By WILLIAM GEOGHEGAN
Last season, the Toll Gate hockey team increased its win total by two from the year before, but that was far from the leap the Titans were hoping for and it still left them near the bottom of the Division II standings.
With a strong core that’s been around for the recent struggles, the Titans are hoping to really take the leap this season.
“There’s a good feeling in the locker room, and the kids are excited,” said head coach Bill Russo. “We’ve got a lot of our scoring back and we’ve got some depth up front. That’s something we haven’t had coming back the past few years.”
The Titans lost four players to graduation from last year’s team, but most everybody else is back, including a group of players that’s been part of the nucleus for two seasons. A few pieces have changed along the way, but the young players who took their lumps in the one-win 2009-10 campaign are now veterans.
“This is really the core that came in when we took over the program,” Russo said. “They’ve definitely improved over the years. We’ve seen them get a lot bigger and stronger.”
And now they’re ready for bigger things.
In the past two years, the Titans have struggled to score, averaging two goals per game last season and even fewer the year before.
But the returning nucleus gives the Titans new hope. The team’s top three point-scorers from last year – seniors Kevin Vittum and Danny Holmes and junior Dylan Russo – are back in the fold.
Vittum, Russo and senior Casey Correia are skating as the top line for now, with senior Brandon Golda and juniors Mike Palumbo and Steve Matthews on the second line. Sophomore Greg Eldridge is making a push as well, and junior Alex Welch is expected to be a key contributor once he returns from an injury.
“We’ve got two good lines up front, and I think that’s really our strength,” Russo said. “They’ve been out there before and they put some pucks in the net for us last year. We have six or seven guys who can score. That’s a big reason for optimism.”
Holmes, a defenseman, is the team’s captain while Russo is the assistant captain. Holmes will anchor the defense along with sophomore Kyle Ellis, who saw a lot of varsity time as a freshman.
Junior Ryan Charette, sophomore Jesse Butler and freshman Anthony Ottone are also slated to be in the defensive rotation.
In net, the Titans have two players coming back with experience. Senior Josh Giarrantano was a starter for part of last year and is back on the team, but he’s serving a six-game suspension from the Interscholastic League due to an incident in the soccer playoffs. Sophomore David Stachurski, who was also a part-time starter last year, will get the nod for those first six games, and then the Titans will see where they stand.
“David’s a very capable goalie,” Russo said. “He’s got the first six games and then we’ll see where it goes from there. We’re confident in him.”
The Titans have already been on the ice once for an Injury Fund game. Facing an East Greenwich team that’s always solid, the Titans dropped a 3-2 decision.
“It was a good up-and-down game, and we played pretty well,” Russo said. “We looked good.”
With the season fast approaching, the Titans won’t have much more time to get their feet wet. They’re slated to play doubleheaders on each of the season’s first three weekends, and they’ll have played almost half their league schedule by the end of December.
“We’ve got a real busy month ahead,” Russo said. “It’s a front-loaded schedule.”
But with a more experienced team, the Titans hope to be up to the challenge. They’ll play Ponaganset and cross-town rival Pilgrim this weekend to start things off.
“We’ve got some key parts coming back, so we’re looking to improve on last year,” Russo said. “Hopefully we’ll be in the hunt for a playoff spot.”