Bring it on.
That’s the overwhelming sentiment within the North Kingstown camp after realignment metrics used by the Rhode Island Interscholastic League deemed the Skippers a Division I participant for the 2018 and 2019 seasons.
The bump up to the state’s top tier for high school football also tapped the brakes on North Kingstown’s bid to defend the program’s 2017 Division II Super Bowl title.
If you’re the Skippers, what proposition is more enticing: the chance for back-to-back crowns or the opportunity to prove that North Kingstown belongs on the brightest stage?
Again it bears repeating: Bring it on. Bring on Division I. Bring on the perennial contenders like Bishop Hendricken, which happens to be North Kingstown’s next opponent on Friday night. It’s a golden opportunity that’s not to be missed.
“We want to show the whole state that we can play with anyone, especially Division I,” said NK senior offensive/defensive lineman Nick Iden.
“We feel we can compete with anyone,” said senior wide receiver/defensive back Andrew Zarrella.
“We were very excited to play some of the best schools in Rhode Island and show them that we’re right up there with them,” said senior running back/defensive back Tyler Khalfayan.
“We wanted to come up,” said senior offensive/defensive lineman Dylan Poirier.
Clearly, the challenge was not only accepted but embraced long before the relocation to Division I was officially decreed. North Kingstown was barely a week removed from capturing the school’s first football championship since 1967 when the offseason weightlifting program commenced.
“Everybody out there has put in a ton of work and our leadership doesn’t take that for granted.”
“They’ve been lifting since before Christmas, but that’s just part of the culture here. They came ready to work the next week after winning the Super Bowl. They don’t want to take days off and I can’t talk them into taking time off,” noted North Kingstown head coach Joe Gilmartin. “I would have loved to have given them time off until after Christmas and start on January 1, but they wouldn’t let me do that.
“Quite frankly, I’m old. I want the rest,” Gilmartin says in a completely serious tone. “When they start lifting, we go three times a day. I have a group that meets me at six o’clock in the morning. I’m in the school building by 5:30. After school, we have an afternoon session from 2:30 to 3:30 and then another one after that for those who play a winter sport. It’s a drain, but I haven’t been able to get them to take a few days off.”
Added Khalfayan, “We wanted to get after it right away.”
Clearly, complacency and resting on one’s laurels are not part of North Kingstown’s vocabulary. Then again, when you finally get to taste success and reap the benefits of all that hard work, the desire to stay atop the mountain can prove to be a pretty powerful motivating factor.
“These kids understand how hard it is to win a football game,” Gilmartin said. “Everybody out there has put in a ton of work and our leadership doesn’t take that for granted.”
The last time the Skippers were in Division I was 2011, the last of three straight winless seasons. The next year, North Kingstown dropped down to Division II and went 1-6 in league play. The road to respectability was going to be long and challenging.
“The program needed to get healthy. The coaching group that preceded the current staff didn’t have a lot success in Division I, but they also didn’t have anybody in the program,” Gilmartin said. “They also didn’t have a teacher who was in the building on the staff. It’s almost impossible to be on top of grades, discipline, and motivation if you don’t have anybody in the building. They really had a tough task and they struggled.”
Currently, Gilmartin is one of three coaches in the high school on a daily basis, along with assistants Travis Crocker and Fran Dempsey.
“We built our staff a little bit differently,” Gilmartin said. “I see the kids all day long. I don’t have a classroom. I travel on a golf cart to make sure I’m in the hallways. That’s how important it is to have someone here when you’re trying to build a culture.”
As captains of North Kingstown’s first Division I squad in seven years, Iden, Kahalfayan, Poirier, and Zarrella understand the importance of continuing to build upon the legacy that was started long before they walked through the doors at North Kingstown High. Growing up, Kahalfayan, Poirier, and Zarrella were teammates on the same youth football team (North Kingstown Jaguars).
“There would be a Jaguar day at the high school and we would all go,” Kahalfayan said. “North Kingstown football has always been a big part of the community.”
“If we take care of our business, we feel we should be competitive with just about everybody.”
Looking at wins and losses, the Skippers since 2013 have won 30 games against league opponents during the regular season compared to five losses. Two of those campaigns (2014, 2017) featured records of seven wins and zero defeats. As impressive as the past five years have been, it was finally time to turn over a new leaf and say goodbye to Division II.
“North Kingstown belongs in Division I,” said Gilmartin.
North Kingstown hopes to buck a recent trend that’s featured teams that struggle to find their way after moving from Division II to Division I. So far, the Skippers have made the adjustment appear to be seamless.
On Sept. 7, NK rode a five-touchdown performance from senior Gabe Sloat to roll past Portsmouth, 56-14. The next week, the Skippers faced another team (Moses Brown) that also calls Division I its home after residing in Division II. In a rematch of last year’s D-II Super Bowl, North Kingstown cruised to a 34-7 win over Moses Brown.
“If we take care of our business, we feel we should be competitive with just about everybody. That’s our goal,” Gilmartin said.
The importance of being in competitive mode at all times extends to the practice field or the gym on rainy days. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, the players sprint up and down the court to see which position group or class can finish the quickest.
“We have blocks in our practice plan that are called competition. That’s all that’s written. You are either a dominant competitor or you are exposed,” Gilmartin said.
“Every practice, we know we have to bring it so we can convert it to Friday nights,” Poirier said.
Bring it on, indeed.