La Salle (R.I.) football still hungry for postseason

When La Salle Academy beat defending four-time Division I state champion Hendricken, 15-9, on Nov. 7 the Rams:

Rhode Island* Handed the Hawks their first loss of the season.

* Clinched the regular-season championship with an 8-0 record.

* Locked up the number one seed in the Division I state tournament.

Yet Rams coach Geoff Marcone, wasn’t inclined to find space in the school’s trophy case for another championship plaque.

“It was a great win for our program,” said Marcone who’s in his 11th season as La Salle’s head coach. “But we’ve always had great matchups with them. To say it was the best thing that’s happened to our program, I would disagree. It was a game against our rival and one we wanted to win.

“It was a great victory but it wasn’t going to make or break our season.”

Arguably the reason Marcone was pragmatic when discussing the win over Hendricken is that the Rams and the Hawks could meet in the Division I Super Bowl for the third time in the last four seasons. The top-seeded Rams host fourth-seeded Cranston East on Friday night while the second-seeded Hawks host third-seeded Portsmouth in the Division I semifinals.

The Super Bowl is scheduled for Dec. 6.

“You want to win the division and get to the playoffs,” said Marcone. “As you get to one goal, you cross it off. We have to beat Cranston East to get to the (Super Bowl).

“If we do, we cross that one off.”

Obviously, the Rams aren’t able to “cross off” their 17-14 loss to Hendricken in the 2011 Super Bowl and their 26-20 loss to the Hawks in the 2012 Super Bowl.

“It was hard for the coaching staff and harder for the kids,” said Marcone of those championship game losses. “But you can’t dwell on that and think about what did or did not happen. If you do, you’re not going to fare well the next time. But that’s a credit to Hendricken. To beat a team of that caliber twice in one year is very difficult. Both games came down to the last play.

“If one play goes either way, maybe it’s us winning the title. You dust yourself off and get ready for next season. But this year the team has its own identity.”

To say it took time for the Rams to develop an identity would be an understatement because a young 2013 team finished 4-4 and missed qualifying for the playoffs.

“We had eight sophomores start last year and 13 sophomores who lettered,” said Marcone. “Last year going in we knew we were going to be young and were going to have some growing pains.

“Going into this year, we knew those kids were battle-tested. But were they going to buy into the system? They have. They’ve done everything we’ve asked of them.

“Their attitude is, ‘Let’s get onto the next game.’ They’ve bought into that and trust themselves.”

Nevertheless the Rams’ early-season play was “interesting” to say the least.

“Against Cranston West and East Providence, we were down at halftime,” said Marcone. “Against Cranston East, we were tied at halftime. Against Portsmouth we were down at halftime. For the staff, to see the team being down at halftime and not seeing any panic was great.

“We would come out and do very well in the second half and win it in a decisive fashion. Our kids don’t waver. We have some pretty tough kids, mentally, and there isn’t any finger-pointing.

“They don’t care who gets the touchdowns or sacks,” continued Marcone. “They don’t care about individual stats. They just care about who wins the game and they give each other positive feedback.”

That being said, several Rams have impressive stats.

For example, junior quarterback Jace Pena has completed 89-of-165 passes for 941 yards and six touchdowns and also has gained 389 yards on 60 carries. Junior running back Kyron Lopes has carried the ball 111 times for 701 yards and 14 touchdowns while senior Don Odufundae has gained 563 yards and scored six times on 97 carries. Junior Cornelius Waite has been Pena’s “go-to” receiver since he’s caught 35 passes for 378 yards and one score.

“Jace is a two-year starter,” said Marcone. “He didn’t have to be great but he’s been very good. Another big part of our offense is Cornelius Waite. He can play slot and wide receiver.”

But, as the cliché’ goes, it’s what’s up front that counts as Marcone was quick to note.

“The credit goes to our offensive line,” said Marcone. “That was our biggest question going into this season because we graduated four out of five starters (the lone returnee is right guard John Norton).”

Filling the holes created by the graduation of the other starters have been John Riccio and Eric Harpootian who’ve split time at left tackle; left guard Kyle Batty; center Mike Valelli and Conor Regan, who was moved from tight end to right tackle.

“They’ve gotten better every week,” said Marcone.

Without question the key to La Salle’s defense has been senior linebacker Nick Varrichione who leads the team with 87 tackles – 51 of which have been unassisted.

“He’s a three-year starter,” said Marcone. “He makes all of our calls. Having Nick on the field is like having another coach. He’s very cerebral.

“He can come off the field and talk to us about the defense unlike other kids. He’s a very important part of our defense.”

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.