Winning a fourth straight Division I Super Bowl was an accomplishment never before seen in the Rhode Island high school football landscape, but Bishop Hendricken had a veteran squad with championship experience when it pulled off that feat last year.
The title, though unprecedented, wasn’t unexpected.
It would be naïve to say that a fifth straight championship is a long shot this year, but heading into the fall season, Hendricken has some work to do and some significant ground to make up if it wants to hoist another trophy.
Stars have graduated at quarterback and running back, and both lines need to be rebuilt from the team that beat Cranston East 45-34 in last year’s Super Bowl. There is no shortage of talent – as there rarely is at Hendricken – but shaping it and molding the newer faces into championship contributors is the challenge ahead for coach Keith Croft and his staff.
“The saying that we’re going to go by this year is, ‘Some wish for it, we work for it,’” Croft said. “We’re really emphasizing working these next two weeks, and through the whole season.”
Hard work will necessary to replace quarterback Pat Gill, running back Remington Blue, linebacker Tom St. Pierre, lineman Dallas Sauer, receiver Mike Scarcella and kick returner Mitch Lucci, all of whom were All-Staters a season ago and multi-year contributors.
The Hawks also lost All-State defensive back Matt Duffie, who transferred to prep school at Tabor Academy.
All in all, Hendricken’s squad this year is missing seven All-State players from last year, plus all-division selection Nick Mariano.
That’s a lot of production to replace.
“A lot of new faces,” Croft said. “We don’t have as many veteran seniors as we’ve had in years past, but a lot of seniors are going to play.”
Despite that, the Hawks still feel like they’re in good shape offensively. While Gill, a two-year starter, is gone, senior John Toppa and sophomore Chris Hindle are both capable and are battling for the starting job.
Hindle was the quarterback on the state championship-winning freshman team last year, while Toppa was the freshman quarterback three years ago and was the immediate back-up to Gill during his sophomore year before electing not to play football last year in order to concentrate on baseball.
A University of Connecticut baseball commit, Toppa has quickly gotten himself back into the swing of things and has given the Hendricken coaches a lot to think about it when it comes to the team’s signal caller.
“We’ll see how that competition plays out over the next few weeks and into the preseason,” Croft said. “One thing that I really like about them is that they’ve jelled well. They’ve helped each other out and they know it’s a competition. There’s no, ‘I’m not helping you.’”
In the backfield, seniors Gary Gibbs, Power Kanga and Terrence Gibbs are the primary runners in a committee tasked with replacing Blue. All three of them have seen time in the past, with Gary Gibbs checking in as the team’s second-leading rusher from the running back position last season. Juniors Jake Derderian and Shane Olson should also get some looks.
On the new-look offensive line, senior Kyle Ciquera is the most experienced player, as he started late in the season last year, into the playoffs and in the Super Bowl. Christian Wesolowski is another player who saw some time, and he should be there as well.
Other than that, it’s a battle. Junior David Mariano is one candidate for a spot, as is senior Mike Murray.
“It’s a mix of guys right now,” Croft said. “We’ve got probably seven to 10 guys competing right now for four spots. They all have strengths, they all have weaknesses.”
One big strength Hendricken should have is out wide, where senior Lee Moses is back to lead a deep receiving corps. Moses, a University of Massachusetts commit, was a first-team All-Stater last year and is poised to be one of the top players in the state this season.
Also on the outside is senior Nate Gyampo, junior Billy Mueller, sophomore Kwity Paye and junior Brett Langlais
“We have a very talented group of receivers,” Croft said.
That group doesn’t even include junior Trevor Lawton, a West Warwick transfer who was first-team All-Division II-B last season as a sophomore. He’ll have to sit out the first half of the year due to transfer rules, but should be a big help when eligible.
A lot of the offensive players will flip around to the defensive side as well. The secondary should be the team’s strength, as it lost Lucci and Duffie from last year but returns Moses, Kanga, Gyampo and Mueller.
Then the team trends a little younger. At linebacker, Gibbs is back and senior John Arruda should help out after limited action last year, but the other players will be inexperienced. The same holds true on the defensive line, where Ciquera and Wesolowski return, along with defensive tackle Donte Bell, but the rest of the rotation will be new.
“I think we’re going to temper expectations and calm everybody down a little bit,” Croft said. “Like any team, it’s all about the linemen. It’s going to take some time. The coaches are doing a great job, the kids are working and that’s all I can ask for at this point.”
Sophomore Barrington transfer Andrew Flint may help in the kicking game and could also play wide receiver and defensive back.
Hendricken’s captains are Moses, Wesolowski, Arruda and Bell.
The Hawks will open up with an Injury Fund game on Sept. 5 against and at La Salle Academy, before its non-league opener at home on Sept. 12 against Division II Johnston.
Hendricken’s first league game is Sept. 19 at home against East Providence.
That will mark the beginning of the quest for No. 5 in a row. Like usual, the Hawks aren’t necessarily focusing on that. They want to improve steadily, and they want to do enough to put them in the right position come playoff time.
“I think we just want to get better,” Croft said. “We want to get into the playoffs and take our shot in the playoffs.”