The past two years were good to the Toll Gate softball team. The Titans were one of the last three teams standing in 2011, and one of the final five remaining last season.
Reaching that point, though, wasn’t always perfect. Toll Gate went a combined 18-18 over the past two years, but made waves when it counted most.
And, after significant graduation losses from those two teams and a major change to the playoff format, the Titans are hoping for something similar.
That obviously doesn’t mean that Toll Gate is intentionally avoiding regular season success, but as long as the Titans are coming together at the right time, they know that they can do some damage if things fall their way.
“We’re playing the season just to get the experience so we have a successful first game in the playoffs,” Toll Gate head coach Shana O’Connor said.
The change in the Division I playoff format will certainly help foster that mindset. Twelve teams used to qualify, with the top four seeds getting byes into the double-elimination round of the tournament. The other eight were left to play in a single elimination game in order to advance.
Now, 16 of the 17 teams in D-I will make the playoffs, with all 16 of them competing in a single-round elimination game. In that way, the field will get cut to eight and the tournament will proceed as usual.
So as long as Toll Gate isn’t the very last team in D-I, it will qualify for the postseason.
“We play everybody once, and the top 16 make the playoffs,” O’Connor said. “There’s really no incentive anymore, where you had the incentive last year of getting a bye and going into the double elimination tournament.”
But the Titans will still have some big shoes to fill from the last few years. Gone to graduation are All-State catcher Pattie Turner – a four-year starter – pitcher Katie McCaughey, who became one of the best in the state, standout shortstop Kaylyn Dion and first baseman Tori Porter.
Luckily, there are still some key pieces from the past few years who are back in the fold. The team has two seniors, both of whom are very experienced, in second baseman Ingrid Freeman and first baseman Jessica Brosnahan.
They’ll both be counted on offensively and defensively, with Brosnahan also seeing some time on the mound.
Junior Courtney Conklin, one of the team’s better players from her third base spot last year, is also back, although she could move to catcher to help replace Turner.
“She would fill in the role phenomenally, but she’s an outstanding third baseman,” O’Connor said. “To move her from third is going to be a challenge.”
Regardless of where she plays in the field, she’ll be one of the team’s better hitters, making a strong trio with Freeman and Brosnahan.
“In the few at-bats this year, those three have definitely stepped up and handled the pressure well,” O’Connor said. “They’re just going to have to teach the younger kids to do the same.”
Sophomore Courtney Sheridan is taking over the main pitching duties for McCaughey, and she did see some time last year in relief. Now she’ll be counted on for a whole lot more.
“She’s going to carry most of the pitching load,” O’Connor said. “I think she’s going to be able to win some games. I think she’s got a little bit more to learn. She has the potential to become one of the dominating pitchers in the state over the next few years.”
Junior Jenna Beauchamp was a key outfielder a season ago, and she’s back, although she may play infield this season. Sophomore Jamie Hopgood will be on the field somewhere as well, but her position is also still up in the air.
Junior Kelly Berard and sophomores Laura Salisbury and Brooke Casacalenda are all competing for outfield spots, while sophomore Karley Malette can catch and play third base.
Junior Arizona Hunt and sophomore Courtney Marsh are slotted as relief pitchers.
“I don’ really have a set lineup,” O’Connor said. “It’s kind of up in the air. I have a lot of talented girls on the field, and I’m just filling in where the seniors left off. There’s going to be a lot of movement.”
Those 12 girls make up the whole team, and they’ll be working to mesh over the next two months. Toll Gate had a scrimmage scheduled on Wednesday against Smithfield, against Cranston West on Thursday and then against Pilgrim on Saturday.
After that comes league play. Toll Gate will play its first D-I game on Monday at Coventry at 3:30 p.m., then host Cumberland on Wednesday, also at 3:30.
It’s all in preparation for what lies ahead.
“My goal would be .500 or better,” O’Connor said. “Maybe get a first round home game, and just get the girls ready. We’re a very young team with a lot of new faces. We just need to jell as team and get the chemistry going headed into the playoffs.”