It’s unfair to the Hawks to say that Hendricken and Portsmouth have gone in different directions since the two teams faced off on Oct. 25, but the playing field certainly seems quite a bit more even now than it did back then.
Since the Hawks played one of their most complete games of year in downing the Patriots 41-21, Hendricken has looked much more human, suffering its first loss of the year – a 7-0 defeat to Barrington – and needing a late rally against La Salle in its regular season finale to escape with a win.
Conversely, the loss in October seemed to serve as a wake-up call for Portsmouth, which has won four straight since the Hendricken game, including a nine-point win over playoff-bound Cranston East and a 7-6, double-overtime win over Barrington that was the only loss the Eagles have suffered all season. Portsmouth has the longest current winning streak in D-I.
When the Hawks and Patriots play again tonight in the Division I semifinals at 6 p.m., at Hendricken with a berth in Sunday’s Super Bowl on the line, both teams are expecting a competitive game between legitimate championship contenders.
Neither side thinks that the 20-point gap from the first meeting is indicative of the real difference between the teams. Hendricken is the No. 2 seed after a 7-1 regular season, while Portsmouth is the No. 3 seed and went 6-2.
“I don’t think we can really take too much out of that first match-up,” Portsmouth head coach Ryan Moniz said. “I think we’re a completely different team from then.”
The Hawks think so too, and they’ve been readying for the Portsmouth team that has been as good as anybody over the last month, not necessarily the Portsmouth team that didn’t put its best foot forward against Hendricken.
“I think Portsmouth is playing the best football of any team in the state right now,” Hendricken head coach Keith Croft said.
That said, if Hendricken is going to defeat the Patriots and have a chance at a record fourth consecutive Super Bowl crown, it will use the same general ideas for how to get it done from the regular season meeting.
First and foremost is to stop Matt Sewall.
Portsmouth’s senior quarterback is one of the most dynamic players in the state, and accounts for as much of his team’s total offense as anybody in the state outside of Cranston East quarterback Alex Corvese.
More of a runner than a thrower, Sewall is second in the state in rushing yards with 1,724, plus 24 touchdowns. He’s also thrown for 737 yards, plays defensive back – where he is 18th in the state in tackles – and sometimes returns kicks and punts.
Against Hendricken the first time, he was held to just 76 yards on the ground, his lowest output of the season. He was tackled five times for a loss, as the Hawks corralled his big-play ability all night long.
“I think the quarterback, Sewall, has stayed healthy and that’s been huge for them because he’s obviously maybe the best all-around player in the state,” Croft said.
Hendricken also forced Portsmouth into four turnovers during the regular season game, all of which came from the hands of Sewall. He threw three interceptions and also lost a fumble on a snap.
“We need Matt,” Moniz said. “He’s kind of the catalyst of our team. He needs to be able to carry the load. He needs to get his chunks of yardage. All that is not possible without our O-line. Our O-line has played really well throughout the year.”
Stopping Sewall is at very top of the list for Hendricken, but not far below it is slowing down Portsmouth running back Travis O’Brien.
The senior has been overshadowed by Sewall, but has quietly emerged as one of the state’s top backs. He is third in the state in rushing with 1,291 yards and also has 13 touchdowns. He ran for 121 yards back in the October game.
Hendricken, though, hasn’t gotten to where it is now without some weapons of its own, and they shined against Portsmouth. Star running back Remington Blue scored four times and ran for 168 yards on just six carries in that game, while receiver/defensive back Lee Moses had a touchdown and two interceptions. As a team, Hendricken ran for 302 yards.
Blue is fourth in the state in rushing with 1,213 yards and 18 touchdowns, while Moses has five touchdowns through the air. Quarterback Patrick Gill has nine touchdown passes and just shy of 1,000 yards through the air.
That game in October went in the books as Portsmouth’s worst defensive performance of the season.
“We probably played the worst defense we ever could have imagined playing,” Moniz said. “Every other time Remington touched the ball, he scored, literally. That’s a fact.”
For the Patriots, their turnaround as a team has started on that side of the ball. They shut-out Barrington through four quarters and an overtime possession before eventually yielding a touchdown in double overtime of a 7-6 win. They held the highest-scoring offense in the division, Cranston East, to just 22 points in a 31-22 win.
Moniz has seen a night-and-day change on that side of the ball from the Hendricken game to now.
“I think since then, the last four games now, we’ve played really well,” Moniz said. “On the calendar it doesn’t seem like we played Hendricken that long ago, but in terms of our development and our growth, that really was a long time ago.”
Portsmouth’s defense has allowed the third-fewest points in Division I with 154. Hendricken’s defense was tied for the best in D-I with Barrington, allowing just 88 points. Hendricken has out-scored Portsmouth 250 to 231.
But based on the way the regular season ended, the teams are far closer than those numbers would indicate.
“My feeling is that this will be a much more competitive game than it was the first time,” Moniz said.
The Hawks enter the game riding a six-game postseason winning streak, including a 20-17 Super Bowl victory in 2010 over the Patriots.
Without question, Hendricken has the pedigree. Portsmouth hasn’t won a Super Bowl since 1998.
Croft thinks that’s all irrelevant come tonight.
“I told the guys, ‘Portsmouth is not showing up to play the 2012 team, the 2011 team or the 2010 team,” Croft said. “‘They’re playing us. They’re playing you guys.’ As much as history is important, and we talk about it, this game isn’t about history.’”
Really, it’s about a berth in the 2013 Super Bowl.
“I think they know what’s at stake this time of year,” Croft said. “I don’t think they’re too high or too low. I think they know that they’ve got some good football left to play.”
The winner of tonight’s game will play the winner of the other semifinal between top-seeded Barrington and No. 4 Cranston East, scheduled for tonight at Barrington. The Division I Super Bowl is Sunday at 12 p.m. at Cranston Stadium.