EAST PROVIDENCE — With two preseason games under its collective belt, the East Providence High School football team takes to the field for "real" this weekend as the locals begin their 2023 …
EAST PROVIDENCE — With two preseason games under its collective belt, the East Providence High School football team takes to the field for "real" this weekend as the locals begin their 2023 Division II regular season slate.
The Townies split their two non-league outings. East Providence bettered Central Falls 28-6 in its 24-minute Injury Fund contest two weeks ago, then dropped an 18-6 decision to visiting Westfield, Mass., last Friday night.
"I like what we've done," said EPHS head coach Jon Stringfellow, about to begin his fourth year following in the footsteps of his father, Bill, for some two decades the Townies' head coach in the 1970s and 80s. "You go back a few months. We had a good summer and were able to build off of that into camp. I thought we played well at times times the first two weeks, but now it's time to get the regular season going to see where we are and where we're headed the rest of the year."
The Townies enter Year 4 of the second Stringfellow era coming off a 3-3 regular season last fall. good enough to earn one of the eight berths into the D-II playoffs. (The league is once again composed of 14 teams total) East Providence then took host and eventual league runner-up Portsmouth to the limit in the quarterfinals, losing 14-13.
Most, if not all, eyes trained on the Townies this fall will be on new starting quarterback Jacob Duarte. The sophomore takes over the signal-calling duties in the stead of graduate Max Whiting and his back-up a year ago, then junior Trey Rezendes. Whiting is doing a post-grad high school year in South Carolina while Rezendes left EPHS for nearby Tabor Academy in pursuit of greater opportunities in basketball.
Duarte has the talent and the size (6-foot-2, 185-pounds) to handle the position in East Providence's “flex-bone” option scheme. The question is will his lack of experience at the varsity level, he didn't take a snap at the position a year ago, hinder his ability to steward the Townies effectively when they have the ball.
Duarte's development should be helped by a savvy, senior offensive line, which returns fully from last year. Grant Peoples and Anjai Izquierdo, respectively, are the tackle and guard on the left. Peyton Bailey is the center. Andrew Espada is the right guard and Machar Francis is the right tackle. Junior Tyler Dicecco is the new starter at tight end.
"I've seen a lot of growth from the whole team the first couple of weeks, including the quarterback," said Stringfellow. "I think it's about Jacob getting some confidence in himself, not being so critical of himself. He needs to understand mistakes are going to happen. He just needs to keep getting better and learning from them. If he does that, the seniors will believe in him, believe he can do the job. And that's important because we're such an older team."
Part of the weaponry at Duarte's disposal is standout senior wide out Cameron Evora, who leads the receiving corps along with classmate Richard Pina.
"I think we're ahead of schedule from where my expectation was for the offense coming into the season," Stringfellow said. "We were able to throw the ball a little bit more Friday night as the protection got better throughout the game. And as the protection gets better, (Duarte's) confidence grows. And having a talented guy like Cam to throw to should also help."
The backfield behind Duarte is just as experienced and also all returning starters: seniors Steven Clark Jr. and Evan Johnson along with junior Isaac Fox. As well, sophomore Brady Platt is expected to join the running back mix with junior Lucas Santa Cruz.
"We have a solid group of running backs," said Stringfellow. "There's no standout like we had last year with (spring 2023 graduate) Yusef (Abdullah), but all four of those guys can get the job done. They can all run the ball and Junior (Clarke), especially, can step up and block for the quarterback."
Several of the EPHS offensive regulars are also expected to see action in the Townies' 4-4/3-4 defense scheme. Evora and senior Ashton Arredondo are the starting ends to be spelled by Dicecco and Izquierdo. The down linemen depending on whether the front is four or three will include in some grouping seniors Jasper Chakouian, Ryan Travassos and Terrence Wharton.
The inside backers are Bailey and Peoples and junior Colin Roche. The outside backers include Clark, fellow senior Steven Estrella along with juniors Franklin Carela Lopez and David Vieira.
Fox and Johnson are back in the defensive backfield unit, which also includes junior Jaidin Orefice, Santa Cruz and Platt.
"The front four is the most solid part of the defense," said Stringfellow. "They've been able to get a lot of pressure on the quarterback. The linebacking play needs to get better. We've had a lot of missed tackles. You can't give the other team second and third opportunities to gain extra yards after the initial hit. We need our linebackers to be better in general so our secondary can concentrate on coverage instead of worrying about coming up to make tackles."
Other notes of interest include Clark, Izquierdo and Peoples serving as the team captains; Evora is handling the punting chores, Fox extra points and sophomore Justin Jardine is kicking off; and freshmen participation numbers have returned to the point where the first-year program has been brought back for a full slate of games.
As they did last year, the Townies open their league schedule playing a pair of Blackstone Valley outfits: Friday, Sept. 15 in Pawtucket against St. Raphael and Friday, Sept. 25, in Cumberland against the host Clippers. The Saints, the former, are the reigning D-II champs. Cumberland finished just ahead of EP in last year's regular season standings.
"They're both still good until somebody beats them," Stringfellow said of the Townies' initial league opponents. "The first two games will be a big test. Last year we were able to split. We beat Saints (29-22) right away, but we were never really able to recoup that same kind of energy. Hopefully this year we can be more consistent throughout the schedule instead of dealing with the highs and lows like last year."
The fall of 2022, as noted earlier, included the gut-wrenching one point loss to Portsmouth. This time around, the hope is for the Townies to improve their lot both in the regular and postseasons.
"Last year we ended up in fourth place so it would be nice to do a little bit better, get home field advantage in the first round at least," Stringfellow added of the season ahead. "The expectation is to make the playoffs agains and then do some damage once we're there. That would be a big step forward for us as program in my fourth year. It would show good growth for us."