By WILLIAM GEOGHEGAN
Last season was a special one for the Toll Gate boys’ basketball team. The Titans won the Division III-Central regular-season crown with a 15-3 record, the program’s best mark in more than a decade.
For an encore, the Titans will trot out a much different cast.
But they’re still hoping to put on a show.
“They’re a completely different team than last year,” said head coach Tom Rayko said. “It’s a 180. But I think they have the ability to reach the same level of success, just in a different fashion.”
The Titans graduated five players, including first-team all-division picks Nick Carr and Ethan Dujon, as well as second-teamer Austin Abramson. Colin Stamps and Kevin Sanda are also gone.
It’s a lot to replace. Carr was the team’s top inside player, Dujon its top scorer and Abramson its primary ball-handler. Stamps was a standout defender and a capable scorer and Sanda was one of the team’s top shooters.
“We lost a big group of guys that we relied on,” Rayko said. “We’re kind of starting over.”
That includes new players, and more importantly, a new identity. The Titans won’t fit the same mold, but they have plenty of their own strengths. It’s about maximizing them.
“I was watching college basketball the other night and [ESPN analyst] Jay Bilas was talking about how a lot of different systems will work, it’s just whether or not the team buys in,” Rayko said. “These guys have to utilize what they have. They won’t be running the same offenses or defenses. But what we have planned for them can work. Hopefully, they’re on board with it and they do what it takes to get us back to where we were.”
Topping the list of strengths is Toll Gate’s height. The Titans have senior center Tyler Inkley as a returning starter, along with another senior big man, John Coleman. Several other players bring above average height to their positions.
“We have a lot of size,” Rayko said. “We’re hoping to use that to our advantage. We don’t have quite the same speed we had last year, but we want to get a hand in people’s faces and then really crash the boards.”
Inkley is the team’s most experienced player, having started alongside Carr on the frontline last season. Senior guard Ben Mann also has a lot of experience. He didn’t make a huge impact last year because of an illness that slowed him down, but he was a key player when he was a sophomore.
Three other players have varsity experience – Coleman and seniors Kyle Toolin and John Murphy. Though they didn’t see a ton of minutes, they were part of the varsity program and that counts for something.
“They all saw time, some more than others,” Rayko said. “But the big thing is they were in the gym, practicing against those guys and getting better.”
The Titans will bring nine new players up to the varsity roster, including seniors Derryck Anderson, George Greenhalgh, Zach Mitchell and Evan Stamps, juniors Zach Bacon and Jake Johnson and sophomores Uzair Ayaz, James Meizoso and Bert Lu.
At this point, Rayko doesn’t know where everybody will fit in, but they’re all capable.
“We have quite a few players with similar abilities,” Rayko said. “We have pretty much an open team, so it’s probably going to be trial by error for the first few games.”
But once the Titans get their feet under them and find their identity, they’ll be looking to remain a D-III contender.
“There’s a lot of eagerness to compete with what the team did last year,” Rayko said. “These guys have a chance now and they’re anxious to show what they can do.”