Less than three minutes into Tuesday’s Division I semifinal, the Bishop Hendricken football team found itself behind the eight ball. Third-seeded South Kingstown got a 74-yard punt return touchdown by Garrett O’Dowd on the fourth play of the game to jump on top of the Hawks 7-0.
“That was a little scary,” said quarterback Ryan Brannigan.
But only a little.
The rest of the way – and in every other phase of the game – the second-seeded Hawks were in complete control. They answered the early Rebel score with an 80-yard drive, took the lead on their next possession, and then hit the gas pedal, shutting down South’s vaunted rushing attack, forcing five turnovers and scoring four more touchdowns before the Rebels even threatened again.
When all was said and done, the punt return touchdown was just a distant memory and the Hawks were on their way to their third straight Super Bowl thanks to a 42-14 victory. Hendricken will play top-seeded La Salle on Saturday at 12 p.m. at Cranston Stadium.
“This is awesome. It’s what we’ve been waiting for all season,” said senior linebacker Brian Reilly. “We saw La Salle celebrating on our field. We wanted to see them again. It’s a dream come true.”
Before the Hawks could worry about a rematch with the unbeaten Rams, they had to get past South Kingstown, and they figured it would be difficult. The Rebels lost in overtime to the Hawks in September but caught fire soon after and won five of their last six games. They scored the second-most points in the league.
And on Tuesday, the Rebels landed a quick first punch. Hendricken went three-and-out on its first possession and punted the ball to O’Dowd. He caught it at the 36, hit a gap, stiff-armed a defender and broke loose for the 74-yard touchdown.
“We were trying to get it out of bounds,” said Hendricken coach Keith Croft. “We didn’t want to kick to him. He’s lethal and he showed it.”
But the Hawks were determined to respond.
“Every team has its ups and downs,” Reilly said. “That was a down, but we came back. We always come back. We’ve been that kind of team from the beginning.”
The Hawks got their feet under them on their next drive when Louis Falcone broke a 24-yard run to bring the ball into Rebel territory. The drive was in danger of stalling, though, when Hendricken picked up a holding penalty and ended up in a third-and-14.
That’s when the tide started to turn.
Brannigan dropped back to pass, looked deep for Aaron Webb and lofted a perfect pass to hit him in stride. Webb went untouched into the end zone, and Bobby Lineberger made the extra point to tie the game.
Taking the field for the first time, the Hendricken defense pushed South Kingstown back on the ensuing possession and forced a punt. The Hawks took over at the Rebel 40 and got a 20-yard run by Falcone plus a horse collar penalty to put the ball at the 10. Two more runs got it to the 1-yard line and Brannigan ran a quarterback sneak into the end zone from there. Lineberger’s extra point made it 14-7 with 3:02 left in the first quarter.
In just over six minutes, Hendricken had regained control.
“I knew we would bounce back,” Brannigan said.
The score stayed close for the next 12 minutes, with each team punting twice after three-and-outs, but with six minutes left in the half, the Hawks came up big when they snuffed out a South Kingstown fake punt. The play was an option with Nick Cruz and Nick Neill, but Hendricken’s Michael Scarcella forced an early pitch and Brannigan was there to bury Neill for an 8-yard loss.
Hendricken took over at the South Kingstown 34, converted a third-and-8 thanks to a 30-yard pass from Brannigan to Webb then scored on another Brannigan sneak with 2:56 left in the half, making it 21-7.
Then came the knockout punch.
South Kingstown got the ball back at its own 28 and picked up 17 yards on a pass from John Curzake to Chase Almond. On the next play, Hendricken lineman Reuben Horace blocked a Curzake pass attempt then caught his own deflection, broke a tackle and rumbled 35 yards for a touchdown.
It was a highlight-reel play that touched off a huge celebration, and suddenly a two-score game was looking like a blowout.
Horace’s interception was part of an impressive defensive effort by the Hawks, who allowed just 40 yards of offense in the first half.
“It was huge,” Croft said. “I don’t think it was any one thing. I just think coach [Mike] Green did a phenomenal job preparing them. Every team that we practice for, we have tendencies on and we have formations we try to account for. But I think our kids just came with a desire tonight. They played with a chip on their shoulder.”
It was more of the same after the break. On the third play of the second half, Marco DelVecchio intercepted a Curzake pass and returned it 30 yards for another score.
Jarrid Witherspoon then stripped Cruz on South’s next possession, setting Hendricken up with the ball at the Rebel 25. Five plays and the Hawks were in the end zone again, with Falcone rumbling in from three yards out.
Lineberger’s kick gave Hendricken the 42-7 lead, a shocking score even for the Hawks’ biggest believers.
“I thought we could win the game, but like I said to everyone coming in, you could flip a coin,” Croft said. “When you have the two seed and the three seed, anybody can win. We beat them in overtime this year. Take away this score tonight, I think you’re looking at two well-balanced teams that are evenly-matched. We just got the bounces tonight.”
Falcone led the Hawks with 88 yards rushing on 14 carries. Brannigan scored two rushing touchdowns, while Webb caught two passes for 79 yards.
The defensive effort was even stronger for the Hawks. They allowed 147 yards of offense, most of which came on a late scoring drive by the Rebels. For the game, they surrendered only 83 yards on the ground.
“Coach Green is definitely one of the best defensive coordinators in the state and probably New England,” Reilly said. “He taught us every single little trick and prepared us for everything they do. We knew what to look for on everything, and it turned out great.”
The Super Bowl berth is Hendricken’s fifth in six years. Only one of those trips – last year’s – yielded a championship, and the Hawks will be the underdogs again this year.
But they’re thrilled to have a shot.
“I think just getting to the Super Bowl at this point is a phenomenal accomplishment for these kids,” Croft said. “When we lost that senior class last year, if you asked the 43 high-school coaches in Rhode Island, I don’t think many of them would have said Hendricken would be back in the Super Bowl. The big motivation for these kids all year was that a lot of people counted them out.”