Toll Gate has won more Division I state championships than any girls’ volleyball team in Rhode Island, but the Titans won’t get a shot at the D-I crown this year. It’s the end of an era for a program with a proud tradition, and it’s surely a little sad for those who were part of it.
But for the players in uniform now, it’s the hopeful – and necessary – start of a new era. After four consecutive losing seasons, including two winless campaigns, the Titans are headed to Division II.
“It definitely looks more promising now that we’re in Division II,” said second-year head coach Andrew Bevilacqua. “The girls have taken it really well. They feel like we have a chance to start the winning tradition back up and develop the program.”
As disappointing as it was, that simply didn’t look possible anymore for the Titans in Division I. The program’s last tile was in 2001. It held on as a competitive program for several more years, hitting a high water mark of 15-3 in 2007 and going 10-8 just five years ago, but the bottom fell out after that. The Titans went 4-10 in 2014 and 0-14 in 2011. They expected to move down in 2012 Rhode Island Interscholastic League realignment, but were forced to stay up and endured another winless campaign in 2012. Last year, a more experienced and talented squad was competitive and eager, but still only won a single match.
In the latest round of realignment, Toll Gate’s number came up. The Titans will play in Division II-South, along with city rivals Pilgrim and Warwick Vets.
It’s a welcome change.
“They worked hard last year, but our main goal was just to be competitive,” Bevilacqua said. “We’ve set the goal this year to win at least half our games and hopefully make the playoffs.”
The move to Division II isn’t the only reason for optimism. Toll Gate lost only a few players to graduation and returns a small, but capable nucleus of veterans.
And they’re hungry.
The seniors have seen just one varsity league win in their time as Titans, and they don’t want it to remain the only one.
“The seniors are really working hard,” Bevilacqua said. “I think they want to do a lot this year and really leave their stamp on the program.”
The Titans will be led by seniors Brooke Casacalenda, Sydni Charette, Jamie Hopgood and Courtney Marsh. Casacalenda and Marsh will lead the way at the net as middle hitters. Hopgood is an outside hitter and Toll Gate’s top option on the attack. She was a third-team all-division performer on the D-I circuit last year. Charette played libero last year and will continue to be an asset on the back line this season.
The Titans also have juniors Ashley Chin and Taylor Payton back in the fold. Chin, who missed much of last season with an injury, will play setter. Payton was called up to the varsity team from JV last year and should continue contributing this season.
Several sophomores will be pushing for varsity time as well.
“They’ve all come in ready to practice every day,” Bevilacqua said. “Once they get the confidence, I’m hoping it takes off.”
With Marsh and Hopgood leading the way, the Titans will have some firepower at the net, but the main focus will be on the fundamentals.
“Defense is going to be the focal point,” Bevilacqua said. “We want to be scrappy and pick up a lot of balls.”
They also want to maintain the level that helped them hold their own in D-I.
“They know the speed of the Division I game,” Bevilacqua said. “Division II is slower, so we’ve really been working on keeping that Division I speed and carrying that with us.”
For all the focus on volleyball skills and style, the Titans could also use a confidence boost, considering their recent history. Bevilacqua hopes it comes early – and sets the course for a new beginning.
“There are a lot of good teams in Division II, it’s not going to be a cakewalk by any means,” he said. “These girls don’t have that sense of how to win matches, so hopefully we can get a couple of wins early and pick up that confidence.”
Toll Gate will play in an Injury Fund event at Pilgrim on Friday at 4 p.m. The regular season begins next Thursday with a 6:30 p.m. game at Cranston East.