It’s Friday night in East Providence, and Pierce Field is rocking as the Townies take the field against regional and Division 1A rival St. Raphael’s Academy. If it’s not quite the frenzy of the Townie’s annual showdown against LaSalle Academy — a Thanksgiving Day game that’s been played annually since 1929 — the game lives up to the home-opener hype, with East Providence pulling out a 15-7 overtime win capped by a five-yard touchdown run by quarterback Justin Pena.
High school football in the East Bay may never be compared to that in East Texas, but the local pride and longstanding traditions embraced in towns like East Providence, Barrington, and Portsmouth still make attending a game an immersive and exciting event whether you’re a student, alumni, or just a resident coming out to support the community and local student-athletes.
Portsmouth, for example, not only brings a highly competitive team to the field, but also a rowdy student cheering section dubbed the Zoo Crew. Barrington’s Pep Band livens up the sidelines during Eagles games, as does the East Providence Marching Band.
“The teams that have the best support also have the best atmosphere,” says Portsmouth High School head football coach Matt Kessler. “When the community comes out, it’s quite a social event. For the kids, it might as well be the NFL. The Pop Warner players line up for high-fives by the high school team, and they look up to those players like idols.”
Among football people, the East Bay includes not just the towns on the mainland along the eastern shore of Narragansett Bay — East Providence, Mt. Hope, Barrington, and Tiverton — but also the schools on Aquidneck Island: Portsmouth, Middletown, and Rogers High School in Newport.
Among these, the biggest regional rivalry games include Barrington vs. Mt. Hope (another traditional Turkey Day match-up), Portsmouth vs. Middletown, and Portsmouth vs. Rogers. Portsmouth, the last public school team to win the state Division 1 football championship, remains an annual contender, while East Providence touts to the field the history of a half-dozen state titles (the last in 2006, under legendary coach Sandy Gorham, who has led the football teams at both Barrington and East Providence in three-plus decades of coaching).
Yet, says Kessler, “On Friday nights, any of the East Bay teams can be competitive.”
Realignment in the Rhode Island Interscholastic League has watered down some local rivalries: these days, East Bay teams are more likely to circle on their calendar cross-bay games against teams like Cranston East and West, North Kingstown, and of course the perennial private-school powerhouses, Hendricken and LaSalle. But at least Barrington and Portsmouth are guaranteed to square off in Division 1B, while Middletown and Mt. Hope battle for dominance of Division 2B.
Of course, football fortunes rise and fall every four or five years at most high schools, with programs peaking as talented students reach their junior and senior years and falling off once they graduate and are replaced by less experienced players. (Private schools that can afford to recruit players from anywhere are the exception, of course, which is why LaSalle and Hendricken have ruled Rhode Island high school football in recent years.)
Rogers, for example, drew upon the children of Navy families and tough kids from the Fifth Ward to win 10 state championships between 1973 and 1990 — two talent pools that have since largely dried up. Today’s dominant schools tend to be those with strong feeder programs, such as East Providence Junior Townies youth football and the Portsmouth Patriots Pop Warner program.
“These programs work the same offensive and defensive systems as the high school teams,” says John Gilloly, the longtime sports reporter for the Providence Journal. “It makes a big difference when the kids can get to the high school already knowing the system.”
Barrington also enjoys strong community support and plays a hard-nosed brand of football under Gorham — proving, perhaps, that you don’t need to draw from the “wrong side of the tracks” to be a tough football team.
The glory days of drawing 10,000 fans to a Thanksgiving football game in Rhode Island may have passed, but the fans who still come enjoy a far more sophisticated game than the Wing-T, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust style football of decades past. NFL fans who were impressed by the Philadelphia Eagles’ mastery of the run-pass option play will see the same offense executed by East Bay high school players, for example.
“Teams spread it out all over the field” in exciting, passing-oriented offenses, where throwing plays typically outnumber runs by a 3-1 margin, says Kessler. With all-state junior quarterback Kyle Bicho at the helm, for example, Portsmouth “runs just enough to keep defenses honest,” he says. Defenses roll out the classic 3-4 alignment but also a nickel alignment with extra safeties to protect against the pass, or line up with five linebackers to send blitzes from all over the field. “A lot of people don’t give Rhode Island high school football its due, but it’s pretty impressive,” says Kessler.
Pierce Memorial Stadium in East Providence, built in 1939 as a Depression-era Works Progress Administration project, is the undisputed hallowed ground of East Bay football. Fittingly, the first game played at Pierce was between the Townies and LaSalle, with the locals prevailing 10-8 before a crowd of 8,500 fans; the two teams have played 79 times over the years, with LaSalle holding a 50-27-2 edge in the series.
Pierce Field’s long history as a sports venue includes hosting hitting demonstrations by Babe Ruth and Ted Williams, rodeos, boxing, and professional soccer matches. To this day, “Pierce is one of the best places in the state to watch a football game,” says Gilloly. It isn’t the only East Bay football venue with a history, however: Toppa Field, where Rogers High School inaugurated a new football stadium in 2017, was the original site of the Newport Folk and Jazz festivals, back when it was known as Freebody Park. Bob Dylan played here, though not in cleats. So did Chuck Berry and Frank Sinatra.
East Bay schools also have sent players on to college and the pros in recent years: Mike Cloud, a star running back for Portsmouth High School, was chosen in the second round of the 1999 NFL draft by the Kansas City Chiefs after setting rushing records at Boston College; he earned a Super Bowl ring as a member of the New England Patriots in 2003. East Providence alum Jamie Silva played safety at BC and was a special-teams player for the Indianapolis Colts who was on the field for the opening kickoff of Super Bowl XLIV.
If you’re only going to see one high school football game this year, get to East Providence at LaSalle, or Portsmouth at Middletown on Thanksgiving — by far the most important game day on the East Bay football schedule. Both are games that often decide division championships and who goes to the statewide playoffs.
Gorham says that while the mission and purpose of school may be academics, “the heart and soul is athletics.” High school football not only brings families and communities together, he says, the $5 price of admission to a game includes great action and entertainment on and off the field. “It’s a cheap date night,” he laughs.