It was a heartbreaking ending when South Kingstown beat Toll Gate on a walk-off hit in the Division I baseball playoffs last spring.
For the Titans, it was also the end of an era.
Toll Gate graduated seven players who were all key contributors, and head coach Dave Hagopian stepped down after a long stint at the helm. As the 2014 season gets underway, former assistant Nick Durand is taking over and trotting out a team with a lot of new faces.
“I’m excited to get going,” Durand said. “We have a good senior middle infield. Everyone else is pretty much young. We’ve got some juniors and some good underclassmen. We graduated seven guys so it’s a whole new look, but we’ll be alright.”
Durand is a Warwick Vets graduate. He teaches at Toll Gate and has been an assistant coach with the Titans for seven years. He’s familiar with the players in the program and is eager to take the reins.
“I can’t wait for it all to start,” Durand said.
He takes over at a good time, with the roster changing so much. Toll Gate’s lineup last year often featured all seven of the team’s seniors, and the experience paved the way for a 9-9 campaign. Of the players on this year’s team, only Alex Lefebvre, Zach Bacon, James Meizoso and Zack Azeredo have seen significant varsity innings.
But with the new look comes optimism and enthusiasm.
“There’s a lot of competition for spots right now, and that’s a good thing,” Durand said.
Lefebvre and Bacon, both seniors, give the Titans a strong foundation in the infield and in the batting order. Lefebvre was the starter at shortstop last year, and Bacon was at second base. Both were strong defensively.
“They’re very solid,” Durand said.
The rest of the lineup is in flux and may be for a while. Azeredo can play catcher and first base, while Meizoso will likely play center field when he’s not pitching. Players are still battling for the other spots. Among them are seniors Jesse Cardiff, Tyler Ekroth, Ryan Powers and Tim Warner. The Titans also have juniors Adam Brice, Dakota Delsignore, Steven Foster, Joseph Shea and Sean Vann, plus a handful of underclassmen.
“Defensively, I think we’re going to be solid,” Durand said. “The lineup is going to be determined by what nine guys are hitting.”
The pitching staff is led by Meizoso, who could be ready for a breakout season. Last year, the Titans had a veteran pitching staff, with three seniors taking the bulk of the innings, but Meizoso pitched well when he had chances. Over the summer, he blossomed as a member of the starting rotation for Warwick’s New England Frozen Lemonade/Shields Post 43 American Legion team.
“He had a great summer,” Durand said.
The second spot in the rotation could end up falling to freshman Manny Bjorklund, who has grabbed a varsity spot right off the bat. Bjorklund was a star on Coventry Little League’s 2012 state championship team and on the Coventry Babe Ruth team that made the 13-year-old World Series last summer.
“He’s throwing the ball very well,” Durand said. “He’s a nice addition.”
Foster, a junior, is also in line to get some innings.
If the pitching can live up to its potential, the Titans should be able to stay in a lot of games. Durand likes the defense, as well, so the focus will be on generating offense.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Durand said. “I see us maybe having to manufacture some runs, but who knows? Maybe that’ll change.”
However it shakes out, the Titans are hoping for good things. They’ve won at least seven games in each of the last four years, and they don’t want to go backwards.
“Our goal is to make it to the playoffs and go at least two rounds,” Durand said. “With the pitching and defense we have, I think we’re capable of doing that.”
Toll Gate’s season opener is scheduled for Friday at 4 p.m., at Moses Brown.