A year ago, the Toll Gate hockey team had a new coach but a veteran group providing a well-established identity. This year, it’s the opposite. Head man Mike Champagne is in his second year at the helm, but he welcomes back a team with just two seniors and three juniors.
Throw in the always-fluid landscape of Division II hockey, and the Titans aren’t sure how they stack up. They’re just hoping to make some headway.
“I think we’ll be able to improve as the year goes on,” Champagne said. “There’s definitely a lot of room for that and the attitude for it. The other piece of it is the competition and you just don’t know. To gauge where you are is really tough and I think there are a lot of teams feeling the same way, trying to get a feel for what they are.”
The Titans hope what they are – or at least what they become – is an improved team. While they had quite a few veterans last year, they never got into a groove and finished the regular season with a 4-14 record, missing the playoffs.
The top four scorers from that team have graduated, including Steve Mathews, who ranked 11th in the league in points with 13 goals and 15 assists. In all, the Titans lost six players to graduation, all of whom were key contributors.
In their wake, Toll Gate has only five total upperclassmen.
“We’re a young team – we have two seniors and three juniors,” Champagne said. “Those guys have made some good moves and have definitely improved. A lot of the freshmen going into sophomores have improved.”
Now, it’s about molding into a unit and forging an identity.
The seniors are defenseman Jesse Butler and goaltender David Stachurski. Both have a lot of experience and they’ll serve as captains.
“Jesse is laid-back and he’s able to keep that edge off guys who get frustrated and offer some encouraging words,” Champagne said.
Stachurski has been a mainstay in net for several years. He played every minute last season, all 756 of them and is again the only goalie on the roster this year.
“Dave’s hard on himself and he expects a lot,” Champagne said. “He’s the only goalie. He gets no break. He knows that and he takes pride in that. Even last year, you try to give him a day off and he says, ‘No, I’m good.’ It’s good to have that leadership in the net.”
Junior forward Jack Sullivan and junior defenseman Anthony Ottone are the alternate captains.
“Both bring different things to the table,” Champagne said. “Jack plays kind of a power forward game, Anthony is a good skating defenseman. I think in their games, the young kids see a lot they can emulate.”
The Titans have a handful of other experienced players from last year, including junior forward Stephen Octeau, sophomore Sean Vittum – who can play forward or defense – and sophomores Nolan O’Brien and Jake Stachurski.
“They have some experience from last year, and that’s going to make a difference,” Champagne said. “I think with that confidence, they’ll get better and better. What they are today, you’ll see a different player come mid-January.”
The rest of the roster features three sophomores and a big class of eight freshmen. The top newcomers so far have been freshmen Chris Williams and Kyle Palumbo, who should make an instant impact. Plenty of others will be pushing for opportunities, including sophomores James Squire, David Beaumier and Bradley Meunier and freshmen Jakob Francois, Connor Sullivan, Connor Cabral, Cameron Allspach, Daniel O’Brien and Daniel Mowry.
“We have a slew of freshmen and new guys,” Champagne said. “It’s tough to pick out what’s what at this point. They’re all at different levels. We’ll see how they improve as the season goes on.”
Overall, the Titans have a good-sized roster – better than last year – which should help pave the way for strides to be taken.
“We have good numbers, better than last year which is nice,” Champagne said. “Some of these guys might not see a lot of playing time, but they’ll get their opportunity every day in practice to improve and put themselves in position.”
The Titans were on the ice for an Injury Fund game last weekend and had a tough time in a loss to North Smithfield. They’ll open the regular season with another game against the Northmen, which is set for Friday at 9 p.m. at Thayer Arena.
“We’ll see where we are in January and February,” Champagne said. “Hopefully we’ll do enough to be in a good position. In this division, you just don’t know, but that’s the fun part of it.”