The Central Knights – there to stay and play – John Cardullo

Photo: Emmanuel Kayhee, Central Knights Football

The Central Knight’s football team is undefeated and riding high in their division and hopes for a Super Bowl win at the end of an unforgettable season.

For Central football Head Coach Peter Rios and his Central Knights football team, they were not certain that there would even be a football season. The Pandemic that gripped the world in the spring of 2020, put all sports from professional to youth in doubt. As the summer months passed and the virus spread seemed to slow down, a glimmer of hope emerged that sports on the high school level will once again be played and life as we knew it before mid-March would get back to normal.

The Rhode Island Interscholastic League which is the governing body of all high school sports, proceeded cautiously into competitive sports and decided that high risk contact sports will be held off until it was deemed safe for the athletes to once again get back onto the field and that meant that football was going to remain on hold, for now.

The news about the football season being delayed or not even being played was a shock to the system for the Central Knights. The Central football team was waiting for the go ahead from the RIIL, playing in the top division the state had to offer since the team volunteered to move up to Division 1 in the 2016 season. The Knights found success at each level it played under Coach Rios, (who was also Central’s high school Athletic Director from 2013-2018) since his first season as the Knight’s head coach in 2004. Back then, Central played in Division IV. The Knights who did not win a single game the previous two seasons went on to a perfect 10-0 season (they did lose in the D-IV Super Bowl to Moses Brown, but the Quakers were forced to vacate the championship when it was discovered that they used an illegal player and had to forfeit their crown to the Knights). Coach Rios won the first of his two Providence Grid Iron Coach of the Year awards after the 2004 season and won it again in 2016 when the 4-2 Knights took on the Portsmouth Patriots in the Division 1 Super Bowl.

This Central team had a chance to win and to be an elite team; all they needed was a chance to play! To know where this team’s expectations are, you must go back to that 2016 season, when the RIIL was in the process of a realignment in Division 1, a division with state powerhouses Bishop Hendricken, LaSalle Academy, Portsmouth, Cranston East and Cranston West. “We knew that we could play at that level,” Coach Rios said, “I received a call from then RIIL Director Tom Mezzenotte telling me that they needed one more team to step into the division.” Coach Rios thought “Our success at every level that we had played in over the twelve years made the decision easy. “We thought that it was time to measure up against the state’s best.” It was Central who surprised everyone by volunteering to move up and run with the big boys!  

“That first season we knew what exactly to expect,” said Rios. “Every game was a battle, each play on the field meant something, nothing was given away, and everything gained was earned. It was tough – tough to go through and tough to convince the players that this was the best for them and the best for the program. We told them that they will come out the other side better players and competitors”. The team worked hard that 2016 season; they worked so hard they made it all the way to the Division 1 Super Bowl where they took on the Portsmouth Patriots. Central knew then they could play at that level and be successful. Central was there to stay and play.

“Central made the transition from a high school football team to a high school football program. Players who would have looked elsewhere to play stayed home at Central and transformed it into a special place to play. Off season workouts emerged as intra team structure and a sense of team and school pride began. It was everything that we hoped for.” Coach Rios said.

After the 2020 season, the pandemic was just starting to make news as a virus that was in China, and no one put much thought to it. After losing in the first round of the play-offs in 2019, Central focused on the 2021 season. The team had 11 returning seniors, 10 returning juniors, 6 sophomores and 8 freshmen. They had one thing in mind and that was to get back to the Super Bowl and finish what they started, but the Pandemic hit the country in March 2020 and put the whole world on hold.

For three months no one knew when or if any sports were going to be played at any level. Then, as the spring melted into summer, sports began to reemerge, the virus slowed, and protocols were put into place to protect those athletes playing in “low risk” sports. Football which is played in the fall months and was classified as a “high risk” contact sport, and the RIIL hit the pause button on football and decided to wait and revisit it again after the winter sports were finished.

“When we received the go ahead on the season, we all released a collective breath and prepared for a football shortened season. But we were having a season!” Rios said. “I was happy for the team, especially the seniors that worked so hard over the years. They deserved to have their moment.”

The team responded in a big way, beating the Cranston West Falcons 27- 14 in a game that was not as close as the score indicated. Then the Knights went to meet up with the 2-0 East Greenwich Avengers and beat them handedly, then returned home to take on the always tough South Kingstown Rebels, in a game that was a battle of wills. Central took an early lead, fell behind heading late into the 4th quarter, but thanks to some key turn overs cause by the Knights defense Central went on to a 25-20 win.

The team is led by a core group of veterans who made sure the team was focused. Team Captains Elias Espinosa, Ranado McKay, Jensen Martinez and Judah Varfley kept the team together and stayed in constant contact with each member of the team. All State candidates such as Running Back Emmanuel Kayee and Defensive End Espinosa, who as the coach describes it, it’s like having extra coaches on the field. Kayee is a threat to score virtually each time he touches the ball and Espinosa is such a student of the game, his film studies are so thorough and insightful he often comes up with suggestions to help the coaches adjust in practice and during the game.

The team leaders include Junior Quarterback Felix Rodriquez, senior Defensive Back Jhon Polanco, the versatile Ranado McKay, Dahmir Lassiter, Geremy Padilla, Eber Jallah, Paul Mendes, Lisandro Ardon, Jensen Martinez and Cory Darnley are the foundation of the Knights. The leaders in waiting are juniors Prince Kweh, Judah Varfley, Jordy Fernandez, Kareen Jefferies-Hazard, Angel Calix, Murahamine Kuyateh (aka MBK), Edgar Vargas, Darrius Roberts, Rodolfo Montilla. The balance of the team includes Michael Toure, John Cotugno,, Keyvon Pittman, Don’navin Dodson, Ariel Mendes, Dvonn Carides, Demetruis Wiggins, Savonn Mom, Theron Zerrea, Elisha Williams, Dandre Tolson and Sincere Towns.

Coach Rios

Coach Rios credits his coaching staff for much of the team success and winning culture. “These coaches are here day in, and day out always preparing the kids to play and reviewing film and coming up with a game plan for each team we face. These guys do not get enough credit, but we would not be where we are if it were not for them. Charlie “Doc” Holliday, Defensive Coordinator Michael Washington, Offensive Coordinator who played for my 2011 D-2 Championship team and won the Gilbane Award before heading out to play college ball in Minnesota; it was important to Michael to come back home and get involved with the team and give back. Charles Trant, Jerelle Washington, Joe Colao and Tom Connor. Current Athletic Director Michelle Rawcliffe has been supportive and incredibly involved with every aspect of the team.

For the Central Knights, it is not just about winning and losing, or just about building a team into a program. It is about building a family and a community that prepares these athletes to go on to achieving great things not only in their sports careers but in life.


John Cardullo

John Cardullo, sportswriter

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1 Comment

  1. Thomas Connor on April 24, 2021 at 5:33 pm

    Outstanding article about Central Football…. Everyone was mentioned which is gracious and thoughtful