The Bishop Hendricken football team suffered two losses during the regular season, and though its game with Cranston East wasn’t one of them, it very easily could have been.
The Hawks narrowly beat the ’Bolts 21-14 on their Oct. 12 match-up, scoring with just 2:02 remaining to break a 14-14 tie. East controlled much of the game, and left feeling like it had let one get away.
When the two teams meet again in the Division I semifinals tonight at Hendricken, the No. 2 seeded Hawks will have that first meeting on their minds. They know they have to play better if they’re going to advance to the Super Bowl for the third straight season.
The two-time defending champs aren’t overlooking anybody.
“I think we have to step it up from when we played them earlier in the year,” Hendricken head coach Keith Croft said. “I’ve been telling my kids that all week. I know we beat them in the regular season, but they may have even played a little bit better than us in that game. So we definitely have to be better.”
The first time the Hawks and ’Bolts met, they were both undefeated and were considered early Super Bowl contenders. Not surprisingly then, they each finished the regular season 6-2 and one of them will end up playing for a state championship.
Hendricken won a points allowed tiebreaker with East and Portsmouth – the Patriots also finished 6-2 – to claim the No. 2 seed, and East then won the head-to-head tiebreaker with Portsmouth to get the No. 3 seed.
But just about everything – from their regular season meeting to their final records to the teams they beat – indicates two evenly matched opponents, and two teams capable of winning the whole thing.
“I think East could have beaten us in the regular season game with them,” Croft said. “But I think we’re happy with where we’re at. When you’re talking about Portsmouth and La Salle, Cranston East – flip a coin. Any of those teams are capable of winning.”
The Hawks, seeking their sixth Super Bowl appearance in seven seasons, certainly have an advantage on East in terms of experience in big games, as they’ve been in this spot plenty of times before. This is the third straight season they’ve hosted a playoff game, and they’ve won the last two Super Bowls.
Just last year, Hendricken finished the regular season 6-2, was the No. 2 seed and hosted a South Kingstown team in the semifinals that it had narrowly beaten during the regular season. The Hawks won the playoff game 42-14.
East, meanwhile, is in its third year in Division I after moving up from Division II in 2010. This will be its first D-I playoff appearance since the move.
Still, while that sort of big game experience is something that Hendricken has in its back pocket as a program, it’s playing with almost an entirely different group of players than the ones that led it to Super Bowl wins the last two seasons.
And the ’Bolts are coming into the game hot. Though they did struggle toward the tail end of the regular season, losing to La Salle and then barely out-lasting winless South Kingstown, they also picked up an impressive win in their most recent game.
Playing against rival Cranston West on Thanksgiving, East used a strong passing game and a standout defensive effort to pick up a 28-6 win.
“They’re a better team now,” Croft said. “Their kids are more seasoned. They’ve been in the playoff race. Let’s be honest – this is a huge game for everyone. Someone wants to punch a ticket to the Super bowl. All hands on deck. They’re definitely better, and they’re battled tested.”
Hendricken is playing well too, as it took care of business with a 33-0 win over Toll Gate this past Wednesday night.
East, however, is a far different beast than the Titans, who were winless in Division II-A.
The ’Bolts are led by their offense, which scored the third-most points in D-I. Quarterback Alex Corvese has thrown 22 touchdowns on the season to eight different receivers, 10 of which have gone to junior flanker Marven Beauvais.
Beauvais caught a touchdown on Thanksgiving, and caught a touchdown early in the game in the first meeting between East and Hendricken.
On the ground, running back E.J. Isom has racked up 713 yards and six touchdowns for the season, and he’s received the bulk of the carries as the season has wore on.
“You have to stop their big players,” Croft said. “Obviously the receivers and the two running backs, the quarterback. I think we’re going into this game expecting that their quarterback is going to play well. They’re going to come out and try to throw the ball. Quite honestly, I think Isom has been rock solid for them all year.”
In the October game, Hendricken did limit those players, and did so by getting pressure on Corvese. The Hawks had seven sacks in the game, with defensive end Jarrid Witherspoon and Mario McClain combining for 4.5 of them.
Pressuring the quarterback will be key again for Hendricken’s top-ranked defense.
“We’ll see what happens,” Croft said. “We feel like we’re prepared and ready. We’ve got to go out and execute.”
On the other side of the ball, the Hawks are looking to run. Remmington Blue and Power Kanga are the team’s leading rushers with a combined 1,352 yards, while quarterback Patrick Gill has been effective on the ground, too, with 379 yards.
They’ll have to shoulder the load if Hendricken is going to keep East’s offense off the field.
“If we don’t run the ball effectively, I don’t see really any pathway to beating them,” Croft said.
Cutting down on penalties will be crucial as well, as Hendricken committed 14 of them in the October game.
And if the Hawks can manage to do all of that, they’ll have a chance to win it all once again.
“To beat them again it’s going to be the same gameplan,” Croft said. “Our defense has to step up, our offense has to run the football. I think our kids are ready. I think our team is ready.”
The game will be played tonight at Hendricken at 6 p.m.