2012-08-30 / News

New head coach hopes to turn around NK’s football program

Islander Alex Burke named co-captain for 2012 season
BY MARGO SULLIVAN

Friday night lights will return to North Kingstown High School on Sept.7witha7p.m.homegame against Coventry. First-year head coach Joe Gilmartin said the team has been working since last spring to be ready for the season opener, and his hope is that the seniors will be the group to bring the luster back to the Skippers football program.

“They’ve been in a little bit of a bad streak,” he said. North Kingstown has won only one game over the past three seasons, and the first order of business is to instill a winning attitude in the team.

That, he said, will be the biggest challenge.

According to Gilmartin, the squad has a good core and leadership, but bringing back the winning attitude will be the key. He said it’s reflected in the speed and tempo at practices. “The kids are working extra hard,” he said.

Gilmartin was named the new head coach in February. He is a history teacher at North Kingstown, and he applied for the post when he saw the vacancy. He admits he signed up for a hard job, given the challenge of turning a program around. But his new assignment is also a kind of homecoming – Gilmartin is a familiar face in the school’s sports history.

Gilmartin was an assistant coach with the Skippers football team, starting in 1983 under head coach Keith Kenyon. Kenyon was the last winning coach at the school, when he took the Skippers to the 2008 state championship. Gilmartin coached into the mid ’90s, but left when he was raising his children.

Gilmartin also played football when he was a student at North Kingstown. He and Bill Piva, Jamestown’s recreation director, were teammates. Piva is the new assistant coach.

Piva was in line to become president of the Rhode Island Football Officials Association, but Gilmartin called and reminded him that he always used to say he wanted to coach. This was his chance. Piva agreed to jump on board.

The Skippers start the new season with some familiar faces in the lineup. Most of the youngsters on last year’s roster have returned. There are about 50 players on the varsity and junior varsity combined, and another 20 new players who signed up for the freshman football team.

The three senior captains – Justin Zerambi and Alex Madoian, both of North Kingstown, and Jamestowner Alex Burke – are setting a high standard for the other players, said Gilmartin.

Justin is a fullback and Alex Madoian plays tight end. Alex Burke will get some minutes as quarterback, and he also plays defensive back.

“They’ve done a great job,” Gilmartin said. In fact, according to the head coach, all the seniors on the team have shown leadership. The upperclassmen have taken the new players under their wings and helped them learn the new system.

“We’re going to run a pro set offense and take advantage of our assets,” he said. The splitback formation will allow them to utilize both the running and passing games, depending on which players are on the field. “It’s a little bit complicated. Some aspects are hard to grasp, but the kids seem to pick it up pretty well so far.”

Gilmartin said the team has been working together in the weight room since the spring. Some of the players have also gone up to a Bay State football camp.

Last week, the team had a scrimmage with Barrington, but Tuesday’s preseason game with Portsmouth was canceled due to the daylong union strike. Even though the team missed out on a important practice game, Gilmartin said the squad is determined to be ready for the season opener against Coventry.

“All we’ve talked about is putting ourselves in position to be ready on Sept. 7,” he said.

Jamestowner Drew MacIntyre, who missed half of last season due to injury, is also back in the lineup. So are islanders Matt Rafanelli and Kevin McDermott. All three are seniors. James Chamberlain, another Jamestowner, also impressed the coach.

Gilmartin said the team may catch a few breaks on the field because the Skippers won’t face the Division-I football powerhouses every week this season. The Rhode Island Interscholastic League moved North Kingstown down from Division I to Division II. That move was a reflection of the losing record.

“The Rhode Island Interscholastic League does a realignment every two years based on the number of wins and losses, the strength of the schedule, and the school population,” he said. The league does give school officials the option to decline the move, but Gilmartin did not have a say in the matter this time.

“I had just gotten hired,” he said. “I was not even asked.” But Gilmartin sees advantages to playing Division II.

The level of competition is still high, according to Gilmartin, with teams like St. Ray’s and Cumberland on the new schedule. Both squads made impressive runs in last year’s postseason. But he said that with the move down a division, North Kingstown will get a break from the “constant battle” every week against the best Division I teams in the state. Also, if North Kingstown does start winning again, the team will move back up to Division I.

He doesn’t want that losing record to be the only story these seniors have to tell at their high school reunions. If this team can win a few games – and maybe come away with a winning season – they’ll be able to say, “We were the group that turned it around.”

The whole team wants to make that happen for the seniors, Gilmartin said.

The team will face one Division I opponent, and that’s rival South Kingstown. The Thanksgiving Day game against Rebels will continue the tradition. The teams square off at the University of Rhode Island.

He would like to give the fans something to cheer about, too. The fans stuck with the team, despite the losing streak. The Skippers have a pretty good following, he said. “There was some emotion in the stands. People still look forward to going to the games on Friday.”

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