On April 1, I called Toll Gate boys’ volleyball coach Claire Baggesen to get some information for the season preview I was hoping to write for that Tuesday’s paper.
I came away with nothing. It wasn’t her fault – there was nothing to say.
She said that the roster wasn’t even close to being finalized, that she didn’t know how many players there were, that she didn’t even know if there was going to be a team. Before she could even speculate, she had to talk to the athletic director.
I went into the Beacon office the next day believing that there was a legitimate chance that Toll Gate volleyball would go the way of Warwick Vets tennis and just disappear off the map for this season.
We ran volleyball previews for Vets, Pilgrim and Hendricken in that Tuesday paper, but we held off on Toll Gate. Instead, we wrote, “See Thursday’s paper for a Toll Gate preview.” Of course, we knew that there was a chance that the “preview” on Thursday was not going to be a preview at all, but a story about another Warwick public school not having the numbers to field a team.
That night, while on my way to cover a softball game in Johnston, I got a call from Baggesen. She sounded relieved. The season was a go. It was going to be a struggle. There were only six players on the team, some of whom had no real volleyball experience. That meant that the Titans were only one injury away from having to forfeit matches.
But they were going to give it a shot.
Fast-forward to this past Tuesday, when I watched a fired up Toll Gate team beat East Greenwich in a loud, energetic fashion for its second win in the past nine days.
“We were having a lot of fun,” senior middle hitter Nick Carr said after the match. “Second win, it was great. Good feeling.”
I can imagine it feels pretty good, considering where the program was when I made that first call to Baggesen. But since then, so much has changed.
The team started 0-5, and didn’t win a single game in any of those matches. Through 15 games, Toll Gate was 0-15.
Then came the match on April 24, against Vets. Toll Gate still looked like a work in progress, but it beat the ’Canes 3-0 to pick up its first win of the year.
After the match, Baggesen was excited, and so was the team. Yet, it wasn’t just the win that had everyone smiling and high-fiving. It was the optimism.
Up to that point, the roster had grown from six to 10. Players like setter George Greenhalgh and Wellington Araujo took on bigger roles, and the team was starting to jell. With Carr setting the tone, other members of the team were starting to follow his lead.
I was impressed, but I wasn’t convinced it was anything more than a nice story. The team that almost didn’t happen had won a game. Got it.
Then this Tuesday came around, and Toll Gate beat that East Greenwich team. The Titans yelled after winning points, picked each other up when things went wrong and never once looked like they weren’t enjoying themselves.
In the second game of that match, Toll Gate fell behind 9-0. Maybe the smiles left a few of the players’ faces at that moment, but it wasn’t because they weren’t having fun – it was because they were focused. Sure enough, the Titans came all the way back and won the game 25-21.
Araujo hit a rocket on the final point to clinch the win, and he yelled emphatically while his teammates circled on him.
“He’s a loud player out there,” Carr said. “He has the most intensity compared to everyone. That helps a lot. It gets us all pumped up.”
This time I was convinced it was something more than a nice story.
Toll Gate doesn’t want sympathy, and it really, it doesn’t even warrant any. The team’s situation is no longer something to be sympathetic about.
The Titans are pretty good, and they’re more than happy with the group they have.
“Nothing is worthwhile on this Earth if you’re not having fun, and without a doubt they are,” Baggesen said. “But they understand that hard work is the fun, and the win is the reward.”
The Titans are only 2-6 in Division II, but they’ve already surpassed their one win from last season. They’re in the process of adding an 11th player to the roster, and they’re anticipating that a few more victories will come their way in the second half of the season.
At the end of the day, they probably won’t win the state title, and they’ll have to get some help to even make the playoffs. But they deserve a tip of the cap for what they’re doing, no matter how it ends up.
It seems like they’re all pretty happy that they decided to give it a shot.
And so is their coach.
“This is a great group of guys,” Baggesen said. “They came together, they like each other, they like playing, they like the hard work, they’re focused on the goal. It truly is a pleasure to coach them. Every coach says that from year to year, but there’s always that one team. And I think that this is definitely that team.”
Kevin Pomeroy is the assistant sports editor at the Warwick Beacon. He can be reached at 732-3100 or firstname.lastname@example.org.