Under temporary lights and in front of a big crowd last September, the Toll Gate football team edged Warwick Vets in overtime. For both teams, it was one of the most intense games of the season.
And that was when it didn’t count.
Every year since 2006, Toll Gate and Vets played each other in a non-league game because they found themselves in different sub-divisions of Division II. This year, they’re back in the same league for the first time since 2005.
Suddenly, their annual September tilt is even bigger. When the ’Canes travel to Toll Gate for Saturday’s 12 p.m. league opener, there will be a lot more on the line than bragging rights.
“The fact that we’re opening league play is big and then doing it against a cross-town rival just makes it that much bigger,” said Vets coach Bryan Nappa. “The kids are amped up. There’s a lot of build-up for it.”
Both teams anticipate a battle, in part because the rivalry didn’t exactly need extra juice. Not too long ago, Bob Bentsen and Doug Johnson – who are both now starring at URI – were the rivalry’s central characters. The game has been a stage for breakouts since then, from Derick Durand at Toll Gate to T.J. Boyajian at Vets. And while Toll Gate has won four straight in the series, most of the games have been full of passion, culminating with last year’s overtime thriller.
Now, it all goes up a notch.
“It means a lot more,” said Toll Gate coach Matt Mancuso. “It’s different getting prepared for a rival when it’s a league game.”
The teams are coming off very different week one experiences. Vets won its opener for the first time since 2007 – the last time it beat Toll Gate – and did it in style, beating up on D-IV PCD/Wheeler/Juanita Sanchez 38-8. Meanwhile, Toll Gate played up against D-I contender Cranston East and got buried early in a 47-12 loss.
But when it comes to league play, both teams are 0-0 – and they’ll be pushing hard to be 1-0.
“Every game is like a playoff game now,” Nappa said. “We’re coming out full throttle.”
The ’Canes have something to build on. They fell behind early in their opener but showed their mettle in coming back quickly. They ended up cruising to the victory. Boyajian, now a senior, and quarterback Jessie Sedoma led the charge.
“We feel pretty confident,” Nappa said. “The kids played well last week and the big thing was we were fundamentally sound. We had no penalties. That’s a good sign and anytime you can win the first game, it’s a boost going forward.”
On the other side, Toll Gate will be trying to bounce back, and the process is already underway. The Titans knew the match-up with East would be tough. When it was over, they took the positives from it and moved on.
“The kids came out and had a really good practice on Monday and a great practice on Tuesday,” Mancuso said. “They’re upbeat. Our thing right after the game on Saturday was to leave it behind and only think about Vets.”
The ’Canes will come in with higher hopes than they’ve had in several years. Sedoma has two years under his belt as the starting quarterback, Boyajian leads an emerging running back corps and the defense is ready to flex its muscle.
Against Toll Gate’s quick defensive front, the ’Canes will be focusing on controlling the line of scrimmage.
“Our big key is the push up front,” Nappa said. “The offensive line dictates everything we do. We go as the line goes.”
The Toll Gate defense went up against a big, strong offensive line in the game against East, so the Titans will be prepared. But their best defense could be a good offense.
“As ugly as the East game was, we moved the ball at times,” Mancuso said. “We want to sustain some drives and keep Vets off the field. Our goal is to do the little things well.”
However the game plays out, there will be no shortage of emotion. With all the factors at play – rivalry game, league play, the chance to start 1-0 – Vets and Toll Gate will surely be ready.
“I think both teams really want to get off to a good start,”
Nappa said. “You can get a lot of momentum with a win here.”