No one in Rhode Island has played more important games over the past two seasons than the Bishop Hendricken football team.
As the two-time defending state champions, the Hawks have played in two playoff semifinal games, two Super Bowls and countless other regular season contests that shaped their championship runs.
It might be time to add this Friday’s game to that ever-growing list.
The unbeaten Hawks sit at the top of Division I again this year, tied with La Salle at 4-0 and half-a-game ahead of 3-0 Cranston East, the team they’ll host this weekend.
A popular pick to burst onto the scene this year, the ’Bolts have done just. They’ve regularly beaten up opponents with a dynamic offense and a stingy defense en route to a 5-0 overall record. With that start, and a place in the division as one of the three remaining unbeatens, East has thrown its name onto the short list of legitimate contenders.
But they haven’t played anyone with a pedigree like Hendricken’s, a battle-tested program that has thrived on winning the big games during its current run of statewide dominance.
“Like we told the kids, they came to Hendricken to play in big games,” Hendricken head coach Keith Croft said. “We’ve played in a lot of them. We’ve won our fair share and we’ve lost our fair share. You hate to say it, but it’s somewhat of a typical week for us.”
For East, the idea of a marquee Division I game is slightly foreign. After six consecutive playoff appearances in Division II – and a Super Bowl victory – the ’Bolts moved up to D-I two years ago.
And it was certainly a wake-up call, as East has basically been out of playoff contention by midseason each of the last two years thanks to a pair of 0-4 starts.
But not this year.
Right now, La Salle is the No. 1 ranked team in the state according to the Rhode Island Sports Media Poll, with Hendricken just behind at No. 2.
Sitting at No. 3 is East.
Two years ago, East netted a 42-7 victory over La Salle late in the season that stands as the team’s defining D-I moment. Other than pride, though, that game didn’t mean all that much in the grand scheme of things.
But thanks to its explosive start to this season, East will now have a shot at creating a brand new defining moment against Hendricken.
“We played [big games] in Division II, and we generally passed those tests,” East head coach Tom Centore said. “Now we’ll try to pass this test. It’s a perennial Division I powerhouse. Hopefully we can match them.”
It would a program-altering victory for East, and it would be a statement win for either side.
Yet, perhaps more importantly, the winner will have a huge leg up in the D-I playoff picture. It will have the inside track to one of the top two seeds in the postseason, and thus a home playoff game come late November.
That may seem a little preemptive, but in a season that has seen a divide emerge between the upper-echelon and lower-echelon teams in Division I, there’s more to be gained than usual by knocking off a fellow contender.
Five teams are either undefeated or have one loss. The other four teams in the division are winless.
“I wouldn’t view it as us separating ourselves, but I think it’s a chance for us to measure ourselves against a team that a lot of the guys consider the favorites this year,” Croft said. “I think it’s the biggest game yet.”
For the Hawks to walk away with a win, a lot will depend on whether or not they can contain East’s deep group of offensive playmakers.
The ’Bolts pride themselves on that depth, and also on utilizing everything in their arsenal. Nine different players have touchdown receptions this season, while four have rushed for scores.
Leading the charge has been sophomore running back Marquem Monroe, who has six rushing touchdowns and two receiving touchdowns. He’s both East’s leading rusher and receiver on the season.
He’s far from alone, as senior running back E.J. Isom leads the team in carries and junior receiver Marven Beauvais has shown himself to be nearly un-coverable in one-on-one situations and has six touchdowns on the year. Under center, first-year starter Alex Corvese, a junior, has 14 touchdowns passes against just two interceptions.
Throw in a big offensive line that has paved the way for 289 total yards per game, and the ’Bolts are confident in what they can do with the ball. After a slightly shaky first game against Tolman, that unit has been on a steady upswing.
Croft had heard about East’s talent coming into the season, and he’s seen it on film leading up to this week’s match-up. There’s a lot of it.
“Over the summer, we heard a lot about the skill guys that Cranston East had,” Croft said. “Coming into the season, we felt that this was going to be a strong year for them. I think if you followed some of the newspaper articles, you could tell that they were coming together as a group. To be successful in high school football in Division I in Rhode Island, you’ve got to have the playmakers, and they do.”
What East hasn’t done so far, however, is score against a defense like Hendricken’s.
Over the Hawks’ last 29 games – including the playoffs and the 5-0 start to this season – they are an incredible 27-2, and it’s all hinged on a defense that has consistently been one of, if not the, best in the state.
And while the Hawks have seen top players graduate from each of those Super Bowl seasons, they’ve reloaded seamlessly.
Even with an underclassmen-laden group – especially in the secondary – they’ve allowed a D-I-low 20 points in four games this season, for an average of just five a game. Twice, they’ve shut-out their opponent.
“They’re so solid defensively,” Centore said. “They haven’t given up a lot of points. They play solid football on the defensive side of the ball and they have excellent special teams. Really, every facet of the game they’re good at.”
When Hendricken has the ball, it will be trying to score against an East defense that has also been one of the best. It’s allowed 51 points, the second-fewest in the league.
“I think we’ve got to take it up another level,” Croft said. “That’s not a knock on any of the teams we’ve played. A lot of the teams we’ve played, the scores have been somewhat deceiving. Most of the games have been close for the most part. I think in a game like this, with teams that are evenly matched, turnovers are going to make a pretty big difference. It comes down to who can establish a running game, penalties, things like that.”
Hendricken will try to score with a group that is third in D-I with 130 points and is comprised of a number of underclassmen. First-year starting quarterback Patrick Gill, a junior, has helped lead a strong passing attack, while junior Remmington Blue and sophomore Power Kanga have kept the Hawks’ running game as one of the state’s best.
Seniors Marco DelVecchio, Jarrid Witherspoon and Kazre Cummings, as well as junior Mitch Lucci have also left their mark on games this season.
There’s a lot of versatility, and a lot of weapons.
“Offensively they throw the ball when they need to, they run the ball when they need to,” Centore said. “They’re multi-dimensional. That creates some major issues for you. You can’t just take away one thing because they’ll beat you with the other.”
Hendricken and East’s early season schedules have been similar too, as they’ve both faced East Providence and Tolman and beaten them handily. The ’Bolts have also played Barrington and cruised to a 41-18 win, while Hendricken mowed through South Kingstown and Cranston West.
All things considered, Friday’s game is as important a game as the state has seen thus far.
The game will be Friday night at 7 p.m. at Hendricken.
“Playing at home gives a little comfort factor,” Croft said. “We’ll have a good crowd. But I think East will travel too. I ran into a lot of people this week that said they’re going, and are either a Cranston East grad or have a rooting interest in Cranston. It should be a great night for football.”