On October 28, 2011, the Pilgrim football team beat Ponaganset 26-12. With two seasons in the books since then, that remains the last league victory for Pilgrim, who went 0-7 with young teams in 2012 and 2013. It’s been even longer across town, where Toll Gate hasn’t won a league game since 2010.
In 2014, the Pats and Titans will finally get a chance to catch their breath. The Rhode Island Interscholastic League Principals Committee on Athletics approved on Monday a football realignment plan that will send Pilgrim and Toll Gate to Division III. Warwick Vets will remain in D-II.
“I think it’s a good place for us,” said Pilgrim athletic director Nick DiFilippo. “You can make a case that our school is too large, but all you have to do is look at the record. We have to take a step back. Football will never grow if we aren’t successful. If you stay up and you’re not successful, it’s not going to grow. You step down, you’re successful, you grow and you can move back up.”
RIIL alignments now run for two years, after which time the process starts over. This year’s fall sports alignments are the first dictated by the RIIL’s new 70-20-10 formula, which takes into account two separate winning percentage numbers, plus enrollment. The 70 percent number is winning percentage over the past eight years, the 20 percent is enrollment and the 10 percent is winning percentage over the previous three years. Wins are also weighted by division, with D-I at 1.0 points, D-II at .6, D-III at .36 and D-IV at .22.
“I think we have finally found the right formula,” said committee chairman and Lincoln High principal Kevin McNamara. “It has us on a good path.”
The math yields a number for each team and the resulting ranking sets up a guide for alignment. Exceptions can be made for schools that wish to remain in a higher division.
By those rankings, Toll Gate was 29th in the state for football and Pilgrim was 40th. That spot actually had Pilgrim slotted for Division IV, but the school requested a change to Division III.
“They actually wanted to move us to D-IV, and that wasn’t acceptable as far I was concerned,” DiFilippo said. “I think D-III is a good place for us. We have to crawl before we can walk.”
The football struggles for Warwick schools have come to a head in recent years. While Warwick Vets rallied from consecutive winless seasons to become a playoff contender the last two years, Pilgrim and Toll Gate saw the bottom fall out. The Pats went 3-4 and were in the playoff mix in 2011, but lost a big graduating class. The next year, a young team struggled mightily in a brutal Division II-B, and it was a similar story this year, even with a little more experience.
For the eight-year span that went into the realignment formula, Pilgrim didn’t have a single winning season. Its total league record was 8-48.
“My philosophy is you should be playing in a division where, in a great season, you can compete for a championship and in a good season, you can compete for the playoffs,” DiFilippo said. “We weren’t in that position where we were. A great season, we wouldn’t have made the playoffs.”
Toll Gate had major success at the beginning of the eight-year span, going 13-8 over the first three years and making the Division II Super Bowl in 2007. But after holding their own for a pair of 3-4 seasons in 2009 and 2010, the Titans have not won a league game. Numbers dipped into the low 20’s this year, and while coaches lauded the players who stuck it out, it was clear that something had to change.
DiFilippo could see the same feeling at Pilgrim.
“It’s very difficult for the kids to go out there every day, work really hard and get no rewards,” DiFilippo said.
A move to Division III isn’t unprecedented for Warwick schools. Pilgrim made two Super Bowls in Class C – the equivalent of D-III – in the 1990’s.
Division III will be a nine-team league in 2014, with a lot of new faces. Middletown, Ponaganset, Classical, East Greenwich and Lincoln are the only holdovers. Pilgrim and Toll Gate are down from D-II, trading places with Moses Brown and Mt. Pleasant, who are moving up. Exeter/West Greenwich and Hope are up from D-IV, while Tiverton, Burrillville and Narragansett are leaving D-III for D-IV.
“I think it’s where we belong right now,” DiFilippo said.
The football alignment includes several other changes. D-II powerhouse Cumberland is taking Tolman’s spot in D-I, keeping the state’s top circuit as a nine-team league. By ranking, South Kingstown and Cranston West could have moved to Division II but both programs opted to stay in D-I.
The two sides of Division II have been shuffled, as well. Warwick Vets will play in the II-A side, along with Woonsocket, St. Raphael, Mt. Hope, Central, Rogers, Coventry and Shea. D-II-B has West Warwick, Johnston, Westerly, North Kingstown, Chariho and newcomers Tolman, Moses Brown and Mt. Pleasant.
At Monday’s meeting, the Principals Committee also approved a new football playoff schedule that will move each division’s semifinal games to the weekend before Thanksgiving. For as long as the postseason has included four teams, semifinal games have been played the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, with the Super Bowls that weekend, creating a jam of three games in 10 or 11 days.
“We’ve never been comfortable with that,” said RIIL Executive Director Tom Mezzanotte.
Division II played its semifinal games before Thanksgiving this past season. Positive reviews plus growing concerns over concussions and injuries prompted the change.
The move will impact two of the state’s biggest Thanksgiving rivalries. The Cranston East-Cranston West and East Providence-La Salle games are league contests. Since playoff match-ups now need to be determined before Thanksgiving, those teams will play each other twice, once in an early-season league game and in a non-league game on Thanksgiving.
In other fall sport realignments, Pilgrim will move back to Division II in field hockey after four difficult years in Division I, and Toll Gate will head to D-II after a similar stretch in girls’ volleyball. In girls’ tennis, Toll Gate will move to Division I after making the D-II finals this past season.
Warwick’s three girls’ soccer teams will reunite in Division II. After Pilgrim moved down several years ago, Vets went down last year. Toll Gate will head to D-II next year.