The Toll Gate boys’ basketball team battled some issues during the middle part of last season, as it struggled to put its best team on the court amidst injuries and a few other setbacks.
But when the Titans did finally get most of the team back together, they showed that they could compete in the upper-echelon of Division III. Toll Gate finished the regular season 9-9, beat Burrillville in the preliminary round of the playoffs and narrowly lost to second-seeded Juanita Sanchez in the quarterfinals.
As this season gets set to begin, the Titans remember that late season run. With only two players graduating off last year’s team, Toll Gate is now hoping it can build on that, get rolling for the whole season and make some legitimate noise in its division.
“Once everybody kind of came back, we were able to pick it up again,” Rayko said of last season. “We’re hoping that we can start off on a good foot and keep it going all the way through the season.”
The two players that aren’t back are big losses, as point guard Shane Moran was the team’s table-setter, while Dan Bacon was a strong inside presence. However, the thought is that there is enough talent to adequately fight off any drop-off at those positions.
To replace Moran at the point, Rayko isn’t planning on using any one player. Instead, he has a plethora of guards that he will rotate around at point guard, shooting guard and even some small forward.
In that rotation will be seniors Austin Abramson, Ethan Dujon and Kevin Sanda, along with juniors Jevonta Gonsalves, Ben Mann and Kevin Toolin.
“From top to bottom, on those perimeter players, they all have skills individually that aid them in running the point or running as a two-guard, or even a small forward,” Rayko said. “There’s some guys better at ball-handling, a person might be able to shoot a little better, a person might be able to drive a little better. But they all fit in what we’re going to run.”
In terms of replacing Bacon, Rayko has no shortage of post players to turn to, all of whom have plenty of experience from last season.
While senior Mike Reyes, one of last year’s most consistent performers, will miss a chunk of the season with an elbow injury, the Titans still have seniors Nick Carr and Colin Stamps and junior Tyler Inkley to handle the duties down low.
That highlights the team’s overall depth, which should serve as a strength.
“Everyone can play from top to bottom,” Rayko said. “The whole team, anytime anyone enters the court, they’ll be able to play at any given time.”
Leadership-wise, Toll Gate relied heavily on Moran for that presence a year ago. Rayko doesn’t believe there is one specific player who will pick up the slack in that department, but he thinks more than a few of them will be able to fill the role adequately.
“He was the focal point of running the team,” Rayko said. “As far as one individual leader on this team, I wouldn’t say we have that this year. However, I would say we have at least a solid five to six guys who can lead us this year. It’s a big difference.”
Rayko has also worked on adding some new wrinkles to his team’s scheme, including a more pressure-oriented defense on occasion. Offensively, the team has steadily gotten a better grasp of its half-court offense.
And soon enough, the Titans will get to see how it all translates. They play today in the James W. Donaldson Tip-off Tournament at Tolman against Shea at 6 p.m., and will play again on Friday in the same tournament. The opponent and time for that game has yet to be determined.
Next Tuesday, Toll Gate will host Hendricken at 7 p.m. for an Injury Fund game before opening its regular season next Friday at Exeter/West Greenwich at 7 p.m.
It’s not an easy slate to begin the year, but Toll Gate is ready for the challenge.
“We’re fairly athletic and we have a fair amount of skill,” Rayko said. “It should make us competitive no matter who we play.”