The Toll Gate lacrosse team won a playoff game in its inaugural season in 2005, then saw five consecutive seasons go by without a victory in the postseason.
In 2011, the Titans finally got over the hump, and they did so in a big way.
Toll Gate beat rival Warwick Vets in the semifinals and nearly knocked off unbeaten Smithfield in the Division III title game before eventually falling 6-4.
Now the Titans will see if they can sustain that level of success.
The 2012 season is set to begin on Monday for Division III teams, and Toll Gate will start off the season against Vets.
It’ll be a nice early-season measuring stick for a team hoping it can replace some key players from last year’s group and show some staying power.
“It’s a tough way to start a season, right out of the gate against a cross-town rival,” Toll Gate head coach Mike Vadney said. “And we’ll see how we do. We’ve got some big holes that we have to fill this year.”
Vadney might be understating just how big, as he will be tasked with finding a way to fill the gap left by the graduation of Zach Furtado, the school’s all-time leading scorer.
Furtado, who now plays football at URI, scored 55 goals last season and 40 the year before while playing attack.
“He was definitely one of those kids who comes around very seldom, and as a coach, you wish they would show up more often,” Vadney said.
If losing its best scoring-option wasn’t enough, Toll Gate also graduated its top defender in Brandon Colombo. Other key players – like midfielders Norm Houle and John Gunter – have also moved on.
That’s a lot of production to replace, but Vadney is confident his team can get it done. With 38 players currently in the program, it’s just a matter of finding the best options.
“We have depth,” Vadney said. “We’ll see if we can try to fill those holes with the numbers that we have.”
The Titans likely won’t have a player this year match Furtado’s scoring output, but that doesn’t mean the team will struggle to score. The goals will just be a little more spread out.
Back in the mix is last season’s second-leading scorer, Casey Correia, and he’ll be stepping into a bigger role.
“He was kind of overshadowed last year by Zach Furtado, but he’s got a good, strong shot,” Vadney said of Correia. “He’s got good lacrosse instincts.”
Toll Gate should also get consistent scoring from senior Kevin Vittum and sophomore Kyle Ellis, both of whom Vadney expects to blossom a little bit with another year of experience under their belts.
“We’re going to have to go more for a team-driven approach, and just have a bunch of guys fill that gap,” Vadney said. “I spoke about it at the start of the season. We probably won’t have a guy who will score that many goals. But if we have a lot of guys who are scoring 18 or 20 goals, as a team we’ll score points.”
In the back end, junior Mike Palumbo returns after a solid sophomore campaign, and he will slot into Colombo’s old role.
The Titans are also expecting good things from junior Colby Connell, who is in just his second year playing lacrosse.
Vadney is confident that a few others will step up as well.
“Our long sticks, they’re looking good this year,” Vadney said. “It’s nice in the fact that now, as it stands early, it looks like our defense is good.”
One big luxury the team does have is its goaltender. Senior Josh Giarrantano is back for another year in net, and he’s poised to be one of the top goalies in the division.
“What a pleasure that is. As a defensive-minded coach, that’s your cornerstone,” Vadney said. “And the cornerstone is strong. We just need to build out from that.”
The midfield position is also coming together.
Senior Dan Carrigan is back with the team after not playing during his junior year, and junior Alex Welch is a strong returning presence.
Senior Mitch Howkins, the starting quarterback on Toll Gate’s football team, should also be an asset.
“He came back, one more year of experience, and he’s looking pretty good,” Vadney said of Howkins. “He’s one of those kids who can shoot right or left handed.”
The challenge for the Titans, however, is not only getting itself ready for the season, but also finding out just how good its competition is.
Division III expanded this season to 10 teams, adding Westerly, Coventry and a Burrillville/North Smithfield co-op team to the fold. The division also broke into two sub-divisions – as opposed to the one, seven-team division that existed last year – and Toll Gate finds itself in D-III-South.
That leaves some uncertainty, but the Titans are still setting their goals high. The first one, though, is to make the playoffs and win another postseason game. Then, they’ll go from there.
“Expectations are high, and I can’t wait to get that first week done so we can kind of assess and see how much different this division is than it was last year,” Vadney said.
Toll Gate’s season-opening game against Vets on Monday is on the road at 3:30 p.m. The Titans’ first home game will be Wednesday against Narragansett, also at 3:30.