After three straight rough seasons, the Toll Gate hockey team took a step forward last year, finishing with six wins and coming up just short of a playoff berth.
This season, the Titans will try to keep the positive trend going into a new era. Mike Champagne is taking over as head coach for Bill Russo, who had been at the helm since 2008 and was at Pilgrim before that. Russo is now coaching with the Providence College club hockey team.
Champagne inherits a team with a solid nucleus that’s ready to contend.
“Generally my goals every year are just to get better every day,” Champagne said. “Toll Gate hasn’t made the playoffs in a few years. I’d kind of like to put that out there as a goal, but mostly it’s just getting better. We want to be a good, disciplined team. Good defensively, play well in front of our goaltender – things like that. And hopefully that can carry us on.”
Champagne is a former Pilgrim standout. He’s spent the last five years coaching at Rogers, working four years as an assistant and last season as the head coach. When the opportunity to come back to Warwick presented itself, he jumped at the chance.
“I’m excited,” Champagne said. “It’s a good opportunity here.”
With only a week of practice in the books, Champagne is still getting to know his team, but what he’s seen already tells him that the Titans have potential. Five seniors graduated from last year’s club, but the top two scorers are back in the fold, along with a host of players who saw big minutes.
“Everybody’s trying to get used to each other, but it’s going well so far,” Champagne said. “It’s a good group of kids.”
Seniors Steve Mathews and Dylan Russo head the list of returning players. Mathews had a breakout junior campaign in which he scored a team-high 17 goals and dished out 10 assists. He’s poised for a big senior season.
“He’s a big kid, he moves well, good shot,” Champagne said. “He’s a very positive kid, and he really wants to be out there. He’s a hockey guy. I think he can build on last year and be a very good player this year.”
Russo was Toll Gate’s second-leading scorer last year with 11 goals and nine assists. He had been the team’s top scorer in each of the previous two years.
“He’s another hockey guy,” Champagne said.
Mathews and Russo are joined by four other seniors who have seen significant action – Ryan Charette, Rob Muzzy, Mike Palumbo and Alex Welch. Some may change positions, but wherever they end up, they’ll provide the Titans with a solid veteran core.
“Those guys have shown some good leadership already,” Champagne said.
The Titans also have junior Jesse Butler back, as well as junior goaltender David Stachurski. Stachurski has seen plenty of varsity action the past two years and played 440 minutes last season while splitting time with Josh Giarrantano, who graduated.
“We faced Toll Gate two years ago and he started against us as kind of a raw freshman,” Champagne said. “He made a ton of saves. He’s really competitive and a smart kid. He takes a ton of reps with no complaints. He can be vocal at times and he’s very encouraging. It’s good to have that from the back end, to have a guy who’s very comfortable and ready to communicate back there.”
In addition to their veterans, the Titans will also be looking for some young players to step up. Sophomores Andrew Martin, Stephen Octeau, Anthony Ottone and Jack Sullivan were all on the varsity roster last year. Freshman Jake Stachurski is joining the program this year.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys who are eager,” Champagne said.
The regular season isn’t opening until Dec. 7, a week later than last year. That will give the Titans and their new coach even more time to get comfortable.
“It’s a mix of learning the system and getting back into hockey shape,” Champagne said. “I don’t run anything terribly complicated. We’ll spend some time on that in the next couple of days. Luckily, it seems like this year we have more time so we don’t have to be intensive on the systems. We can just get into it and get a practice plan we’ll use for the whole season.”
And the Titans hope they’ll be competitive all season. The opportunity should be there – two-time defending D-II champion Coventry has moved up to Division I and several of the league’s top players graduated.
“Having been in D-II the last couple of years, there could be a lot of parity,” Champagne said. “You just don’t know from one year to he next. From the look of what I’ve seen so far, I think we can be a competitive team. The goal every night is to go out and compete, put our best foot forward and see where we go from there.”