half, they had us on the ropes, we didn’t panic,” Crfot said. “We made a few adjustments.”
The Hawks were also the beneficiary of a few East injuries. Running back/safety E.J. Isom, the team’s leading rusher and tackler, hurt his foot, while defensive end Michael Raspberry fractured his shoulder.
With those two out, Hendricken saw the opportunity to run the ball, and it did.
“We lost two starters – Michael Raspberry and E.J. Isom,” East head coach Tom Centore said. “That's a lot of football players to lose when you only have so many guys. That certainly hurt us. They did go to a double tight end set and they were tough to stop, but when you lose arguably your two best defensive players, that changes a lot of things.”
The Hawks got the ball to open the third and moved right down the field, with Blue’s touchdown run from 19 yards tying the score at 14.
After the teams traded punts, Hendricken went back to work, pounding Blue, and mixing in Gill and Power Kanga to keep the chains moving.
The offensive line of Mario McClain, Dallas Sauer, Joe Vincent, Nick Mariano and Nick DeCiantis did their job, and the Hawks were in complete control.
“I think our offensive line did a great job against their defensive line in that second half,” Croft said.
Nine plays into that drive, Kanga found the end zone on a 19-yard run, and the Hawks had their first lead at 21-14.
The ’Bolts weren’t done just yet, though, as they picked up a first down on a completion from Corvese to Jimmy Saab and then scored on a 40-yard run by Monroe to tie the score at 21 with 10:39 remaining.
Yet, the Hawks’ running game simply couldn’t be stopped – and they knew it.
“I said to these guys, there’s just no reason to panic,” Croft said. “I said, ‘We are running the ball right now.’ It got to a point where if they were going to punt, because our returners had been a little shaky most of the season, we were going to just let them punt the ball. We felt that confident in our running game.”
Hendricken immediately went right down the field, getting runs of 11 and 22 from Blue before Gill pounded the ball in from 1-yard away to make it a 28-21 game.
East got the ball back with plenty of time, but were dealt a costly unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on third-and-3. An incomplete pass and a sack led to a turnover on downs.
“We knew we weren't stopping them so we felt like we had no choice,” Centore said. “That was a do-or-die situation there.”
The Hawks then put the finishing touches on a near-perfect second half, as Blue scored on a 4-yard run on the third play of the drive to make it 35-21.
East went four-and-out again on the next series, and the Hawks took two knees and celebrated yet another playoff win – their fifth in a row.
“The flow was going their way, so we had to turn it around and get the flow going back our way,” Blue said. “That’s what we did.”
East finished with 280 total yards, but only 60 in the second half. Isom – who didn’t play a snap in the second half – was the team’s leading rusher with 57 yards. Corvese threw for 143 yards.
For Hendricken, Gill added 75 yards to Blue’s 189, and Kanga added 45. Witherspoon had two catches for 71 yards.
“It never is easy,” Croft said. “They played their hearts out.”
The Hawks will now try to win their third consecutive state championship this weekend. They’ll take on unbeaten La Salle – which beat Portsmouth 42-14 in the other semifinal – on Sunday afternoon at Cranston Stadium at 12 p.m.