This time last year, a lot was up in the air for the Toll Gate girls’ basketball team. Head coach Joe Paliotta was on leave and several inexperienced players were thrust into big roles. The result was a second consecutive 0-18 season.
But things are much different this year. John Paolino, who took over as interim coach last season, is now the permanent head coach, and he welcomes back an experienced team. Ten of the 11 players on the current varsity roster have seen plenty of court time and are eager to take a big step forward.
The Titans hope it makes for a different result.
“It’s been excellent so far,” Paolino said. “I think the girls look back and I look back, and we say ‘It wasn’t our team last year.’ Now they’ve been with us a year, they know what to expect and they’re really eager to get back out there.”
The seeds for that attitude were planted last year. Though the Titans struggled, their young players improved as the season went on, and interest in the program seemed to pick up. Several sophomores are on the JV team this year after not coming out as freshmen.
As for the returning players, last year showed them what it takes.
“When we left last year, the girls understood that if somebody came out and was better than them, they were going to lose their spot,” Paolino said. “They took that to heart. We did the summer league and they were all very willing to play. They played a lot on their own in the summer and continued it into the fall. You can see the improvement.”
The Titans know that turning that improvement into success on the court isn’t a given, but early practices have offered positive signs.
“We had a great first week,” Paolino said. “The kids have a great attitude. The best word I can use to describe them is focused. They came to tryouts very motivated. They don’t like this concept of losing. They really want to win.”
Toll Gate will be led by its five seniors. Lauren Barnes, Ingrid Freeman and Nicole Fraser are all back are all back after seeing a lot of time last year, while Amanda Iadevaia is returning from injury and Amber Brooks is joining the team after transferring from Johnston and not playing last year.
Barnes and Freeman are poised to lead the way in the back-court. Both are good shooters who Paolino says just need a little bit of confidence.
“They’re natural shooters,” he said.
Fraser should be a key player down low.
“She came back in great shape, and I think she could be one of the best post players in the league,” Paolino said.
Iadevaia and Brooks don’t have last year’s experience to lean on, but both should be capable of contributing.
The junior class features Laura McGuire, one of the team’s most experienced players, as well as Jillian Eaton, Jackie Falso, Kelsey Kurbiec and Sarah Sagnella. Sophomore Courtney Sheridan is back after jumping right into the fire as a freshman last year.
Paolino likes the potential McGuire brings to the table.
“She’s probably our most athletic basketball player,” he said. “She’s played a lot. I think she and I agree that she had kind of an off year last year. I’m waiting for her to really break out. She’s got to put the ball in the basket this year.”
Eaton, Falso, Kurbiec and Sagnella saw varying amounts of playing time last year but are all ready to contribute. Sheridan could be poised for a break-out in the middle.
“She was thrown to the wolves as a freshman, and she didn’t know what to expect,” Paolino said. “She is so excited and pumped up. She’s already saying she’s not going to let anybody push her around this year.”
With 11 players who all have similar skill-sets, Paolino expects to go deep into his bench and play everybody. That should allow the Titans to play intense defense and push the tempo when they have the chance.
“We’ve got to improve our defense and rebounding,” Paolino said. “Those are two of the biggest things.”
The Titans had some success in the summer league, winning four games. Paolino hopes that can be a springboard for a resurgent year. It won’t be easy – the Titans had the opportunity to move to Division III, but petitioned the league to remain in D-II and build the program there. They’ll play in Division II-South, along with Coventry, who’s down from D-II, defending D-II champ Narragansett and several other perennial contenders.
But they’re excited nonetheless.
“We’re definitely going to be better,” Paolino said. “I’m not going to make any predictions, and we’re in a very tough division, but I think we have a lot of potential. They really jelled in the summer, and the big thing is they want to win. They’ve been extremely focused.”
The Titans will open the season with non-league games against cross-town rivals Pilgrim and Warwick Vets.