Last year wasn’t easy for the Toll Gate boys’ soccer team, but it has a pretty viable excuse. With four important players sidelined for the majority of the year due to injury, the squad never really clicked.
The Titans stumbled to a two-win season in Division II and missed the playoffs. It was tough, because they never found out how good they could be.
Now they will.
“Last year we struggled, and we had all these guys hurt,” head coach Tim Hayes said. “Now we’ve got them all back healthy, and we’re trying to get something done this year.”
Toll Gate graduated two key defensive players and its goalkeeper, but brings back nearly everybody else from a season that turned into a growing year rather than a competitive one. Add in the four players who are returning from injury and a few other newcomers, and expectations are back in the high category.
On Tuesday, the Titans got a quick taste of their potential. They beat Pilgrim 2-1 in the first game of the Warwick Vets Fall Soccer Tournament, and then defeated Division I Hendricken on penalty kicks in the finals to earn the championship.
“This is the first year in a long time where we’re returning guys who played significant minutes,” Hayes said. “For a lot of years, it’s been guys who are coming back that didn’t get to contribute a lot. Now we have guys who are really confident.”
In order to reach its goals though, Toll Gate will have to replace goalkeeper Steve Mathews and defenders Justin Allen – an honorable mention all-division selection – and Jim Sullivan.
It’s confident it can do just that. Senior captain Corey Favino, who is one of the players that missed nearly the entire season last year, is moving from the midfield to take one of the vacated defensive positions,
“You hate to lose him in the midfield, but it’s really good to have a guy with his skill set to be able to play defense,” Hayes said.
Filling in at the other defensive spot is sophomore Kyle McGuire, whose entire freshman campaign was non-existent due to a back injury that required surgery.
In goal, Toll Gate is leaning on freshman Kyle Brown initially. Freshman Tylor Rubeira and junior Ezequiel Franco are also in the mix, although Franco not eligible yet because he didn’t join the team until late in the preseason.
“I think we’re going to be okay,” Hayes said. “We graduated a lot of our defense and our goalie, but the guys that we have this year are some converted midfielders who are going to play defense. We’re confident back there.”
Another reason for confidence is the offense, with forwards Josh Sandin and Jose Beltran leading the way. Sandin, a junior, is a returning first-team all-division player and Beltran made third-team all-division.
As far as pure scorers, there may be no better tandem in the division than those two.
“They’ll be carrying a lot of the scoring load at least,” Hayes said. “They’re both really good on the ball.”
Joining them as another scoring option and an all-around important player is senior Nathan DaCosta, who missed his entire junior year due to a broken ankle. He’s been named a captain, and plays center midfield.
In the 2-1 victory over Pilgrim, Sandin and DaCosta scored one goal apiece.
“We had a 10-minute period where we settled the ball down and they really struggled to control us at that point,” Hayes said.
Also in the midfield, and in the same boat as DaCosta, is junior Mark Ramsey, who was sidelined with injuries in 2012 too.
Returning to the defense are the wing fullbacks, juniors James Meizoso and Andrew Rocchio. They should help stabilize the back end.
Along with DaCosta and Ramsey in the midfield is Manny Pickering, a junior who played his freshman year but not last year. Then there is senior Zach Bromage, who will play a primarily defensive role out of the midfield.
“Every year he makes a leap,” Hayes said of Bromage. “This year, his fitness is good, he’s much better on the ball. You can put him anywhere you want at this point.”
Other players who should contribute are senior Jeremy Cullen – who started quite a bit last year – freshman Alexis Beltran, who is Jose’s little brother, and Ben Foss, a sophomore. There are a few more players on the roster who could make an impact as well.
“We’re athletic at a lot of positions,” Hayes said. “We have some speed. It’s just going to take some time with the patience and learning what we have to do.”
Patience paid off with a pair of victories on Tuesday, and it may very well be a preview of what’s to come this season. There’s a lot of talent, and even more continuity. Earning wins is the next step.
Toll Gate will open the regular season today at home against Westerly at 6 p.m.
“I think we can be in the conversation of playoff teams,” Hayes said. “Whether we win the division or are one of the top teams, you never know how it’s going to shake out. But I think by the end of the year we can be in the conversation of teams that get in the playoffs and take their shot.”