Nobody could blame North Providence High basketball coach Paul Rizzo if he shed tears of sadness last June when 10 of the 14 boys on his 2012-13 team that finished 15-3 and lost to Shea in the Division II quarterfinals graduated.
Now flash forward to last Sunday when Rizzo again was shedding tears - albeit tears of joy.
The fifth-seeded Cougars, for all intents and purposes, came out of nowhere and upset second-seeded Barrington, 55-51, for the Division II state championship.
“The boys we returned played sparingly (last season),” said Rizzo. “We had several brand-new starters like Ryan McCluskie (18 ppg.), Connor Nesbitt, Alex Wagoner and Nick Sollitto plus two kids who were on the junior varsity last year and filled in, Nick Geremia (14 ppg.) and Chris Corin (12 ppg., an average that included 21 points against Barrington in the championship game)."
“Every year our goal is to make the playoffs. I stay positive with the guys. Make the playoffs and try to get better during the year, jell at some time and hopefully make some type of run.”
Good point considering the Cougars’ 30-game home winning streak was broken on February 4 when they were mauled by Barrington, 66-45.
Before the Cougars knew what hit them they were mired in a three-game losing streak – the longest North Providence had endured in the past six seasons.
At that point the Cougars were faced with two options: Mail in the rest of their schedule or show some grit and slam the door on that losing streak.
“I told the kids that Barrington and West Warwick were the class of our division and the favorites to win,” said Rizzo. “I told them you can’t get down. That stretch was the toughest part of the season. Exeter/West Greenwich (61-59) really was a tough loss. But then we regrouped.
“The kids don’t know how to get down. They’re positive. They stayed the course and kept working. I told them let’s just get back to the basics.”
The Cougars closed out their regular season with a five-game winning streak.
Then in the Division II Tournament they pulled off three upsets, beating fourth-seeded Prout 49-48, top-seeded West Warwick 66-52 and, as mentioned, No. 2 Barrington.
As a result, North Providence (16-8) earned the ninth seed in the 16-team Open State Championship Tournament.
Granted, North Providence averaged a modest 53.2 points per game on offense. But on defense they lived up to their nickname and played ferociously while holding opponents to a mere 49.6 points per game.
“I stress every year you should never have a night off defensively,” said Rizzo. “If you’re not good on offense you should be on defense. You have to be a constant every night and play defense. The starters play defense and the others have accepted their roles.”
Ironically, Rizzo’s current team is in stark contrast from an offensive standpoint to other teams he’s had in the past.
“We’ve had some dynamite offensive teams but they would take the night off on defense and we would play games in the 80s,” he said. “Two years ago we had three 1000-point scorers (Austin VanBemmelen, Mike Ferrante and Rob Hazard) and we got to the Elite Eight before La Salle beat us at Alumni Hall.”
The Cougars captured the 2010-11 Division II state title – their first since the 1987-88 season.
“When it came to winning close games (this season), we had guys making key shots,” said Rizzo. “They played good, solid basketball. They made free throws late. They made stops on defense. It didn’t look like they had that deer-in-the-headlights look.
“It was amazing how they reacted to those situations.”
How the Cougars react on the biggest boys’ basketball stage in the state could be most interesting commencing with Thursday night’s Round-of-16 game against eighth-seeded and defending state champion Classical.
“Classical arguably has the best player in the state in Kealen Ives,” said Rizzo. “Classical is the defending state champ and the winner of our game probably will play the number one seed (La Salle who faces 16th-seeded Middletown in the Round of 16) so you have to be playing your best ball.
“Going back three months and to see where we are now, my feeling is let’s ride with it.”
Given what the unsung Cougars have accomplished to date, perhaps it could be a longer “ride” than could have been predicted at the start of the season.
Mike Scandura has been covering high school sports, college basketball, football and hockey plus minor league baseball in Rhode Island since the early 1970s. A native of Oswego, N.Y, he’s a member of the Words Unlimited Hall of Fame which is the statewide organization of sportswriters, sportscasters and sports publicists.