On Sept. 23, in its second league game of the year, the Bishop Hendricken football team came away with a one-point overtime victory over South Kingstown. In the moments following that win, head coach Keith Croft was asked what he thought of South Kingstown. The Rebels had struggled the year before, their first in Division I, but were hoping to do some damage in 2011.
“I said I thought they would beat a lot of playoff teams,” Croft recalled Monday. “We thought coming into the year that they were going to be a good football team and we thought the same thing when we played them.”
The Rebels have proven Croft right – and now the Hawks’ coach gets to see them again. Hendricken, the No. 2 seed in Division I, will host the third-seeded Rebels tonight at 7 p.m. in the D-I semifinals.
South Kingstown, which finished league play with a 5-3 record, lost to La Salle the week after its heartbreaker against Hendricken, but then lost just once more the rest of the way. In that stretch, the Rebels beat playoff contenders Cranston West, Portsmouth, Barrington and East Providence, becoming D-I’s Cinderella story in the process.
“As the season went on, you could just see them getting better,” Croft said. “I’m not the least bit surprised they’re where they are.”
The Rebels were a Division II powerhouse from 2006-2009, winning two championships in that span. Before that, the Rebels had been in Division I and had struggled. When they moved back to D-I last year, they struggled again, finishing with a 1-7 record.
Despite their 0-2 start to league play this year, they were undeterred. The Rebels demolished previously unbeaten Cranston West 40-7 on Oct. 8 and haven’t looked back. Their only hiccup was a 14-7 loss to Cranston East on Nov. 4, but they came back the next week to beat eventual No. 4 seed East Providence 42-10. They beat North Kingstown 38-18 on Thanksgiving.
“It’s going to be a real challenge,” Croft said. “They’re playing as well as anybody in the state right now.”
The Hawks aren’t too far behind. After a disappointing 35-14 loss to East Providence on Oct. 14, the Hawks won their final three league games over Portsmouth, Cranston West and Barrington.
Taking that surge and South Kingstown’s hot streak into account, it’s tough to get a handle on Tuesday’s match-up based solely on what happened in their September meeting.
The teams that take the field Tuesday might not recognize each other.
“I don’t want to say you’re looking at two teams that have changed, but I think you’re looking at two teams that are a lot more comfortable in what they are,” Croft said.
The Rebels are led by an explosive running game. Nick Neill, Sean Conley and Garrett O’Dowd have all had big years in the Rebels’ Wing-T system.
That system isn’t new. The Hawks always played the Rebels in non-league games before last year, and they always saw the same type of offense.
But it’s running on all cylinders now – with a lot of weapons.
“They have three or four guys who can touch the ball and break one at any time,” Croft said. “They’re a very well-balanced team. They’re a complete team.”
South Kingstown has also benefited from the emergence of quarterback John Curzake and 6-foot-5 tight end Chase Almond. The Rebels scored the second-most points in the league and averaged 35 points per game in their five wins.
“We really need to have a big game defensively,” Croft said. “You’re not going to stop their ground game. Against the Wing-T, with the guys they have, you’re just not going to. But we have to contain them. We have to cut down on the big play and we have to make them drive on us if they’re going to score.”
On the other side, Hendricken will be trying to get its ground game in gear as well. The Hawks have been at their best this year when their big offensive line has dictated things in the trenches. That’s paved the way for big things from quarterback Ryan Brannigan and the running back corps, led by Louis Falcone.
“Like we’ve been saying, our O-line has got to control the line of scrimmage,” Croft said. “That’s always going to be the key for us.”
The Hawks were able to follow that blueprint in each of their final three league games, but they know they won’t have it easy against the Rebels.
If they’ve been listening to their coach, they know what they’re up against.
“We’ve got similar identities,” Croft said. “We both want to run the football and control the game, so we’re kind of trying to do the same thing. It’s going to be a real challenge. It always has been the last four or five years that we’ve played them. They’re a very good football team.”