On Oct. 13, Central Falls is having a homecoming event for its boys and girls soccer and football teams. Why is this a big deal?
It's taking place in Pawtucket.
Because those Central Falls teams don't have a home.
Does anyone worry about having a place to play? You take it for granted. Sure, there's been seasons where schools had to play away for one season because they were making repairs or building a new field, but that's not the case in Central Falls. This is year two in which the soccer and football programs will play every game out of city limits and unless $1.5-million falls out of the sky, finding a permanent solution isn't exactly in the budget.
“It would be awesome if they could have the money hanging around and go right through the field and turf it,” says football coach Jeff Lapierre, “so then our kids could be equal.”
So how did this happen?
The Higginson Athletic Complex has two fields; one was set up for football and the other for soccer. Turns out neither was measured properly and deemed unplayable by the Rhode Island Interscholastic League, so that forced Central Falls to play games at Macomber Stadium, which most people know for its playing conditions — not a good thing — and, oh yeah, because it's next to a prison.
Soil testing was done at Macomber and the city deemed it unsafe for play but there are some leagues still rolling the dice and playing, mainly because there's nowhere else to go.
“We don't dwell on it,” Lapierre says. “We try not to sit there and suck our thumb and cry about it because at this particular second, this is what we have to do.”
"This" is travel.
To every single game.
The closest thing the Warriors have to home-field advantage is wearing home uniforms, which is a huge deal for Central Falls, but not because it provides some sort of mental advantage. It's because it keeps them from washing the same uniform every single game so the school won't have to buy new ones.
“It's a big thing,” says boys soccer coach Carl Africo, who deserves a statue for running a competitive Division I program under these conditions.
“We've rallied around the mantra of us being the 'Road Warriors,'” girls soccer coach Erica Prenda says. “That's what we represent. If we have cleats and there's a field, we'll play.”
There's no doubt there's a lot of heart and resiliency on the Warriors' side, but what there isn't doesn't help anyone. There's no home-field advantage for the teams and no gate money for the athletic program.
There also aren't a lot of fans. Central Falls is a working-class community where some parents have multiple jobs and not all have a consistent 9-5 schedule.
“When we did have a home field, a lot of our community would walk to the game,” Lapierre says, “Some of these parents, even though we don't have a field, unfortunately they work multiple jobs and even if we did they couldn't see one anyway. It's more difficult for parents to have to time to get there.”
With “home” games in places all over the state, home attendance is almost impossible. There's no student body hopping straight out of school into bleachers to cheer classmates. There aren't many parents lining the sidelines taking photos for Facebook. No aunts or uncles or grandparents coming to watch the pride of family take part in something hundreds of other kids in the state do.
“It's especially heartbreaking to the seniors when they find out we're not going to have a home game or season to have people come, cheer us on and celebrate it,” Prenda says. “... It's a little demoralizing not having a home field to show off on in front of family and friends.”
The teams have become a family of their own. They walk to practice together and there are times when all three teams simultaneously squeeze into the fields at Higginson. The coaches work together to stagger practices and make sure they're finished in time for the city youth football team to have a place to practice.
Last year they made up T-shirts with the Central Falls' dream catcher logo and the schedules on the back with the slogan “have cleats, will travel.” That's the motto of these Road Warriors, who will finally get something that resembles an actual home game Oct. 13 when they play a triple-header at Max Read Field – girls soccer at 1 p.m., football at 4 and boys soccer at 7.
It's not a home game, but it's something.
“It's obviously close enough because it's Pawtucket and a lot of our fans can find a way to get there,” Lapierre says. “... It is a nice day, especially if we can string together some wins.”
The coaches have been told there's a chance the field at Macomber will be usable by spring, but that doesn't do anything for the teams playing now. It's a Band-Aid for a bullet hole.
“I don't see a way out unless somebody gets involved … like a big company in the area,” Africo says. “It's unfortunate because this community lives and dies for Warrior athletics.”
“My girls deserve better,” Prenda says, “and I hope they get better.”