When the buses pull into Cranston Stadium on Friday night, it’ll be a kind of homecoming for the Bishop Hendricken football team. The team’s three consecutive championships were won on the stadium’s turf.
The Hawks won’t be playing for a championship this time, but their game with Cranston East signals the real beginning of another potential march. Hendricken is 4-0 but its next four league games are all against Division I contenders, a stretch that begins now with No. 3 Cranston East.
“We feel good, but I’m very curious to see how we stack up with Cranston East,” head coach Keith Croft said. “I want to see how our defense does against them. On film and in scouting, their offense has been explosive.”
The game with East was circled on many a football fan’s calendar in the preseason. When East lost to Barrington in week two, it threw a kink in the works. Now it’s Hendricken and Barrington that are unbeaten, and their Nov. 8 match-up might get top billing.
But for the ’Bolts, Friday’s 7 p.m. game at Cranston Stadium is still as big as it gets. While it’s not the No. 1 vs. No. 2 match-up it was predicted to be, the ’Bolts actually think it’s more crucial now that they’ve taken a loss.
“It’s even more important because of Barrington,” said East head coach Tom Centore. “Every week, we want to put ourselves in the best position possible to make the playoffs. This could be a big step in that direction, and I think a win would give us a lot of confidence.”
And a win would also be special.
East is a new Hawks rival, but two meetings last season provided plenty of fuel for the fire. Hendricken won 21-14 in the regular season and spoiled East’s return to the Division I postseason with a 35-21 victory in the semifinals.
Both games could have gone either way, but the results highlighted the difference between a team trying to establish itself as a contender and a championship squad.
East can’t wait for another shot.
“We had two great games with them last year,” Centore said. “I think the kids are excited to finally get them at home and they’re excited about the chance to play them again.”
Hendricken leads Division I with a 4-0 record. Barrington is in second place at 3-0, while La Salle and Portsmouth are tied for third at 3-1. East has played one fewer league game than the Rams and Patriots and currently owns a 2-1 record.
Friday’s game will be the first chapter in what could be a wild finish to the Division I season. For several teams – especially Hendricken – the schedule ended up back-loaded with contenders. In the final five weeks of the season, eight games between top-five teams are on tap. Hendricken has four such games, while East, Barrington, Portsmouth and La Salle have three each.
The Hawks have an eye on just the first step in that stretch.
“We’re taking it one game at a time,” Croft said. “I think we’ve had some quality wins, and we know we’ve got some big games left. This game is Cranston East and that’s all we’re focused on.”
East is coming into the big finish on a positive note. After the loss to Barrington and a week off, the ’Bolts cruised past winless East Providence 48-12 last week. The offense delivered its usual fireworks, as quarterback Alex Corvese tossed four touchdown passes, with Jimmy Saab, Marquem Monroe and Marven Beauvais all finding the end zone.
The bigger takeaway was the defensive effort. In need of improvement after the Barrington loss, East shut-out the Townies in the first half and its first-team unit allowed only one score.
“It was by far the best we’ve played defensively,” Centore said. “We did some good things and guys made plays. We were better against the run. Hopefully it’s something that propels us going forward. It’s not going to happen overnight, but I think we’re in a better position than we were a few weeks ago.”
The ’Bolts will need continued improvement against the Hawks. A year ago, Hendricken was a defense-oriented team with untested skill players. It’s a different story this year. Led by senior running back Remington Blue – last year’s Super Bowl MVP – the Hawks have scored the most points in Division I. East has out-done them in points per game, but the fact remains – the Hawks can light it up.
“They do everything well,” Centore said. “They’re deep again and there’s no weakness. Remington is just an outstanding ball carrier and it’s all the same personnel with the skill guys. Up front, they may have lost some guys but they’re still good football players. They might notice it, but to us, there’s not much of a difference when you watch them. I think they’re similar to us – they have the same type of skill. They just want to run it more.”
On the other side of the ball, Hendricken will have its hands full with East’s dynamic offense. The ’Bolts are averaging 46.6 points per game in league play. Their lowest point total of the season is 37.
Hendricken was able to slow down a similar East offense last season, but with only one returning starter in the front seven, many Hawks will get their first taste of East’s speed. The East offense has also hit new heights thus far.
“They’re very talented,” Croft said. “I think it starts with their quarterback. He’s better than he was last year. He’s a typical veteran quarterback and he has a strong command of their offense.”
The biggest thing Hendricken has going for it is its secondary. Senior Mitch Lucci and juniors Power Kanga, Lee Moses and Matt Duffie have significant experience and may be the only unit in the state that can keep up with East’s star receivers.
“They can match up athlete-for-athlete and that’s something we haven’t seen yet,” Centore said. “We’ve faced teams with good athletes but not like this. We may have to do some different things.”
But Hendricken knows it still won’t be easy.
“We’re hopeful, but the type of athletes they have can neutralize your best athletes,” Croft said. “I think it’s going to come down to who can limit the big plays, and I think our linebackers are going to have a big game because they’ll have some more coverage responsibilities than they usually do.”
Whatever the strategy, the ’Bolts are hoping their offense continues to hum. The Hawks hope the beginning of a wild stretch run is a good one.
“It’s like I tell the kids, this is why they came to Hendricken, for the big games,” Croft said. “At this point in the season, this is as big as it gets. For our kids and our coaches, this is the first time I’ve seen them really get up for an opponent. We’re excited. We’ve got a lot to prove.”