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Fran Dempsey, right, is set to take over as head coach this season

North Kingstown football’s new era finally begins this week, with the circumstances of the pandemic-delayed season adding an extra layer of contrast.

But even with a new coach, lots of new faces, a new alignment for RIIL football, and a season in the spring, the Skippers are expecting more of the same.

“I give so much credit to Joe Gilmartin and what he did for the program,” said head coach Fran Dempsey. “The program is probably at an all-time high right now with numbers, with people working hard and having commitment. It kind of almost runs itself. I haven’t had to be a big rah-rah guy this year. The seniors now, when they were freshmen, they won the freshman state championship in Division II. The success that they’ve had and that they’ve seen the program have, it kind of molds them into getting ready to accept the challenge this year.”

Gilmartin retired after the 2019 season, having rebuilt the Skippers into a powerhouse. From the depths of three straight winless seasons from 2009 to 2011, they won the Division II championship in 2017 and Division I titles in 2018 and 2019. In those three seasons, they lost just two games, both to Bishop Hendricken.

Dempsey stood alongside Gilmartin as an assistant coach from day one. A native of Pennsylvania and a former offensive lineman at URI, he was picked as Gilmartin’s replacement in early 2020, just before the pandemic took hold.

It was a quiet first few months before the Skippers could get on the field for summer and fall workouts. Then the season was postponed, with uncertainty always looming. Football eventually got the green light, and the Skippers are ready to run with it.

“The uncertainty in the summer and the fall was tough – we were hoping the whole time we would be able to get a chance to play,” Dempsey said. “I know the seniors are really excited. Everyone is happy we’re here and that we have a chance to get out there and compete.”

Seniors who have been waiting in the wings are among the most excited. The Skippers lost a lot of talent to graduation from their 2019 roster, including Gatorade Player of the Year James Osmanski at quarterback and all-staters Michael Ciarniello, Shane Kenyon and Matt Reilly.

“With a school our size and the talent in the town, it’s hard to get on the field here if you’re an underclassman,” Dempsey said. “We have another good group of seniors that are ready to step up and kind of take the torch from last year’s group.”

Senior Donovan Carr is set to take over for Osmanski. A Framingham State commit, he led the North Kingstown freshman team to the division championship in 2017 and backed up Osmanski the past two seasons.

“He’s very talented,” Dempsey said. “He just hasn’t had a lot of opportunities. He’ll be one of our leaders.”

One of the top returning receivers in the state will provide Carr with a big target. Tyler Pezza was a first-team all-state pick as a junior and is primed for more. He’ll be joined by Drew Schwab on the outside and speedy Justin McCarthy in the slot, both of whom fit the same profile as all-staters Reilly and Kenyon.

“If you didn’t see the names in the program, you wouldn’t even know we changed personnel,” Dempsey said. “We have the two tall guys on the outside, the quick guy on the inside. We have a lot of depth at receiver and in the skill positions.”

The receiving corps will also lead the way in the defensive secondary. Linebacker Jaiden Tucker is the leader of the defense and is also set to play fullback.

The trenches are less of a sure thing for now, as the Skippers bring in new starters at every spot.

“Right now, we have all first-year starters on the line,” Dempsey said. “We’re pretty green. Our strength is going to be our wide receiver crew, our quarterbacks, our skill players. The line is still kind of molding and coming together.”

The Skippers are hoping to get up to speed quickly, and they’ll need to as they try to navigate a new landscape. RIIL realignment created a Power Four league featuring the Skippers, Bishop Hendricken, La Salle and Portsmouth. Those four will fill out their schedule with other Division I teams but will compete for their own championship.

It’s a welcome change for the Skippers. The last two seasons, state championship berths were awarded to the top team in each of two D-I subdivisions, a system that created de facto private and public school championships after Hendricken and La Salle had met in five consecutive championship games. The Skippers lost only to Hendricken in the regular season but didn’t get a chance at a playoff rematch because they were behind the Hawks in the standings.

“We’re really excited and happy to be labeled as one of the top teams in the state,” Dempsey said. “We’re looking forward to competing with Hendricken, La Salle and Portsmouth. The past couple of years, we’ve held up pretty well against them. With this year, whatever happens in the regular season, we know we’ll have a shot at a playoff game.”

The Skippers are slated to open the season on Saturday with an 11 a.m. home game against South Kingstown. They’ll dive into the meat of their Power Four slate with games against Hendricken and La Salle in the next two weeks.

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