It’s only week two of the regular season, yet on the eve of their Division II-opening showdown this weekend, the Toll Gate and Warwick Vets football teams are already intimately familiar with one another.
When they take the field on Friday night at 7 p.m. at Vets, it will be the second time in 15 days that they’ve done exactly that.
In this one, though, the stakes will be quite a bit higher.
The Hurricanes and Titans squared off in the annual Warwick Injury Fund event on Sept. 5, playing one half that ended in a 12-0 Vets victory. Since that day, they’ve each played a full non-league game and now will begin the grind of the actual season in the very place where they got their first taste of preseason action two weeks prior.
“It’s always tough when you play the same team twice,” Vets head coach Mike Nappa said. “We make adjustments, obviously they make adjustments. You just hope that your guys don’t change the mental attitude of going after them and playing well.”
Even with the repetition, however, there is no lack of excitement.
“I shouldn’t have to get them fired up to play Vets, even if it is the second time,” Toll Gate head coach Matt Mancuso said. “It’s a rivalry game. When I was at (Cranston) West, you didn’t have to tell us to get fired up when we played East. I think the same things when we play Vets or Pilgrim. There should be no need to get them fired up.”
Both teams are coming off positive performances in their non-league games last weekend, although Vets’ showing certainly stands out more on paper. The ’Canes routed Providence Country Day/Wheeler/Juanita Sanchez 47-21, scoring 33 first-quarter points. Toll Gate, meanwhile, lost 54-18 to Cranston East.
But the Titans were playing an East team that is considered one of, if not the top team in the state. Vets was playing a team in PCD that will likely finish somewhere in the middle or bottom half of Division IV. It’s apples and oranges, and despite the discrepancy in the scores, each team is excited with how it performed.
For Vets, it was about taking care of business.
“I told the kids, they held their composure,” Nappa said. “Obviously you’re getting beat up, the other team loses theirs a little bit. We were on the other side of this many times. You win with dignity, and be humble when you win and be humble when you lose.”
And for the Titans, it was about fighting for four quarters against a superior opponent.
“We’re upbeat right now,” Mancuso said. “I know the score didn’t say a lot in the East game, but we got a lot of positives out of the game. We never quit, we kept playing hard the whole game and that’s something we lacked last year.”
Friday’s game figures to put both sides on a much more equal playing field. Vets controlled play in the 12-0 Injury Fund win over Toll Gate, and Nappa says that he didn’t hold much back to surprise the Titans with this week.
Rather, the ’Canes just played their style of football, running the ball with David MacDonald up the middle and getting quarterback Jesse Sedoma out of the pocket to provide him with some run-throw option plays. That will likely be the general approach again on Friday.
“My theory in football is that you play to win every game,” Nappa said. “You don’t hold anything back.”
The Titans used a similar approach in not playing a vanilla style of football, yet theirs wasn’t quite as successful. They didn’t convert a number of crucial third down plays, and Mancuso actually thinks his team played better against East than it did against Vets.
Toll Gate was also disappointed with its physicality against the ’Canes, and has worked hard to correct that every day since.
“We start every practice with some sort of team hitting drill to kind of get the guys to get physical, and not get pushed around this week,” Mancuso said.
Essentially, despite the familiarity with the two sides, both coaches are anticipating a game that comes down to execution rather then schematic surprises that they kept in their pockets during the first meeting.
Vets knows how Toll Gate plays, and Toll Gate knows how Vets plays. They both want to be 1-0 in Division II-A, and one of them will have to go through the other to get there.
The ’Canes, with playoff aspirations, know that this is a game they may need to have down the line.
“That’s what I tell them – I tell them it’s the first step in the ladder and every step gets more meaningful,” Nappa said. “You’ve got to win so many games to get in the playoffs.”
And the Titans, off two straight winless seasons, see their chance to make a loud opening statement.
“We’re tired of being everybody’s punching bag,” Mancuso said. “The only way we can change that is to start off with a win. That’s our big goal this week – to come out play hard, and show the league that we’re not that old Toll Gate team anymore.”
This time, Vets vs. Toll Gate counts.