The Toll Gate boys’ volleyball program has undergone a complete reversal since an undefeated season in Division I in 2008.
In the five years after that season, Toll Gate won a combined six matches, culminating in an 0-18 showing last year in Division II.
But with a new coach and new players come new expectations, and the Titans are determined to rebuild the program and make it a contender once again.
Armed with the task is first-year head coach Ryan Garno, who takes over for Claire Baggesen. Garno has served as an assistant coach at East Greenwich the past few years, helping out his wife Theresa, who is the head coach for the Avengers’ boys’ and girls’ programs.
A teacher at Toll Gate for the past six years, Garno saw the opening this year and decided the time was right to take over a Rhode Island program of his own.
“Initially in 2008, when the boys position opened up here before, I needed a break,” Garno said. “I had been going for a long time. There was a stretch of five years when I was coaching three seasons a year. I didn’t feel like I could put into it what was necessary to put in to it.”
This time, he did apply for the job, and his volleyball pedigree makes it a potentially strong fit.
Garno has been coaching volleyball since 1995. He started out in Michigan, coaching middle school, high school and club ball. He then coached in North Carolina for five years before moving to Rhode Island and coaching at EG with his wife.
Rebuilding the program at Toll Gate is a daunting task, but one he’s looking forward to.
“It usually takes four years to build a program anyway,” he said. “I wouldn’t consider (the past five years) a deterrent at all. The only way I can go is up. I know that a couple years before I was at Toll Gate, this program was very strong.”
Helping out Garno is former Toll Gate player Patrick Chin, who played for some of the Titans’ better teams of the last decade.
But the biggest key for turning around the program is the increase in numbers, something that’s been sorely needed. Twenty-three players came out for this year’s team, giving Toll Gate a full varsity and junior varsity roster.
By contrast, the program shuffled between six and seven players for the bulk of last year.
“I see a lot of enthusiasm,” Garno said. “They’re really looking forward to working. They have no problem with the conditioning that we’ve been doing for the last week-and-a-half. They seem to be really gung-ho. All we’re looking to do is improve, improve, improve. With the numbers we have, I think we can.”
The program has a balance of all four grades, as there are eight freshmen, two sophomores, six juniors and seven seniors. As of now, the juniors and seniors are on the varsity roster, with the freshmen and sophomores on the JV roster, but that is certainly subject to change as the season moves along.
Pacing the varsity roster are seniors Chris Durand, Louis Mendoza and Caleb Gouge. Durand and Gouge both played last year, and all three of them have stepped into leadership roles in the early going.
Another player who should help out considerably is junior Wendell Thao, who transferred to Toll Gate after playing at Pilgrim last season. Thao comes from a family of volleyball players, and is expected to make an immediate impact for the Titans.
“He’s a very solid player from what I’ve seen,” Garno said. “Overall he’s probably the best player, talent-wise.”
On the front line, Garno is hoping that senior Jake Johnson, a basketball player, can use his height to become one of the team’s better hitters.
“He gets up in the air, trying to attack the ball,” Garno said. “It’s his first year playing. But getting up and getting aggressive with the ball is the very first step.”
Another asset is an influx of soccer players to the team. The soccer team won the Division II championship last year, and Garno would like to see some of that winning mentality transition to the volleyball court.
Included in that group is senior Jose Beltran and juniors Mark Ramsey and Manny Pickering.
Other seniors are Matt Davis – who returns from last year – Alec Kazanjian and Darpan Patel. In the junior class is Sal Bustillo – another player from last season – and Alex Brown.
The sophomores are Angel Hernandez and Ryan Sgroi, while the freshmen are Alexis Beltran, Anthony DiMuccio, Aaron French, Miguel Garcia, Anthony Hernandez, John Hopkins, Noah Thao and Tristan Wyns.
It’s a deeper group than in years past. Garno will be trying to turn it into a better group in present, and one that can contend in the immediate future.
“My ultimate goal that I think could be achievable, definitely, is if things fall right to get in the playoffs,” Garno said. “You need seven wins to get in the playoffs, and if we’re able to do that it will give us an entire successful season of implementing a brand new system, offensively and defensively.”
Toll Gate gets the season underway on Friday with an Injury Fund match at East Greenwich at 4 p.m., before opening the league season at Central next Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. It will host rival Warwick Vets the following day at 6:30 p.m.