The Hendricken football team was careful not to look past its Division I semifinal opponent on Tuesday, but it knew that a potential dream Super Bowl match-up was most likely on the horizon if the Hawks took care of business.
And after Hendricken dismantled South Kingstown 42-14, it got exactly what it what has hoping for – another shot at La Salle. Only this time, the Hawks and Rams won’t get together for just any game – they’ll meet for the state championship.
“It feels great,” offensive tackle Max Heintzelman said. “After we made it to the playoffs, we wanted to see La Salle in the Super Bowl.”
La Salle easily took care of East Providence 41-14 in the other semifinal, setting up the first-ever Super Bowl match-up between the two storied programs. La Salle is the top seed with an 8-0 D-I mark and a 9-1 mark overall, while Hendricken is the No. 2 seed with its 6-2 record in D-I. The Hawks are 8-2 overall.
Defending-champion Hendricken has seven Super Bowl titles to its name, while La Salle’s 14 titles are the second-most in D-I history behind only East Providence’s 15 crowns.
It doesn’t get a whole lot more important than these two teams meeting with the ultimate prize on the line.
“I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t think it’s the biggest rivalry in the state of Rhode Island,” Hendricken head coach Keith Croft said. “It doesn’t get bigger than that. It means a little bit more, absolutely.”
The Hawks’ hopes of getting the upper hand on the Rams hinge on them showing drastic improvement from the game they played in the regular season match-up between the two teams on Sept. 16, in which La Salle beat up Hendricken 39-14.
In that game, the Hawks led 7-0 before turning the ball over three times in the first half and seeing everything quickly spiral out of control.
La Salle running back Josh Morris scored three times, including taking the second-half kickoff back for a touchdown, and quarterback Anthony Francis threw two touchdown passes to Tyneil Cooper and ran for one more.
“There’s definitely a lot more work to do,” Heintzelman said. “We’re going to take this week to prepare for La Salle really well, and just go do our business.”
But the Hendricken team that will take the field on Saturday isn’t the same one that lost to La Salle in its league opener back in December.
Since that loss, the Hawks have gone 7-1 in D-I, including Tuesday’s playoff win, and seem to have found their identity on both sides of the ball.
They’re getting steady running from Louis Falcone and Ryan Brannigan, while the passing game has improved with Brannigan getting more comfortable throwing the ball and Aaron Webb emerging as a legitimate No. 1 receiving threat.
Defensively, Hendricken has been forcing turnovers at a consistent rate, showcased by the five takeaways it had against the Rebels on Tuesday. That unit finished the season allowing the second-fewest points, 141, in all of Division I and, including the South Kingstown game, has not allowed more than 14 points in any of its last five games.
It’s safe to say that the Hawks are hitting their stride at the perfect time.
“I feel like we’ve matured a lot,” Heintzelman said. “I feel like at the start of the season, if we were down a touchdown at the start, we wouldn’t have come back. But now, we stay focused, and we’re coming from behind. We’re just playing well.”
Of course, La Salle has been just as consistent over the same span, if not more.
The Rams lead Division I with 303 points – 82 clear of the next closest team – and have surrendered 113, which is the fewest points in the division.
They have been the unanimous No. 1 team in the Rhode Island Sports Media Poll since their win over Hendricken, and their only loss on the year came to Massachusetts power Bridgewater-Raynham 27-16.
“I think we’ve definitely improved since we played them,” Croft said. “But I’m sure if you asked them, they would say the same thing. I’m sure they’ve improved.”
La Salle’s closest game in Rhode Island this season was a 17-point victory over Portsmouth, and the Rams have won each of their other eight games by more than 20 points. The fewest points they’ve scored, outside of the Bridgewater-Raynham game, were 30 against Cranston West.
Morris has led the Rams on offense, and he has rushed for just shy of 1,300 yards and accumulated 18 total touchdowns.
Francis has also come into his own, as he has thrown for 13 touchdowns and almost 1,200 yards while rushing for over 700 yards.
Receivers Keon Wilson and Tyneil Cooper have combined for 11 touchdowns on the outside.
“We haven’t faced anyone as good as him this year,” Croft said of Morris. “He’s got a good offensive line in front of him, and obviously the quarterback is a dual-threat. They’ve got guys that can break it from any point on the field.”
Now it’s Hendricken’s job to stop it, and the Hawks have to look no further than two years ago to believe they can get it done.
The last time the two teams met in the playoffs was the 2009 semifinals, in which third-seeded Hendricken upset second-seeded La Salle 35-34 in overtime.
That win ended any hopes La Salle had of becoming repeat champions; the Rams had won the Super Bowl in 2008.
On Saturday, it’s Hendricken, which is making its fifth Super Bowl appearance in six years, that will look to claim its place as the first back-to-back champion since East Providence in 2002-03.
And their biggest rival is the only thing standing in the way.
“I think the ultimate goal is to win a State Championship,” Croft said. “I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say they’re a phenomenal football team. It’s going to take a really good game to beat them.”