Apparently, someone forgot to tell the Toll Gate Titans the definition of the words “tune-up game.”
In what was likely the last iteration of a Thanksgiving Day rivalry spanning more than forty years due to a possible high school closure in Warwick, Toll Gate and Bishop Hendricken played one of their most competitive games in recent memory, an 8-0 Hendricken victory that was too close for comfort for the championship-contending Hawks, even if they did pull their first unit early in the contest.
Before game time, the stage seemed to be set for another lopsided Hendricken victory, something that has become commonplace in the Thanksgiving series. Hendricken, at 8-1 on the season, is the No. 2 seed in this week’s Division I playoffs, while Toll Gate was winless in Division II-A.
The game seemed to be following script in the opening quarter, as Toll Gate received the opening kickoff and promptly went three-and-out. The flat start offensively was only compounded moments later when a Titans punt was nearly blocked and traveled less than 20 yards, setting up the Hendricken offense on the Toll Gate side of the field for their initial offensive possession.
In a preview of the offensive struggles to come, the Hawks were unable to capitalize on the field position, turning the ball over on downs at the Toll Gate 25-yard line. By the end of the first quarter, the game was close on the scoreboard, but the tenor of the game was not one of a tight contest; Hendricken had out-gained the Titans by more than 70 yards and had the ball on the Toll Gate 2-yard line as the clock struck zero on the opening frame.
On only the second play of the second quarter, Hendricken found the end zone on a 2-yard pass from quarterback Patrick Gill to Garfield Coustard, who crossed the goal line untouched after breaking free into the right flat. The ensuing extra point snap was fumbled, but holder Adam Lavallee calmly surveyed the field after recovering the botched snap and again found Coustard in almost the exact same spot for a two-point conversion that capped the scoring for the day – with almost three full quarters to play.
“It was a great high school football game if you like defense and low-scoring games,” said Hendricken head coach Keith Croft.
Toll Gate had been unlucky more than a few times in the first half, with Hendricken fumbling the ball twice and falling on its own miscues both times. Almost nothing seemed to be going the Titans’ way. On top of missed opportunities for game-changing turnovers, the Titans had multiple opportunities to extend drives early in the game only to have them stopped due to key drops by the receiving corps.
Yet, there was no quit in the Toll Gate Titans on Thursday.
“We play the same eleven the whole game,” said Toll Gate head coach Matt Mancuso, in reference to his depleted roster, as the Titans dressed just 16 players for the game. “These guys don’t quit.”
Toll Gate continued to fight throughout the first half, forcing the Hawks to again turn the ball over on downs and getting down into the red zone twice on offense. On the second of their two red zone trips, quarterback Joe Brosnahan threw the prettiest ball of the day, a touch pass towards the right sideline that dropped between two Hendricken defensive backs about 1 yard into the end zone, but wide receiver Nikolas Poulios couldn’t reel it in.
It became even more obvious as the second half progressed that Toll Gate was determined to put up a fight to the bitter end. The Titans’ defensive line, led by senior defensive end Jackson Burgos, continually put pressure on the Hawks’ offense, which was unable to either complete a pass or gain a first down for the entirety of the second half.
Overall, Hendricken only completed two passes all day and attempted less than ten, a fact that Croft said was very much intentional.
“We’re trying to get ready for the playoffs and we believe in the playoffs you have to run the football, so we just kept plugging away,” said Croft.
Toll Gate knocked on the door once more later in the second half, ending a drive on the Hendricken 23 with a lost fumble – its only turnover of the game – on what would be its last chance to put points on the board against Hendricken. Instead, the Titans suffered their fourth straight shutout in the series.
“The red zone has been our tough spot all season,” said Mancuso. “We’re great between the 10’s, but when we get inside the 10 everything falls apart.”
Though Toll Gate was shut out, its offensive performance was in no way reminiscent of previous Thanksgiving Day struggles; the Titans accrued 10 first downs to Hendricken’s three and had multiple opportunities to score that they simply couldn’t convert.
Altogether, Thursday’s game played out the way it was supposed to; Hendricken escaped with a win and, more importantly, without any injuries en route to its playoff game with Portsmouth today, while Toll Gate came up on the short end.
But, in the end, Toll Gate accomplished something simply by competing, and, even amidst a winless season, it was something to be proud of.