Playing football for Toll Gate these days means playing a lot of football. With a small roster, the team's core players are in on every play, on both sides of the ball. It's iron man football in an era where that's not as common as it once was.
For all the Titans, it adds a dose of toughness and a need for perseverance, especially considering the lack of positive results. For the guys doing the heaviest lifting, those qualities shine through in spades.
"It's tiring but it builds our character," said junior Jake Lima. "It's what we have to go through for this team."
And they're willing to do it — even happy to do it.
"I wouldn't trade it," said junior Jimmy Marsella. "I couldn't pick one side of the ball."
The team's offensive line had its struggles in recent years, but this season — even with the full-time duty — they've helped pave the way for some positive changes. Though the Titans went winless, they were well within striking distance in three of their last four games. Included in that stretch was a gritty effort against Division II-A co-champion Woonsocket, in which the Titans led late in the first half.
The switch from a Wing-T offense to a more straight-ahead, smashmouth style helped the cause, with the offensive line leading the way.
"I feel like it was a good change," Marsella said. "We do a lot better with it."
So much so that the line went from a weakness to a strength.
"This fits our group much better than the Wing-T," said head coach Matt Mancuso. "If you pick a strength on this team, it would be our O-Line. It's been better this year than past years."
The current starting group has Lima and Marsella on one side, with Matt Cullen playing center. Nick Brown is at the other guard spot, and Jake Stachurski has stepped in at tackle.
"We mixed some kids in and out, but we've stuck together," Lima said. "I think we've had our adversity, but we're finishing out the year strong."
They all have the qualities that a Toll Gate lineman needs, not the least of which is an ability to hang tough.
"They don't complain," Mancuso said. "They get fatigued as the game goes on. With our offense, it's dive-dive-dive. So they're not taking plays off."
Lima could be the poster boy. He plays guard on offense and then anchors the defense from a linebacker position. That means when he's done blocking, he doesn't just go to the other side of the line and push back.
"D-line, maybe you can get a little rest," Mancuso said. "Jake is a linebacker. He's going sideline to sideline. And since he's a guard, if somebody's pulling, it's usually him. He gets a workout."
All the Titans will get a workout on Thanksgiving, when they go up against a Bishop Hendricken defense that has been one of the best in the state for several years.
"We have to hold our blocks," Lima said. "That's one of our big problems, so we've got to hold our blocks for our quarterback to get the ball off and our backs to hit the holes."
In last year's Thanksgiving game, the Titans did that and had some success on the ground, with running back Jose Javier rushing for a game-high 100 yards.
The offensive line will try to clear the way for similar efforts this season. No matter what, they'll keep pushing — in a smashmouth attack, whether they're tired or not.
"We like it," Lima said. "It's way better than finesse football."
- William Geoghegan