When the season began in early September, the Toll Gate boys’ soccer team had the feeling that something special could unfold over the next few months.
And when Zach Bromage’s penalty kick crossed the goal line with the sun going down at Rhode Island College Saturday evening, the Titans had their most special moment in over two decades.
Toll Gate is the Division II state champion.
In match that was scoreless through 80 minutes of regulation and 20 more minutes of overtime, Bromage broke a tie in a title-deciding shootout by rifling a low shot past Lincoln keeper Jack Bacon, lifting the Titans to a 1-0 victory thanks to the 4-3 edge in the shootout.
The championship was the first one for the boys’ soccer program since it defeated Hope in the 1990 Division I-B final. Toll Gate hadn’t even been back to a state final until this year, 23 years after it last raised the trophy.
“I knew if I made it, we won it,” said Bromage, who was named MVP of the tournament. “I was just hoping our goalkeeper would make the save before and I could step up and win it with the final shot.”
Luckily for Bromage, his goalkeeper did just that to give him the opportunity. Ezequiel Franco – a first-year junior on the team – made two key saves in the shootout, as he saved Ryan Labrie’s shot on Lincoln’s third attempt and then stoned Mateusz Puzanowski on the Lions’ fifth and final try, setting the stage for Bromage’s dramatic game-winner.
“It’s crazy,” Franco said. “I was just trying to intimidate the people, trying to keep my mind focused. I was trying to look at the ball. It’s kind of hard. There’s a 90 percent chance they’re going to make it.”
But twice Lincoln did not make the shot, and Toll Gate didn’t waste its opportunity to finish off a truly incredible season. From 2005 to 2009, the Titans won just five total games, and they hadn’t even been past the quarterfinal round of the playoffs since before the turn of the century.
Last season, Toll Gate won just two games and missed the postseason.
“It’s hard to imagine that this is even real, from where we came from,” said Toll Gate head coach Tim Hayes. “Me and (assistant coach) Mike Vadney, our first three years with the program we only won four games. It was a slow, slow crawl from there to get to five wins, to get to six wins, to get to seven wins. We started to be a consistent playoff team, and that was the goal. But I never could have imagined this.”
It wasn’t easy getting there. After a hard-fought 1-0 win over Moses Brown in the quarterfinals, Toll Gate cruised by Coventry 4-1 in the semifinals to set up the championship showdown with Lincoln.
The Lions were the top seed in D-II, going 11-2-2 and allowing only eight goals all season long. The No. 3 seeded Titans did have one thing in their favor, though, as they had handed Lincoln one of its two loses during the regular season, a 2-0 win on Oct. 8.
With that win in hand, Toll Gate was confident coming in to Saturday.
“We beat them during the regular season, so we figured we had a good shot,” Bromage said.
As it turned out, neither team had much of a shot before the shootout. The majority of the game was played in the midfield, and neither keeper was really tested. The few opportunities that the teams did get were on corner kicks or long direct kicks after fouls, but none of them amounted to anything on the scoreboard.
The Titans scoring duo of Josh Sandin and Jose Beltran were held in check by a stingy Lincoln defense, and Toll Gate’s defensive group of Corey Favino, James Meizoso, Bromage, Kyle McGuire, Mark Ramsey and Andrew Rocchio held its own too.
It was a conservative battle, with neither team wanting to commit the mistake that would cost it a chance to win.
“We’re trying to have the midfielders and forwards hold it up there, and it’s hard for them,” Favino said. “Lincoln has a strong defense. They’re one of the hardest defenses we’ve played all year.”
Eventually, it all came down to the shootout. Lincoln’s Brian Hasegawa and Alex D’Aloisio each scored for the Lions, while Beltran and Nathan DaCosta scored for the Titans, making it 2-2 through as many shots.
On the third shot, Franco dove to his left and made a save of Labrie’s shot, giving Toll Gate a chance at the lead. But Sandin came up next and sent his shot over the goal, keeping the score tied up.
David Jessey gave Lincoln the 3-2 lead on the next shot before David Moreno-Garcia converted for the Titans to tie the score at three with one shot remaining for each team.
Puzanowski stepped up for the Lions, but his shot toward the right post was denied by Franco. Then it was Bromage’s turn, and he fired into the bottom-left of the net to clinch the title.
“We have a lot of confidence in him,” Hayes said of Bromage. “He’s the quietest kid on the whole team, you barely hear him talk. I can’t imagine having to be in that spot, one kick for the state championship. We saw him in the Injury Fund, he buried the fifth one to get a good win over Hendricken. Now he just won a state championship.”
The Titans celebrated on the field, and then went over to celebrate with a big crowd that had made the trip to RIC. Favino, Franco and DaCosta were named to the all-tournament team, and Bromage got his MVP hardware.
Toll Gate also received its state championship plaque.
“You don’t know what to do,” Favino said. “You’re so baffled. There’s emotions, you want to cry and scream.”
Toll Gate’s title was the school’s first of any kind since the boys’ tennis team won the D-II championship in 2008. It was the first boys’ soccer championship in Warwick since Pilgrim won the D-II championship in 2000.
The Titans will say goodbye to seniors Favino, Beltran, DaCosta, Jeremy Cullen, Bromage, Moreno-Garcia, John Yavas and Darpan Patel.
They’ll all leave as champions.
“It’s an honor,” Favino said. “I’ve been out here for four years, and it feels amazing.”