Toll Gate has won two consecutive Division III-Central regular-season titles with two completely different teams. If the Titans make it three in a row, it’ll be with a third new team.
Nine players graduated from last year’s team – including all five starters – after six key contributors graduated the year before. That’s a program’s worth of players gone in two years. While the numbers are still good and there’s some talent in the fold, it’s still a little jarring to be faced with another restart.
“Going back to what we lost two years ago, I was saying I wasn’t sure where we would fall last year,” said head coach Tom Rayko. “But last year, there were a lot of seniors and at least some had seen the varsity court a fair amount. This year, it’s very new, very fresh.”
The Titans have no choice but to make the best of it. The young players stepping in are eager to make their mark and continue what’s been the most successful two-year run for the program in more than 20 years. For now, it’s about laying the groundwork.
“With everybody so new, it’s a lot of teaching the system right now,” Rayko said. “It’s a process. They’re quick learners so they’ve got that going for them.”
The most experienced player is senior guard Zach Bacon, who saw some time as a back-up last season. Senior forward Jake Johnson was on the varsity roster last year and didn’t see much action, but could emerge as the team’s top outside shooting threat. Junior Burt Lu played some last year and is a potential anchor in the post, along with big man Adam Brice.
The rest of the players will be seeing their first real varsity action this year, whether they’re making a move from the varsity bench, coming up from the JV squad or joining the team as a newcomer. And even for the returning players, nothing is guaranteed.
It’s about finding the right mix.
“Honestly, I could be rotating eight to 10 players,” Rayko said. “That’s new for us. We used a lot of guys last year but they were basically all seniors. It’s going to be a lot of sophomores and juniors this year.”
The good news is that there’s potential. While the newcomers haven’t had a chance to make a full impression yet, Rayko likes what he’s seen.
“There’s some talent,” he said. “We got some nice surprise packages.”
One quality that has already surfaced is quickness, and that may call for an up-tempo attack.
“I really have no idea how they’re going to mesh, but the style will be pretty up-and-down,” Rayko said. “Everybody’s pretty quick.”
And early on, everybody will get a look. The Titans play an Injury Fund game against Bishop Hendricken on Friday and a non-leaguer with West Warwick on Monday. Rayko views those games as an opportunity to get a clearer picture of what he has.
“We have two really tough, good games and I think that’s going to give us an opportunity to really gauge things and see where we are,” Rayko said. “We want to win, but we’re going to rotate a lot of players in and out and try to figure out the best mix.”
It’ll be the first step in the process of building a new team – again.
“The way I view it, for us to be successful, we have to find the pieces that work best together,” Rayko said. “That’s both as a team and with which defenses and offenses work best. It’s a lot of moving parts, and that’s good right now. We just have to figure out which parts move best together.”
Friday’s game with Hendricken is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Toll Gate. West Warwick comes to town Monday, also for a 7 p.m. start.