For just the second time in school history and the first time since 1990, Toll Gate will be playing for a boys' soccer state championship.
The Titans scored three goals in the first 18 minutes of Wednesday's Division II semifinal and stormed to a 4-1 victory over Coventry at Cranston Stadium. The third-seeded Titans will play No. 1 Lincoln on Saturday at 2 p.m., at Rhode Island College for the championship.
It's an opportunity that's been a long time coming. The Titans had a few more successful seasons after winning the title in 1990 – including a semifinal appearance in 2002 – but the bottom fell out in 2005, when they started a stretch that saw them win just five games in five years. Things have stabilized since, but last season, injuries sent them to a two-win campaign.
One year later, they're playing for a title.
“For one more day, Toll Gate soccer is going to matter, and it hasn't mattered in a long time,” said head coach Tim Hayes. “I'm really happy for the seniors, who went through some rough times. We'll go out and hopefully play our best game. Hopefully they'll be great, too and we'll have a worthy state champ.”
If the Titans can deliver a repeat of Tuesday's effort, it'll be hard to imagine someone being more worthy. Coming off a hard-fought 1-0 win over Moses Brown in the quarterfinals, the Titans matched up with a Coventry team who beat them 4-2 in the regular-season finale. But in just the second minute, the Titans started turning the tables on a Josh Sandin goal and dominated from there. They scored three more times before the half and were never really threatened.
“It would be tough to argue that tonight wasn't our best game of the year,” Hayes said. “:From the goalie, Ezequiel Franco, keeping them to one goal, to our center backs, our wingers. We covered everything up and we scored when we got opportunities.”
Sandin's goal set the Titans down the right path. A throw-in by Zach Bromage bounced to Sandin at the top of the box. He settled the ball, turned and drilled a shot into the right corner of the net for the 1-0 lead.
The Titans kept the pressure on and struck again in the 17th minute. Sandin lofted a corner kick to the far post, where Jose Beltran headed it in. Just over a minute later, Manny Pickering tracked down a long cross by Sandin, kept the ball from going out of bounds, and beat the charging Coventry goalie to make it 3-0.
“We've got a lot of speed up front,” Hayes said. “We've known from the start of the season that we have guys who can score. We just tried to make them play at a speed that's really uncomfortable, especially on the turf. Any ball that bounced, we just told our forwards to take off, pressure them, force them into mistakes. We were able to get some balls to land at our feet and we finished. A lot of times during the season, you leave some of those on the table. You get chances like that and maybe you come away with one.”
The Oakers finally stopped the onslaught after Pickering's goal, settling in and getting a push forward. In the 35th minute, they broke through on a goal by Matthew Buglio, who chased down a through ball and beat Franco from point-blank range.
Though the Titans still owned a two-goal lead, it wasn't difficult to imagine the tide starting to turn. After all, in the regular season meeting, the Oakers rallied from a 2-1 deficit with three unanswered goals.
But Toll Gate was having none of that.
In the 38th minute, Sandin played a through ball for Nathan DaCosta and he carried the ball into the box and ripped a shot into the net to make it 4-1.
“That was huge,” Hayes said. “For five minutes, they started throwing everything forward and they got one. We thought we were in some trouble there, just trying to kill off the half. But we got a ball to go through and our senior captain put one away in the biggest game of his career. That made it 4-1 and everything kind of settled down. It was like, 'Alright, we're still in control here.' For a while there, it didn't feel very comfortable.”
The Titans didn't score again but they didn't need to. The defensive unit led by Corey Favino, James Meizoso, Andrew Rocchio and Kyle McGuire kept the Oakers at bay, with midfielders Bromage, Mark Ramsey, Pickering, DaCosta and David Moreno-Garcia doing their part too.
“We saw some things we could do better defensively when we played them in the regular season,” Hayes said. “They really exposed us on their left side, with our right wingers. So we did a better job kind of shifting some midfielders over there, taking away space on their right foots. It was effective.”
And when the final whistle sounded, the Titans celebrated.
“It's exciting,” Hayes said.
But it's not the end of the road. The Titans want to go out on top and they have their chance Saturday against Lincoln. The Titans won 2-0 in the regular season match-up, but Lincoln was fresh off a trip to a tournament in St. Louis. The Lions went on to finish 11-2-2 in the regular season, tops in Division II. They beat East Greenwich in a shootout in the quarterfinals and topped Providence Country Day 1-0 in Wednesday's first semifinal.
“Last time we got Lincoln, they were a little short-handed coming off a tournament and we were able to win 2-0,” Hayes said. “We probably played our best defensive game of the year, and we're going to need it again. They're big, they're strong. We're going to have to stay organized and hope we can keep countering like we did.”
Wednesday's game ended too late for the Nov. 7 print edition of the Warwick Beacon. For continuing coverage of the Titans, see Tuesday's edition