The Toll Gate boys’ lacrosse team played one of its best games of the season on Thursday against Smithfield in the Division III quarterfinals.
The Sentinels barely blinked.
Smithfield ran out to a four-goal lead at halftime and extended it to seven goals in the third quarter before the Titans cut it back down to four. Yet, they got not closer, as the Sentinels calmly closed out the game and won 8-4 at Bryant University.
With the loss, Toll Gate was eliminated from the postseason shy of the semifinals for the first time in three years. Smithfield kept up its lengthy winning streak, as it still hasn’t lost a game since 2010.
The two-time defending D-III champion Sentinels wore the Titans out with their athleticism and experience. At the end of the day, Toll Gate was another casualty, even though it gave Smithfield a mild scare late in the game.
“I told those guys, I said, ‘It’s number one against number eight. No one expects you do to well – just go play,’” Toll Gate head coach Mike Vadney said. “They were ready to play. Smithfield is just a very skilled team.”
The Titans were in the playoffs thanks to a three-game winning streak to end the regular season. That was an accomplishment, but their reward was the No. 8 seed and a match-up with the champs.
In the first quarter, the game had the feel of a one versus eight match-up. Smithfield scored three times, getting one from James Whitehead and another from Louis Catarina in the first two minutes before adding a third on another goal from Whitehead at the 4:49 mark.
That made it 3-0, before the Titans finally settled in.
“We started out a little bit tough,” Vadney said. “I think the defense kind of found itself. We knew going into this game it was going to be our defense against their offense.”
Toll Gate kept the high-powered Sentinels off the board for the rest of the first quarter and for the first 6:18 of the second quarter, but couldn’t narrow the gap. The Titans struggled to get the ball, and when they did they seemed to constantly turn it over in their own zone.
“Our clears, they were just running a 3-3 zone ride,” Vadney said. “I think it was a just a little bit of impatience. They’re an athletic team. The guy looks open, but he’s not.”
In the middle of the second quarter, Smithfield made it 4-0 on another Whitehead goal with Nick Gerlach on the assist. Toll Gate finally got an open look two minutes later, but Anthony Zelano was stoned by goalie Mike Macera. A minute after that, the Titans turned the ball over in their own zone, and Brendan Benoit made them pay with a bouncing shot that found its way past Toll Gate goalie John Coleman for a 5-0 lead.
But with time winding down in the half, the Titans finally got on the board. Steve Mathews let loose a shot from the top of the zone with 16 seconds to play, cutting the score to 5-1.
Any momentum gained from that goal quickly wore off, however, as Smithfield scored three more times in the third period and kept Toll Gate off the board. Possession was close to even, but the Sentinels capitalized on their chances, while the Titans did the opposite. Gerlach, Bryan Kortick and Catarina all scored to make it 8-1.
“It stinks to lose, but I guess if we’re going to lose I think we put our best foot forward defensively,” Vadney said. “We need to work on offense.”
Down seven, with 12 minutes left in their season, the Titans started to rally. Andrew Zelano found Anthony Zelano on the left with 6:30 to play, and Anthony Zelano made one move to free himself up and scored.
Two minutes later, Brendan Murray found a cutting Zelano in the middle, and he fired a hard shot on net for another goal. Then, with 1:32 to play, Colby Connell started a fast break and it ended with Zelano skipping in his third goal in five minutes, and suddenly it was 8-4.
But the deficit was too big. Smithfield held on to the ball for the last minute of the game, finishing off Toll Gate’s comeback attempt.
“Unfortunately, our offense came alive at the end,” Vadney said. “But too little, too late. Zelano found the groove. He found that sweet spot and rallied off three quick goals. He had a heck of a face dodge to score that second goal.”
The loss was symbolic of the season Toll Gate had. While the Titans played better than they had in many of their games, they still struggled to find an offensive rhythm. During the regular season, they were ninth in D-III out of 13 teams in goals scored with 73. Conversely, they were fourth in goals allowed
That said, the future should be brighter, as the Titans will lose some seniors but also played a large contingent of underclassmen. That should bode well for the team – and the offensive development – going forward.
“Nice thing is, looking towards next season we’ve got some guys who got a little bit more play,” Vadney said. “We can probably re-build a little bit better.”
The Titans will say goodbye to seniors Murray, James Sullivan, Derryck Anderson, Zelano, Mike Palumbo, Matthews, Coleman, Matt Deneff, Connell and Champ Prak.
Smithfield advanced to take on No. 4 Warwick Vets on Wednesday at 3:45 p.m. in the semifinal round.