The Toll Gate boys’ lacrosse team never missed the playoffs in its first eight years of existence, but stretching that streak to nine was looking like an iffy proposition two weeks ago. A 10-6 loss to Warwick Vets on May 7 was the Titans’ fourth in a row and it dropped their record to 3-6.
After that, the Titans regrouped.
And it worked.
The Titans closed out the regular season with three straight victories to clinch a playoff spot, culminating in an 8-2 win over East Providence on Friday.
“It was nice to be able to finish up strong,” said Toll Gate head coach Mike Vadney. “We got a couple of things straightened away on offense and we’ve played better.”
The Titans will be the last team into the eight-team playoff field, which means they’ll match up with unbeaten Smithfield, the two-time defending Division III champion. It’s the toughest draw possible, but the Titans are happy to get it.
“Our goal is always to make the playoffs,” Vadney said. “Hopefully it’ll carry over against Smithfield, who has always been a thorn in our side.”
The Titans started their win streak with perhaps their most important victory of the season. Just two days after the loss to Vets, they beat a strong Tiverton/Rogers team 7-5.
From there, they beat Scituate 5-4 last Tuesday then finished it off with the victory over East Providence.
“The focus was offense,” Vadney said of the turnaround. “We knew we were doing it on defense, but we had to do something on offense. We stepped away from our standard offense and went to something different. I think just doing that gave these guys a little more of an opportunity to execute against an aggressive defense.”
The improvements were on display against East Providence, who came in with a 3-8 record. The Titans dominated possession in the early going and scored a pair of goals 20 seconds apart in the first period. Jesse Butler scored the first 8:57 left. Off the ensuing draw, Anthony Zelano scored at 8:37 to make it 2-0.
The Titans didn’t score again in the first and the Townies cut the lead in half just a minute into the second period. But the Titans had an answer. Butler scored again four minutes later to make it 3-1 and Zelano scored late in the period to give Toll Gate a three-goal halftime lead.
East Providence scored the first goal of the second half, but the Titans turned it on from there. Steve Mathews pushed the lead back to three with the prettiest goal of the day, a rocket that bounced up and into the top of the net. Zelano scored two more goals late in the third and added another early in the fourth for the final margin.
“We really focused on settling the ball,” Vadney said. “Before it was in our defense a lot and we were losing it. We’re really trying to hold onto the ball and get a lot of shots.”
Zelano was the beneficiary on Friday. He finished with five goals.
“We had some good ball movement,” Vadney said. “They were an aggressive defense and we were able to capitalize on that. They left the back open, which really helped us out. Kudos to the midfielders for getting their hands free and just ripping shots.”
The Titans also got a good defensive performance from Colby Connell, Mike Palumbo and Dave Stachurski, who kept the Townies from sustaining much of an attack. Goalie John Coleman was there for some key saves.
Toll Gate will now turn its attention to the playoff match-up with Smithfield. The Sentinels beat them 11-1 in the regular season but that was way back on April 13, when the Titans were still feeling things out on offense.
They believe they’re trotting out a different team this time.
“We will give them a run,” Vadney said. “Our first time against them, we rushed it and we weren’t comfortable on offense. This time, hopefully with a little more patience, we’ll see. Smithfield is such a great ball control team. If we can control the ball a little more on offense and limit some of their possessions, we may keep it close.”
Date and time for the playoff game have not been determined.