The reigning Division II champion Toll Gate boys’ soccer team started the 2014 campaign the same way it started its 2013 title-winning season – with top honors at the preseason Warwick Vets Fall Soccer Tournament.
The Titans have holes to fill, a new cast to break in and a lot of work to do before they can start thinking about replicating their postseason championship, but the preseason repeat is a sure sign that they don’t plan to take a step back.
“We graduated a lot of good guys, all up the middle, too,” said head coach Tim Hayes. “We’re working in guys who played a lot last year but are in new positions now. This year, it might take us a little bit longer, but we’re pretty confident in the talent we have out there.”
Last season was a dream for the Titans, who not too long ago were barely keeping their heads above water as a mis-placed Division I program. There were several more challenging years in Division II before everything came together perfectly in 2013. The Titans went 8-2-5 in the regular season, surged through the playoffs and edged Lincoln in a shootout for the championship. It was Toll Gate boys’ soccer’s first title since 1990.
“It’s real different coming off a championship,” Hayes said. “It’s something you don’t expect and something you don’t take lightly, either.”
A championship can color everything in a program for a few years, from expectations to numbers. The Titans are seeing it, from role players who are taking giant leaps, to increased numbers and high goals, but Hayes wants the Titans to simply focus on the task at hand.
“They really want to [contend for the title],” Hayes said. “I tell them our goal is just to be a competitive program, go out and play. If we’re good enough, we’ll win. We just want to play a good game the next day.”
The Titans expect to do that more often than not.
While they lost some major contributors, including first-team all-division picks Jose Beltran and Nathan DaCosta, second-team all-division defender Corey Favino, championship MVP Zach Bromage and goalie Ezequiel Franco, the cupboard is far from bare. Second-team All-Stater and Warwick Beacon Boys’ Soccer Player of the Year Josh Sandin is back, along with Kyle McGuire, James Meizoso, Manny Pickering, Mark Ramsey and Andrew Rocchio, all of whom were key contributors last year. Alex Beltran, Kyle Brown and Hunter Heberg have also seen some action.
Sandin will lead the charge from his forward spot. A starter since his freshman year, he tallied 26 points last year and helped drive Toll Gate’s run to the title. He’ll be playing this year without Jose Beltran, his running mate up top, and without DaCosta, a key distributor in the midfield, but there’s no doubt that he’ll score.
“He’s going to score and he’s going to keep us in games,” Sandin said. “He’s really talented. Sometimes, he can beat three defenders. They can be lined up in the right spots and he can go by them. So we have that luxury.”
Sandin will be joined up front by Andy Falso, a sophomore, or Quincy Lawson, a freshman. Both are new to the varsity lineup.
“The forwards that are up there with him are all new,” Hayes said “Jose played every minute last year with him and they had a good thing going. Now the younger guys, Andy Falso the sophomore, Quincy Lawson the freshmen, they have to learn how to play with him. We can do it all day in practice, but they’re going to have to learn it in games.”
The Titans will have a learning curve in the midfield, as well, but they aren’t starting from scratch. Seniors Manny Pickering and Mark Ramsey were big parts of the team last year, when they played on the wings. They’ll slide this year to the middle of the field, where they’ll take on bigger roles.
“Mark Ramsey and Manny Pickering went from the wings and now they have to play vital center midfielder roles,” Hayes said. “They worked hard over the summer and you can see they really want it.”
Alex Beltran is in the running for a midfield spot, as well, along with Heberg, Lawson and several other varsity newcomers.
The Titans’ new lineup looks most like last year’s at the defensive end. Favino, the anchor of the unit, graduated, but three-fourths of the starters are back in McGuire, Meizoso and Rocchio. Freshman Connor Haley took the fourth starting spot in the preseason tournament.
For the defenders – and most of the Titans’ returners – this year represents a chance to really put a stamp on the program.
“A lot of the seniors didn’t play their first two years, really, because there were guys blocking the way,” Hayes said. “Now they’re excited to get that chance where they’re not just guys on the wing chasing down balls. They’re going to have chances to score. They’re not just in the game. They have to be part of the game for us to win.”
The Titans won twice in Thursday’s tournament at Vets, beating Division I Bishop Hendricken 1-0 and topping Pilgrim 2-1 in the championship. Sandin scored two goals and set up Lawson for the other.
It was a good start for the Titans.
They’re hoping that, for the second year in a row, it’s just the beginning.
“We probably won’t have as much success early on but at the end of the season, if we stay healthy, we’ll be in the conversation of playoff teams,” Hayes said. “That’s what [assistant coach Mike Vadney] and I dreamed about when we took over this program, when we were getting crushed in Division I – just being competitive, and I think that’s where we are now.”
Toll Gate will open the regular season tonight at 6 p.m., with a home game against Smithfield at the Bend Street Complex.