It’s no secret that Warwick public school sports teams are struggling these days. Across nine winter sports, only eight of 24 Warwick teams have winning records. Speaking purely from a sports perspective, it’s enough to make you want all the school merger talk to accelerate and get Warwick’s teams back into a position where they can succeed.
For now, though, the landscape is what it is. Enrollment is down, and in sports like basketball, there aren’t the firmly entrenched feeder systems that a lot of other communities have. Those factors alone make it tough to compete.
But it’s not impossible. With the right mix of athletes and plenty of hard work, good teams can still develop. The Vets wrestling team won the state title last year and could do it again this year. Toll Gate has one of the top wrestling teams in Division II. The Warwick girls’ hockey team is having the best season in program history and is currently the top public-school team in the state. The Toll Gate girls’ indoor track team went undefeated for the 14th consecutive year and won class and division championships. The Vets gymnastics team has had its best-ever season.
Those teams may be few and far between, but they’re worth celebrating. And I’d put two teams in particular at the front of the parade – Pilgrim hockey and Toll Gate boys’ basketball.
They’re among the most successful, but that’s not what sets them apart. It’s the fact that they’re doing it while dealing head-on with Warwick’s inherent sports issues.
The Pilgrim hockey team has 10 skaters in its regular rotation – two lines, four defensemen, and that’s it. The Toll Gate basketball team welcomes players who have grown up in a city without a strong basketball feeder program – and a city that has had exactly one winning high-school boys’ basketball team in the last five years.
And yet, these teams are winning, and winning big.
Pilgrim has more wins (12) than skaters in the rotation. And at 14-2, Toll Gate is on the verge of becoming the most successful public school Warwick boys’ basketball team in 15 years.
They’re shining examples of talented teams in a bleak landscape, and more importantly, they’re examples of talented teams seizing their opportunity.
The Pats knew they would struggle with numbers this year; they lost eight seniors from last year’s team. But with standouts like Nick McGuirl and Cody Weaver coming back, they also knew they had a chance to be good despite the low numbers.
And from the beginning, they were determined not to let the numbers be an excuse.
“I don’t think we’re limited because of our numbers,” head coach Dave Tober said before the season, adding that they were looking at the positive side and the fact that they’d have their best players on the ice for more time.
The Pats have taken that perspective and run with it. They’re 12-2-1 and they already have more wins than any Pilgrim hockey team since the 1997-98 squad, which went 15-4. These Pats are hoping to contend for the Division II championship.
As for the Titans, they’ve been at the center of Warwick’s basketball struggles in recent years. They had losing records for four consecutive seasons and were moved down to Division III last year, along with Warwick Vets.
But all along, the Titans knew they had a good group rising through the ranks. They went 9-9 last year and fought through some growing pains to win a preliminary-round playoff game.
This year, they’ve lived up to the promise. They’ve lost just twice in league play, once to 15-1 Prout and the other time to 13-3 Juanita Sanchez. With two games left, the Titans could finish 16-2, which would surpass the 1998-99 Pilgrim team for the most wins by a Warwick school in the last 15 years.
A playoff run might be tough since boys’ basketball now just has a statewide, all-division tournament, but the Titans will give it a shot. And if they finish in the top 16 of the statewide standings, they’ll get to host a first-round playoff game.
Here’s hoping that happens, and here’s hoping the fans show up in force. The same goes for Pilgrim hockey, whose fans make Thayer Arena rock when the games are big.
These two teams are beating the odds.
They deserve plenty of applause.
William Geoghegan is the sports editor at the Warwick Beacon. He can be reached at 732-3100 and firstname.lastname@example.org.