Toll Gate High School’s homecoming is still a month away, but for head football coach Matt Mancuso it may as well be this weekend.
When Mancuso brings the Titans into Johnston on Friday, he’ll be returning to the place where he spent the bulk of his coaching career – and a place that’s still pretty special to him.
“It’ll be fun,” he said. “I talk to the coaches up there all the time, and I still have a good rapport with the kids. It’ll be a fun environment.”
Mancuso grew up in Cranston, but when it comes to his coaching roots, Johnston feels like home. He’s still the Panthers’ head wrestling coach and he spent six years as an assistant with the football program after starting his career at Cranston West.
And those six years were much more than a few lines on a coaching resume.
The Panthers emerged as a Division III powerhouse while Mancuso roamed the sidelines and they made consecutive Super Bowl appearances in 2008 and 2009. They won the title on the first of those trips, and the way it happened left an indelible mark on all involved.
Head coach Joe Acciardo was diagnosed with cancer and had to focus on beating it. Mancuso and fellow assistant Tony DeMarco took the reins of the team, and the Panthers rallied. Acciardo fully recovered – and remains Johnston’s head coach – while Mancuso and the Panthers had a season they’ll never forget.
“The best thing about that was how the kids came together with no excuses,” Mancuso recalled. “It was a great season. I still talk to half of those kids. I still see a lot of them. They’re great kids.”
The 2009 season was a special one, too. Johnston lost a huge graduating class from the Super Bowl team but made another dramatic run to the title game before falling a step short.
“That was even more fun,” Mancuso said. “Joey came back and we brought the kids back to the Super Bowl.”
In 2010, the Panthers moved to Division II, and they’ve continued their rise since then. Apart from their first season in D-II, Mancuso has watched it unfold from afar. He left Johnston for Toll Gate before the 2011 season.
“It was a tough decision but I wanted to give it a shot with my own program, and everybody in Johnston understood,” Mancuso said. “They’ve been supportive in every way possible.”
It’s been a challenge in Warwick, where the Titans have been battling low numbers since day one. They went winless in league play in both 2011 and 2012 and have had their struggles so far this year.
In Mancuso’s first year at the helm, the Titans and Panthers were in different D-II sub-divisions so they didn’t have to square off. Last year was the first meeting, and a veteran Johnston team handled the Titans with ease.
But the connection between the team and its former coach remained.
“They gave us a good whooping, but all the kids came over after the game and gave me a big hug,” Mancuso said.
This season, Mancuso gets to bring what looks like an improved Titans team to his former home field. He’ll also bring a fresh bit of good news – Mancuso and his wife Kathryn welcomed a baby boy, Rocco Valentino Mancuso, on Tuesday night.
Mancuso will undoubtedly receive plenty of well wishes. He hopes his team can deliver a good game as well – and make his homecoming a fun one.
“The kids are playing hard,” Mancuso said. “I talk to Joe and Tony every week and Johnston played great last week. They’re going to come in hungry. Our goal is to go out there and play hard for 48 minutes.”