During Chris Skurka’s last three years as Cumberland High’s head football coach, the Clippers were a combined 17-4 in Division II regular-season games; they captured the 2012 Division II Super Bowl I(49-0 over Woonsocket); and lost the 2013 Division II Super Bowl (48-13 to West Warwick).
Then, Skurka resigned his position to accept one as the linebackers coach at Dean Junior College. His successor is 27-year-old Josh Lima, a native of Cranston and an alumnus of La Salle Academy (’04) and Sacred Heart. But there will be one noticeable difference when the Clippers commence the 2014 season: Given the formula the Rhode Island Interscholastic League uses to determine two-year alignments, and given the success the Clippers have enjoyed in recent years, they’ve been moved up from Division II to Division I.
“Some of our obstacles will be the mindset of our athletes,” said Lima. “Division I is very even across the board. You’re playing the best of the best every week. With Division II being a 16-team Division (i.e. D-II is split into two eight-team sub-divisions), sometimes you play lower teams. Your season has ups and downs.
“In Division I, we tell them it’s a mountain you have to climb. The team with the worst record in Division I is still a very good football team. You must have a Division I mindset. There aren’t any days off. You have to play at your best in order to compete successfully.”
As a result of this realignment, Cumberland will match up with traditional state powers Hendricken, La Salle and Barrington plus Cranston East, Cranston West, Portsmouth, East Providence and South Kingstown. But Lima isn’t exactly a stranger when it comes to playing Division I teams.
Putting in his time: After graduating from Sacred Heart, Llma served as a volunteer assistant under his high school coach, Tim Coen, at Portsmouth where he coached defensive backs and wide receivers.
When Coen retired, Lima moved to Cranston East where he again coached the defensive backs and wide receivers while also being the defensive coordinator for the Thunderbolts’ freshman team.
After one season with the ‘Bolts, La Salle coach Geoff Marcone asked him in 2009 to become the Rams’ offensive coordinator.
During Lima’s time at La Salle, the Rams twice were undefeated during the regular season and developed consecutive Rhode Island Gatorade Players of the Year Award winners (running back Josh Morris in 2011 and quarterback Alex Francis in 2012).
“I think with the tradition of (Cumberland), the enrollment and the facilities, all are reasons why we should be able to compete in Division I,” said Lima. “The overall enrollment is one of the highest in the state.
"With that, being such a large school, the tradition the school has had in the past along with the type of kid you get – a hard-nosed kind that wants to play physical football – that plays into our hands in the Division I landscape.”
Two other factors entered into Lima’s decision to apply for the head coach’s position:
* Artificial turf was installed at Tucker Field.
* Lima, who was a long-term substitute teach in the Warwick School System, was appointed to a full-time position (computer drafting) at Cumberland.
“(The artificial turf) was a big factor,” said Lima. “After the upgrade the town made in the school, the wellness center and Tucker field, it really made this opening something I really wanted to go after.
“It excited me to be able to play our Friday night games on such a great field.”
All under one roof: The benefits of teaching in the same school where a person coaches are obvious.
“It’s great to be in the school where the guys see me on a daily basis,” said Lima. “They know if I hear about something, I’ll be there in five minutes.”
Conversely, for the Clippers, at least 34 who played for Skurka, the challenge will be to adapt to new systems.
“It’s been a change as far as the system goes,” said Lima. “We have new offensive and defensive systems plus new special teams.
“From the first day, I opened my door right away to my players. And I started helping out with the strength and conditioning program.”
Lima, meanwhile, had the benefit of playing under Coen, who developed top-flight programs at La Salle and Portsmouth and then built Salve Regina University into a strong Division III program.
“Coach Coen is a role model for me,” said Lima. “Playing for him really turned me onto football. He taught us life skills. When he offered me the position to coach with him, I got to learn Xs and Os but also how to be a leader.
“We’re still close. I share my films with him. He’s like our senior consultant. He’s an asset you can’t put a price on.”
Fortunately for Lima, Cumberland wasn’t devastated by graduation because it returns 20 seniors – although the Clippers did graduate First Team All-State tight end/linebacker Chris Hayes.
“There have been guys who’ve stood out and we’ll have to rely on to be successful,” said Lima who then noted players who will be counted on to play key roles:
* Running back/wide receiver/defensive back Jared Talbert (Lima: “He’s an offensive athlete.”)
*Running back/strong safety Mike Stock.
*Running back/inside linebacker Nick Georgio.
* Offensive/defensive lineman Andre Bibeault.
* Senior quarterback Tyler Calabro, who earned Second Team All-State honors as a junior.
“Tyler carries himself with great confidence and composure,” said Lima. “He’s the starting QB, one of the starting guards on the basketball team and the starting shortstop on the baseball team.
“He buys into our motto this year. Our motto is ‘100 percent effort and to compete on every play.’ Tyler gives all of his effort on every play and he competes.”
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.