The Pilgrim football team is in a unique position with three league games remaining on its regular season schedule.
The Pats, who haven’t been to the playoffs since 2004 and went winless in division play last year, control their own postseason destiny.
At 2-2, Pilgrim is in a three-way tie for the fourth and final playoff spot in Division II-B. But over the next four weeks, the Pats will take on three teams that are either tied or ahead of them in the standings – West Warwick, Ponaganset and Mt. Hope – giving themselves full control over whether or not their season extends deeper into November.
“The coaching staff is well aware of it, and so are the kids,” Pilgrim head coach Tom O’Connor said. “If we win out, we’ll get in. There is high motivation to win out. We’d like to share a couple more wins together. That would be big for the program.”
Even though the Pats play 0-5 Coventry in a non-league game this week, the thought of making the playoffs is hanging over everything.
O’Connor plans to hold out a number of starters who are nursing injuries, including cornerback Shane Kelly, running back Carl Sjogren, fullback/linebackers Andrew and Alex Leddy and lineman Luke Verrier.
It’s all in order to prepare for the upcoming three-game slate that follows the Coventry game, the slate that will decide Pilgrim’s future.
“Anyone that is bumped or bruised is getting the week off,” O’Connor said. “We’re not giving the game away, but at the same time the emphasis is on making the playoffs.”
The team also plans to employ a different game plan this weekend, one that focuses more on advancing the ball through the air rather than on the ground.
The Pats have been successful running the ball at times, but have struggled to move the chains through the air. The game against the Oakers provides the perfect opportunity to try to fine-tune that aspect before the stretch run.
Quarterback Lee Verrier is expected to play, as are the team’s top pass-catchers in Mike Mallozzi and Jon DeVito.
“We’re going to come out and we’re going to be throwing the ball,” O’Connor said. “We’re looking for a 75-25 mix this week. We’re going to try to sure up our passing game. Right now, we’re dominant when we run. Lee is having a great year throwing the ball real accurately, we’re just not holding on to it. So we’re going to get them a lot of looks in a game situation where the wideouts will be able to get their hands on the ball, hopefully.”
Passing is just one point of emphasis for the Pats as they gear up for the season’s end.
O’Connor thinks the team also needs to work on its discipline if it is going to compete with the better teams in Division II, as it has taken too many penalties and committed too many turnovers over the season’s first five weeks.
“I think we need to improve discipline,” O’Connor said. “We’re getting a lot of penalties and a lot of stuff that’s unnecessary, and we’re turning the ball over for no reason. If we can sure up our defense and our offense, just play disciplined.”
Currently, Tolman leads D-II-A with a 4-0 record, and St. Ray’s is tied with West Warwick at 3-1. Then comes the three-way tie at 2-2, where Pilgrim is knotted with Ponaganset and Mt. Hope.
It won’t be easy to come out near the top, but this year’s Pilgrim team at least has the confidence that it has a chance to make it happen.
“The difference is amazing from last year,” O’Connor said. “Last year, there was a lot of uncertainty with the plays themselves and what they were doing. Now, the confidence is there. They know who to block, and they’re confident in the playbook.”
And for a team that hasn’t played in a postseason game in seven years, fighting its way back there this season would be an accomplishment that could go a long way toward bettering the program in the years to come.
“It’s another positive step,” O’Connor said. “You get the buy-in from the kids that are working in the hallways saying, ‘Why are we doing this to have a losing program?’ The more kids we can pull in, the better we can help with their education. We do study halls, bi-weekly progress reports. We’re able to help them educationally and it’s all part of getting this winning program on track.”