With Hurricane Sandy forcing school closures, the Warwick Vets football team couldn’t practice on Monday or Tuesday. When the coaches mapped out the rest of the week, they got a suggestion from their players – start practice early and end it late.
It’s no surprise. The ’Canes have worked all year to achieve their goal of making the playoffs. Now it’s in front of them, with Mt. Hope coming to town for Friday’s 7 p.m. season finale. If the ’Canes beat Mt. Hope, they’ll be in.
They want to be ready.
“It’s a little bit of a challenge for both teams this week,” said coach Bryan Nappa. “Our kids know the urgency. They asked to practice longer. They’re fully aware of what’s at stake and what they need to do.”
The ’Canes are currently 3-3, a game back of Westerly, Woonsocket and Mt. Hope. But regardless of what happens in other games involving those teams, Vets just has to beat Mt. Hope. If that happens, the ’Canes would get in on a tiebreaker in every scenario, and Mt. Hope would be the odd man out. If Vets loses, it would be left out in every scenario.
The ’Canes could rise as high as the No. 3 seed if they beat Mt. Hope and Johnston beats Westerly. If Vets beats Mt. Hope and Westerly upsets Johnston, then Vets would be the No. 4 seed.
“If we win, we’re in,” Nappa said. “The way our schedule worked out, we thought this might happen. I said at the beginning of the year, I bet this comes down to the last game of the season where if we win, we’re in.”
Though the ’Canes thought and hoped they could be there, it’s still an unfamiliar position. The team hasn’t been in the playoffs – or in the mix for a spot – since 2008.
At the same time, the team has had its eye on the postseason all year, and the way its schedule shaped up, games against Chariho and Westerly were labeled as must-wins. While the stakes are even higher and more clear this time, Vets has some experience to lean on.
“They’re no strangers to this situation,” Nappa said. “They knew when we played Chariho and Westerly that those were must-win games. They seem to play better in those situations.”
Vets is coming off a 42-6 loss to unbeaten Johnston. The game was closer than the score would indicate, but the ’Canes weren’t overly concerned either way. A win over Johnston would have been impressive, but wouldn’t have actually helped their playoff chances. They still would have had to beat Mt. Hope to get in. Otherwise, they would have lost every tiebreaker.
The ’Canes got out of Johnston without any injuries, and that was enough to keep them feeling pretty good about where they stand.
“Health-wise, we’re good to go,” Nappa said. “It’s the first time in a while that nobody’s banged up. We’re all feeling okay.”
Mt. Hope will be feeling pretty good too. The Huskies started the year with a non-league loss to Tolman before blowout losses to division foes Westerly and Johnston.
But the loss to Johnston came on Sept. 21, and the Huskies haven’t lost a league game since. They beat Chariho 27-7, surprised Woonsocket with a 26-7 win, edged Coventry 21-20 in overtime and beat Toll Gate 35-6 last week. Their only loss in that span was a non-league defeat to Division II-B leader Cumberland.
Vets and Mt. Hope haven’t played since 2009 and much has changed for both programs since then. The ’Canes have steadily built themselves back up in recent years. Mt. Hope has made the playoffs every year since 2009 but the program got a new coach this year, with Brian Cote taking over.
The Huskies are led by junior quarterback Kyle Valenzuela and a stable of running backs that includes Tevin Jones, Jessie Raiola and Nick Murgo. Murgo also plays linebacker, where he teams with Bailey Ziobro to lead the defense.
“They’re tough,” Nappa said. “They come right at you. They’ve got a couple of good wide receivers and a strong running game. It’s going to be interesting. We’ve scouted them the last few weeks and I know they’ve done the same. There are a few things we think we can take advantage of and I’m sure they’ve seen a few things they can do.”
Vets will be focused on getting back to what it does well, with the Westerly game as the model. The ’Canes dominated the line of scrimmage in that game and it paved the way for big days from running back T.J. Boyajian and quarterback Jessie Sedoma. On the other side, Vets shut down Westerly’s strong running game.
“We have to focus on the things that have made us successful,” Nappa said. “Up at Johnston, I think they got a little overwhelmed by how hard Johnston came out. We have to get back to what we do well.”
Most of all, the ’Canes have to seize the day.
It’s the one they’ve been waiting for.
“They set this goal at the end of last year,” Nappa said. “They’re excited about it. They know it’s been a long time. They’ve put themselves in this position. It’s on them now. They control their own destiny.”