For a while there, Tim Hayes and Mike Vadney were salesmen as much as they were soccer coaches.
“Come play soccer,” Hayes said. “No experience necessary.”
That was in the lean years for the Toll Gate boys’ soccer program, when victories were nearly impossible to come by and numbers were dipping dangerously low.
“It wasn’t ‘Oh, we’re not going to have enough for a JV team,’” Hayes said. “It was, ‘We’ve got 13 kids signed up. Do we have enough to field a team?’ We were pulling kids out of the hallways.”
Those days seemed very far away on Saturday, as Hayes tried to dodge a Gatorade shower and the Titans celebrated the Division II championship. The fact that they’re not so far away speaks to what it took to construct a winner. It’s a success story that belongs to everybody who’s worn a Titans uniform – the 2013 stars and role players, the players before them who took the team to the next level and the ones who struggled through the lean years, with no success stories in sight.
When Hayes took over as head coach in 2007 with Vadney as an assistant, the Titans had won just a single game in the previous two years. They had been a semifinalist in the state’s highest division in 2002, but Division I had quickly become inhospitable.
All the Titans could do was weather the storm.
“I didn’t really know what to expect,” Hayes said. “It was very hard for us to compete, but that was our goal. I remember winning two games that first year and being really happy with that.”
In his first year at the helm, Hayes had a good group of freshmen turn out. They would form a core, sticking with soccer through very little thick and a whole lot of thin.
“I don’t know if they could see it, but the system was in and we were getting better,” Hayes said. “Every year the numbers would go down. That’s what happens when you’re losing and kids know that no matter what you do, you might not win a game. There was a core group that stayed. They kept soccer alive.”
Many of the stick-to-it players never got to reap the benefits when the Titans finally moved to Division II in 2010, but their contributions were not forgotten.
“When we moved to Division II, we had a system in place,” Hayes said. “They raised the level of Toll Gate soccer.”
In D-II, the building process moved to its next stage – winning. After picking up five wins in its inaugural D-II season, Toll Gate took the next step in 2011. A talented group of players led by Nate Sandin and John Crowley powered the Titans to a seven-win season and a trip to the D-II quarterfinals.
Toll Gate soccer was back on track.
And then it wasn’t.
Last year, the Titans had some graduation losses to deal with but had a lot of young talent ready to step in. Then standout junior Nathan DaCosta broke his ankle. It was just the beginning. Injuries mounted, with a new one popping up nearly every game. The team’s star forwards – Josh Sandin and Jose Beltran – were on an island, with nobody who could get them the ball. The Titans won two games.
“It was so frustrating to take a step back,” Hayes said. “Every time we thought we were close, someone else would get hurt.”
Maybe they were taking a cue from their persistent predecessors, but the Titans were undeterred. The walking wounded got healthy, the returning players dedicated themselves to summer work and the Titans entered the fall with their most complete team in years.
They had the stars like DaCosta, Sandin and Beltran, who could light up a scoreboard. They had leaders like Corey Favino, who anchored a defense that grew stingier by the game.
And maybe most importantly, they had role players stepping up.
Championships aren’t won when happy accidents put star players in the same school at the same time. They’re won when a full team surrounds them.
“We had so many guys who got better,” Hayes said. “The best example is Zach Bromage. Freshman year, we weren’t sure he would ever play. Last year, we started to see it a little bit, but this summer, he became a different player. He was so valuable for us. Corey Favino came back from being hurt constantly last year. Jeremy Cullen didn’t end up playing in the championship game but he held it down for us during the year when we had injuries and a suspension. Every single player helped us get to where we were.”
That’s fitting. It took a whole lot of Titans – in 2013 and from many seasons before – to make a championship possible.
It’s a championship that belongs to everybody.
For their part, that makes Hayes and Vadney smile. They never entertained the idea of winning a title this year, not with so many humbling seasons behind them. Even when Bromage made the final kick in a shootout to win the title, it was hard to believe.
“We thought we’d be pretty good,” Hayes said. “But I never thought about winning it all. I don’t think we have the luxury of thinking that.”
Even next year, when they take the field as defending champs, the Titans aren’t likely to buy into their success. They’ll keep working. But at the very least, Hayes and Vadney will have a new sales pitch.
Toll Gate soccer: champions.
William Geoghegan is the sports editor at the Warwick Beacon. He can be reached at 732-3100 and email@example.com.