Clippers try to fill in the blanks

Clippers try to fill in the blanks

Left, Cumberland senior X’avier Johnson, who was one of the Clippers’ top cornerbacks last season, stretches out before his team’s practice on Monday morning behind the high school. Right, Cumberland senior Dante Aviles-Santos tackles a bag during a defensive drill. Aviles-Santos, who was the Clippers’ leading receiver last season, will be this year’s starting quarterback. (Breeze photos by Eric Benevides)
Young football team enters Div. I-A season with several spots up for grabs

CUMBERLAND – The Cumberland High football team might have picked the wrong season to field one of its youngest, most inexperienced teams in quite some time.

While almost every team in the Division I-A ranks is returning a large number of starters, the Clippers are heading into this year with just four returning starters and a lot of players who have yet to see their first snap in a varsity game.

And after two weeks of the preseason were in the books, Cumberland head coach Josh Lima reported on Monday morning that several starting spots on both sides of the ball were still up for grabs.

“We really don’t know what we’re rolling out until that day,” Lima said before his squad hit the field for its practice behind the school. “We definitely have a young, inexperienced group, but they have really taking to coaching and listening, and that’s been a positive.”

“I think that this group we have paid really good attention to everything last year, and our junior varsity team was really good – I think we had three or four weeks of consecutive shutouts. So far, we’re happy with the way that they’re working and stuff like that, so I think we’re going to be alright.”

While graduation wiped out what was one of Lima’s biggest senior classes in his past five seasons at the helm, this year’s senior class could be one of his smallest, with just 10 on a team with “right around 80 guys. Ninety percent of the guys that are probably going to be on the field will be juniors and sophomores,” Lima added.

Senior Dante Aviles-Santos, who was the Clippers’ top receiver last season, is this fall’s quarterback, and he’s seen some quality time behind center during the past two years. During that time, he completed 26 of his 49 passes for 452 yards and five touchdowns and just one interception.

“He’ll step in and be fine,” said Lima. “He’s had a good preseason already. He’s a good athlete; he loves the game and he knows the game really well.”

On the offensive line, “we have some guys who got some varsity snaps last season,” reported Lima, “but we have a handful of guys who are still in positional battles. We’re not solidified yet.”

One player who saw some varsity action, junior Adam Barboza, “has been playing really well and is probably the one guy who has solidified a spot,” said Lima.

After that, the battles have continued for seniors Sean Toure, Eddie Inscoe, and Julian Brooks, junior Oswaldo Aldana, sophomore Dylan Powers, and freshman Patrick Conserve.

In the backfield, seniors Johnell Hill and Isaiah Cole figure to take their share of handoffs, and in the wide receiver department, the Clippers currently have a rotation of senior co-captain Shane Meerbot, juniors Ryan Larson and Sam Soria, and sophomore Jaden Pimentel. The team’s tight ends are junior co-captain Emmanuel Ireland and sophomore Jack Proctor.

On defense, the secondary features two returning starters, senior X’avier Johnson, who was one of the Clippers’ top cornerbacks last year, and Meerbot, who also plays safety. Meerbot, who was third on the team in tackles and added a team-high three interceptions, was a First-Team All-Division pick last year.

In the mix to play the other cornerback and safety positions are senior Leo Rodriguez, junior Joe Disalvo, Soria, Larson, and Aviles-Santos.

At linebacker, Inscoe, who started in seven of the Clippers’ 10 games last season, is returning, and vying for starting roles near him are juniors Aidan Faria, Davis Matos, and Isaac Fague and Powers.

The defensive line has Ireland as its anchor and senior Elijah Kopacz, Barboza, Conserve, Brooks, Toure, and Aldana also in the mix.

The kicker looks like it’s going to be senior Ben Fogell, who is the catcher on the school’s baseball team, and the newcomer has been a pleasant surprise in the preseason.

“We really didn’t have a kicker, so we had open tryouts,” Lima said. “None of the guys were really doing much, and I talked to Ben last week and he wanted to try out. He kicked a little bit and we did some individual work with him last week, so it looks like he’s going to be our guy.”

The Clippers, who have made it a habit of playing out-of-state opponents for their non-league openers, will clash with Killingly, Conn., which won the Class M state championship in 2017, a week from Friday at 7 p.m. at Tucker Field. Next season, the Clippers will open their season at Killingly’s home field.

“They’re a tough, physical team,” added Lima. “They’ve been to the semis in three of the last four years. It will definitely be nice to kind of test ourselves against those guys and see what we got.”

“It’s always fun when you go Mass.-Rhode Island or Connecticut-Rhode Island,” Lima said of the interstate matchups. “Every state has this ‘our state is better than your state’ kind of deal, and we tell our guys that when you play that game, you’re not just playing for our school or town, you’re playing for our state.”

The Clippers, who will play Lincoln in a two-quarter game in Friday’s Injury Fund jamboree at Max Read Field, will kick off their Division I-A schedule on Friday, Sept. 20, as they travel to Warwick to face mighty Bishop Hendricken. Cumberland’s home opener is the following Friday against East Providence.

“We always say that Division I, as a whole, is tough,” Lima said. “And (the teams in Division) I-A are returning a lot of guys, so as always, it’s definitely going to be a tough league.”

Cumberland head football coach Josh Lima, left, who is beginning his sixth season at the helm, goes over a drill with his defensive lineman during Monday morning’s practice behind the high school.
Cumberland senior safety Shane Meerbot, right, pushes teammate Ed Inscoe to the side during a defensive drill. Meerbot led the Clippers in interceptions and was third on the team in tackles last season.