Toll Gate fielded an experienced team last year with standouts on both sides of the ball. But the seniors were also playing for their third head coach in four years, which made the path to success and consistency that much bumpier.
With head coach Matt Mancuso settling in for a second season and a lot of young players suiting up, the 2012 campaign should offer the Titans an opportunity for a fresh start.
“We had some great players last year, but I think it was tough for those guys, with me being their third coach,” Mancuso said. “It was a lot easier coming in this year, and I think the kids are getting it more. We started Monday, and so far, I think every day we’ve gotten better. There was no day where we said, ‘Oh, we took a step back today.’ We haven’t been great yet, but it’s better every single day.”
If that process continues all year, the Titans will be feeling much better about where they stand. Last year, they won a non-league game over Warwick Vets in week one before losing eight straight. They finally got back on track with a non-league win over Coventry before falling to Hendricken on Thanksgiving.
It wasn’t what Mancuso envisioned for the start of his tenure, but it didn’t go for naught.
“I think everybody is a little more used to things now,” Mancuso said. “The kids came in this year getting it more. As a coach, it’s my second year calling the offense so I’m a little more used to it. I’ve been watching film and seeing what my mistakes were and seeing what I need to work on.”
Toll Gate will still be fighting an uphill battle – the roster isn’t big and the schedule is tough as always. But the goal is just to get better.
“I definitely think we have the pieces,” Mancuso said. “Our big thing is going to be our numbers and staying healthy. If we can stay healthy and all the pieces fall right, I think we’ll be alright. I think we can play with a lot of the teams in our division.”
Toll Gate will have to replace three-year starter Mitch Howkins under center. Junior Aaron Travers has emerged as the likely starter. Senior Dave Babcock, who played some quarterback last year, has moved to running back, and that setup is expected to be good for everybody. Travers should be capable and Babcock’s presence in the backfield makes the team stronger. Babcock is one of the team’s captains.
“I think that’s going to be good for us,” Mancuso said.
In the backfield, Toll Gate will be dealing with the loss of its best offensive player, second-team all-division running back Derick Durand, who shouldered a big load last season.
Several players are back with experience to help the cause, though, led by Babcock and senior Jose Javier, who both ran the ball last year. Tyler Ferreira, who didn’t play last year after transferring from Hendricken, is also expected to get some time.
Chris Durand, Derick’s younger brother, will be in the mix as well, along with Bruce Soscia and Malique Woods. Sophomore Jacob Moran could be a big threat at tight end.
The offensive line has seniors Chris DelVecchio and Colby Connell returning. DelVecchio saw a lot of time last year, while Connell missed much of last season with an injury after starting as a sophomore. Young players Jake Lima, James Marsella and Jackson Burgos are all making a push.
“Those guys are picking up the system a lot quicker than I thought they would,” Mancuso said.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Titans will be led by Derryck Anderson, the other captain. Anderson is a senior who was a standout linebacker last year. He earned second-team all-division honors.
“Derryck is our run stopper in the middle,” Mancuso said. “He does a great job.”
Connell and the other offensive linemen will likely play a lot on the defensive line, too. Durand started at defense end last year and showed flashes of being a strong pass rusher.
Lima is penciled in to join Anderson in the linebacking corps, while Babcock, Soscia and sophomore Sean Vann are in line to lead the secondary.
Though most of the lineup is young, many of the players have already gotten their feet wet.
“A sophomore and junior team,” Mancuso said. “The good thing is all the juniors last year played on varsity because of numbers. And at the end of the season, at least five or six of the sophomores played special teams in varsity games. So that whole fear of varsity is kind of out the window.”
Division II-A and II-B were shuffled around this year, and the Titans will now be going against Warwick Vets, Coventry, Johnston, Westerly, Mt. Hope, Woonsocket and defending D-II champ Chariho in league action.
It’ll be a challenge, but the Titans are hoping their fresh start will open new doors.
“Ideally, we want to be a playoff team,” Mancuso said. “I think we have the pieces to achieve that if the cards fall in our favor, but I’d like to at least be over that .500 mark and try to contend.”