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It’s “GameTime” for Rhode Island High School Football

There’s no game taking place, yet there’s a very good reason why the scoreboard at Dennis P. Hayden Stadium, located on the Bishop Hendricken campus, is turned on.

In the left-hand column appears the number 22. The number 21 appears in right column. That was the final score of the 2017 State Championship Super Bowl that was captured by La Salle Academy in thrilling last-second fashion. The La Salle victory ended Hendricken’s record run of seven consecutive state titles, hence why the scoreboard at the Hawks’ home field reads the way it does and will continue to serve as a reminder of the past throughout the 2018 season.

Can the Hawks reclaim the crown, or will the Rams prove to be worthy defenders of the program’s first Super Bowl triumph since 2008? It’s one of the key storylines to keep an eye on as players and coaches get set to make the transition from the dog days of August and preseason camp to Friday Night Lights.

With the countdown to a new season with unlimited possibilities drawing ever closer – the first slate of games is scheduled for Friday, Sept. 7 – here’s a checklist with the purpose of bringing everyone up to speed until it’s time to kick the ball into the air for real:

Hendricken, La Salle. Anyone else?

The Hawks and Rams have combined for 11 state titles since 2000. That’s dominance. Both squads return significant pieces from a year ago, suggesting that a championship-game rematch isn’t out of the realm of possibility.

Hendricken boasts the state’s most well-known player in senior offensive lineman Xavier Truss, a four-star recruit who’s committed to the University of Georgia. The Hawks will be looking to get the ball into the hands of junior wide receiver Angel Sanchez, an explosive playmaker who hauled in 12 touchdowns last season.

Xavier Truss (Credit: Brendan McGair)

As a 15-year-old sophomore quarterback, Nate Lussier capped off La Salle’s title pursuit in dramatic style. In the final minute of the Super Bowl win over the Hawks, he called his own number for a rushing touchdown, then added a successful two-point conversion that proved to be the difference in that aforementioned one-point triumph. The touchdown that helped set up the two-point try was one of three that Lussier scored on that day, making him an easy choice for game MVP honors.

A year older and no question a year wiser, Lussier is poised to take his game to a higher level and represents one of the keys in La Salle’s quest to remain atop the Rhode Island high-school football mountain.

Hendricken and La Salle will square off on Friday, Sept. 28 in Providence. Will they cross paths again with an even bigger prize at stake come November? Stay tuned.

New year, new alignment

Success can come at a hefty price. In the R.I. Interscholastic League, this double-edged sword is sharpened every few years or so when the time comes to realign the divisions in all sports. Caught in the crosshairs are non-Division I teams that have achieved and sustained success over a designated period of time.

In football over the next two years, the state’s gridiron landscape will include four divisions. That’s a return to how matters were settled prior to the 2016 season, which saw the introduction of a three-division system with sub-divisions within each division.

The Division I landscape will welcome Shea, one of the more successful D-II teams over the past few seasons and a Super Bowl champion as recently as 2016. The Raiders are one of three new D-I schools, joined by Moses Brown and North Kingstown. The Skippers defeated the Quakers in last year’s Division II Super Bowl, 34-16.

Shea will be in Division I-A along with Bishop Hendricken, Cranston East, North Kingstown, Cumberland, East Providence, and St. Raphael. In Division I-B, you have La Salle, Portsmouth, Moses Brown, Barrington, South Kingstown, Cranston West, and Central. These schools will play six division games and one crossover contest as part of a seven-game regular-season schedule.

In re-alignment, what goes up must come down. Dropping from the D-I ranks are Woonsocket, Tolman, and Rogers. The Novans will now compete in Division II-A along with two-time D-III Super Bowl champion Burrillville, East Greenwich, West Warwick, Johnston, Classical, and Lincoln.

In Division II-B, there’s Mt. Hope, Middletown, Rogers, Westerly, Juanita Sanchez/PCD/Wheeler co-op, Mount Pleasant, and Coventry. Like Division I, D-II will play seven regular-season games (six division games and one crossover).

Tolman was relocated to Division III with North Providence, Smithfield, Central Falls, Narragansett, Pilgrim, and Chariho. In the re-established Division IV, the North Smithfield/Mount St. Charles Co-op team will compete against Tiverton, Hope, Toll Gate, Exeter/West Greenwich, Ponaganset, and Scituate. Division III and IV teams will play six league games against teams in the same division plus one crossover as part of a seven-game regular season card.

New route to a championship

The playoff format represents drastic changes from past practices.

In Division I, the top team in I-A and I-B will play for the state championship on Nov. 9. Eight of the remaining 14 teams will qualify for the playoffs (four from I-A and four from I-B) and embark on a three-round journey. The quarterfinals will be Nov. 2, the semifinals on Nov. 9, and the finals on Nov. 17.

In Division II, the top four teams in II-A and II-B will begin their playoff quest with the semifinals on Nov. 2 followed by the semis on Nov. 9 and the championship on Nov. 17. Division III and Division IV teams will be grouped together with top two teams in each division qualifying for the second season. The semifinals are Nov. 9 with the D-III/IV Super Bowl set for Nov. 17.

The decision to crown Super Bowl champs before Thanksgiving will eliminate the conundrum that coaches run into every holiday about whether to rest the starters with a bigger, more important game on tap the following week.