The members of the Warwick Vets football team bought into their rebuilding project from day one.
On Friday night, the Hurricanes picked up a lot more believers.
Hosting No. 12 Westerly in a key Division II-A match-up, the ’Canes not only kept their playoff hopes alive but also made their biggest statement in years with a 35-20 upset victory. The ’Canes are now 3-2 and in the thick of the chase, locked in a four-way tie for second place.
For a program that had two wins in the previous three years combined, it was quite a night – the night the turnaround became real.
“It’s been a long time,” said coach Bryan Nappa. “The boys worked hard. They knew what it was going to take. They knew it was do or-die, and they came out here and played with a lot of heart. Every one of them played with heart.”
The result was an enormous victory. Not since 2008, when current University of Rhode Island quarterback Bob Bentsen was in the fold, have the ’Canes been in a playoff race. Now, with two games remaining, one more win will give Vets a solid chance of earning one of the four playoff spots in II-A.
That’s what the ’Canes have been pushing for all season, but while they were in the mix, they hadn’t really announced their presence. Their two victories were against Chariho and Toll Gate, the two teams at the bottom of the division. They had lost to comparable teams Coventry and Woonsocket and had been beaten up in a non-league game by West Warwick the week before.
But on Friday, the ’Canes sent a message – and it came through loud and clear. Vets scored more points than it has in any game since 2008.
“It’s everything,” said junior Jeremy Morrissette. “We’re trying to turn the program around. We’re really working hard, and we’re in the playoff race now. It’s been a while for Vets, and we’re going to keep working hard. This is a great win for us.”
The game didn’t get off to the best of starts for the ’Canes. They punted on their first possession and watched Westerly march 59 yards to the 10-yard line in just six plays.
The ’Canes stiffened after that and delivered a goal-line stand, but the momentum quickly faded. Running back T.J. Boyajian fumbled the wet ball two plays later, and Westerly recovered at the 2-yard line. The Bulldogs scored on the next play.
But in what would become a theme for the night, the ’Canes responded.
Facing a third-and-2 on the next drive, Jessie Sedoma slipped through the middle on a quarterback sneak, made a linebacker miss and then took off, sprinting 72 yards for a touchdown. The extra point was no good, keeping Westerly in front 7-6, but Vets – which had gotten buried early in a loss to Woonsocket – served notice that it wasn’t going to happen again.
“We were nervous,” said junior David MacDonald. “Westerly’s always a big team. But we had that mindset that we could do anything. We just kept our cool and did our thing.”
MacDonald forced a fumble on Westerly’s next possession, and the ’Canes recovered. They steadily marched into the red zone until the drive stalled. But Sedoma – who had missed the earlier extra point – drilled a 26-yard field goal to put Vets in front 9-7.
Immediately, though, the ’Canes were behind the eight-ball again. Adam Mitchell returned the ensuing kickoff 85 yards for a touchdown. The two-point conversion was no good, and Westerly led 13-9.
This time, the Vets response was even better.
After forcing a punt and getting an interception from Carter Thomas, the ’Canes went into halftime still trailing 13-9.
In the third quarter, they steamrolled.
The ’Canes forced a punt on Westerly’s first series and took over at their own 20. On the first play, Boyajian picked his way through the line on the right side, broke two tackles on the sideline and then broke away for an 80-yard touchdown. Vets went for two and didn’t get it, but still led 15-13.
“We were down in the quad at halftime, and they were fired up,” Nappa said. “They had a look in their eyes – they wanted it.”
The touchdown was only the beginning.
Vets pushed Westerly backwards on its next drive and forced another punt. This one was shanked, and Vets took over at the Westerly 31. Steady gains by Boyajian, Sedoma and Jamie Buteau pushed the ball inside the 10, and Boyajian ran it in from the 4. The extra point was no good, but Vets led 21-13 with 4:37 left in the third quarter.
And again, the defense kept the momentum on Vets side. After a 17-yard gain on first down, the Bulldogs misfired on two throws and got stuffed on a run by Joshua Ginaitt. Another punt set Vets up at its own 47, and the ’Canes quickly got into gear again. Boyajian converted a key third-and-four, and Vets picked up a big chunk of yardage when Sedoma found Tony Lonczak for 20 yards. A 6-yard run by Sedoma and a facemask penalty put the ball at the 3-yard line. Westerly stopped Vets’ first two tries, but Sedoma snuck it in from a yard out on third down. Sedoma then hit the extra point, giving Vets a 28-13 lead with 10:30 left in the game.
The ’Canes had out-scored Westerly 19-0 in the first 15:30 of the second half.
But it wasn’t quite over.
The Bulldogs got a good kick return and started their next possession at the Vets 49. Quarterback Phil Lynch hit Matthew Moretta on a screen to convert a third-and-9, and on the next play, Lynch got loose on an option run and rambled 35 yards for a score. The point after made it 28-20.
The ’Canes set out to eat some clock and had success, taking more than five minutes off. But eventually their drive stalled and they punted with 4:20 left. The Bulldogs took over at their own 28.
One more time, Vets responded.
On second down, Lynch ran an option to the left. The ’Canes played it perfectly and Lynch got leveled as he pitched the ball. Morrissette, playing cornerback, jumped in front of the pitch and caught the ball.
Vets took over.
“I just went where I was supposed to be,” Morrissette said. “Coach always says, ‘If you’re where you’re supposed to be, good things happen.’ My eyes got wide and I was just like, ‘That’s coming to me.’”
With a chance to put the game on ice, the ’Canes capitalized. Sedoma broke loose on a 27-yard run down to the 6-yard line. Four plays later, MacDonald pounded his way into the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown. Sedoma hit the extra point to put the ’Canes ahead 35-20 with just 1:23 left.
For good measure, Vets defensive end George Schmeider sacked Lynch and forced a fumble three plays later. Vets recovered, eliminating any last-gasp chance the Bulldogs had.
The celebration was on.
“It means everything to us,” MacDonald said. “It was a great team effort.”
And that effort yielded some impressive stats. Vets rushed for 404 yards, with Boyajian racking up 223 yards and two touchdowns on 37 carries. Sedoma added 135 yards and two scores on 10 carries. Jamie Buteau chipped in with 35 yards.
The Vets offensive line – John McNally, Luke Cardillo, Connor Thompson, Max Andrade and Ricky Antonio – paved the way.
“We had a pretty good week of practice and we knew we just had to come out here and hit them in the mouth hard,” Antonio said. “We just played tough.”
The success on the ground was impressive considering Westerly’s size up front. Their three down linemen weigh 195, 220 and 250. Only two of the Vets offensive linemen check in at over 200 pounds.
“Those guys played like maniacs tonight,” Nappa said. “I’m so proud of them, because Westerly had us in size across the board – they were by far bigger and stronger than us. Our guys stayed lower, played harder and wanted it more.”
On the other side, Vets limited Westerly’s always strong ground attack to 212 yards. Outside of the Bulldogs’ first drive, before Vets made some adjustments, Westerly totaled 147 yards.
“There were a couple of things we were not keying on properly,” Nappa said. “With the Wing-T offense and the style that they run and how hard they play on the offensive front, you have to key them properly. If you don’t play fundamental in the middle, you’re not going to be successful. We made a couple of tweaks on the sideline and the boys tightened up and played great.”
Now the ’Canes will focus on the next step. They’ll visit undefeated Johnston on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. The week after looms large, with Mt. Hope – another 3-2 team – coming to town in the regular season finale.
“I told the boys, ‘Enjoy the win for the weekend, but Monday we’re back to work,’” Nappa said. “They know what’s at stake. With the way our league is, we could finish along with anybody else from first, to second to last, depending on what everybody does. You can only control yourself and that’s our focus this week. Hopefully we can carry this momentum up to Johnston and force an upset.”