Tolman junior Jesse Fernandes, left, is making his presence felt for the Tigers varsity this year.
(Photo by Ernest A. Brown)
PAWTUCKET – If there’s anyone associated with the Tolman boys’ basketball program who has seen firsthand the progress and development made by Jesse Fernandes, Steven Otis and the rest of the current underclassmen, look no further than head coach Mike Kayata’s right-hand man.
Mike Gavin, the assistant coach, remembers when the current Tolman cast “could barely do anything” as mere ninth graders. Starting from scratch might be a more gentle way of describing the twinges of frustration Gavin experienced as the Tigers’ freshman coach during the 2011-12 season.
“That was the first time that many of them had ever played organized basketball. I basically said to them, ‘This isn’t street ball,’” recalled Gavin. “We had to teach them how to run a play.”
These days, Gavin can look back at those trying beginnings and beam with pride at how far Fernandes, Otis & Co. have matured, both on and off the court. In 2012-13, Tolman captured the junior varsity state title. Many of those same players who Gavin nurtured as freshmen were promoted to the next level, so logic dictated that a familiar face should serve as the squad’s mentor.
“Mike really gets to know the kids so he understands their strengths and weaknesses,” said Kayata prior to Tuesday afternoon’s practice at Jenks Middle School. “Winning the JV tournament last year allowed him to build a special bond with them.”
This winter has seen the same crew of Tolman hoopsters succeed in taking another tangible leap forward, this time at the varsity level with 13 league wins and the third seed in the Division II tournament.
Even more proof can be found in the Tigersâ important task at hand come Wednesday evening at Rhode Island Collegeâs Murray Center when they face Coventry in the âRound of 16â portion of the open state tournament.
Regardless of tonightâs outcome, the future appears bright for Tolman. Not to look too far ahead when thereâs still business this season to attend to, itâs easy to feel the excitement in the air based purely on the high number of returnees for the 2014-15 campaign.
The graduation losses will be slight with Kayata biding adieu to starting center Denzel DePina and key reserve Keanu Perry. Jeff Jones is another 12th grader who is in the same boat as DePina and Perry â players who will see the curtain lowered on their careers in red and black sooner rather than later.
Fernandes and Otis will return to the fold along with fellow juniors Luis Pagan, Tyler Reece, Prince Johnson and Nathan Gagnon. The sophomore class is headlined by Tyreal Whitaker and 6- foot-4 Kwawo Armah- Yeboah, who Kayata is confident can replace DePina.
To have that many battle- tested pieces in place before this season is officially laid to rest, itâs little wonder why Kayata beams with pride. He cited that Wednesday marks the third playoff game for these Tigers. At the high-school level, such experience can only help further the quest of taking Tolman to even greater heights.
âI think this will help us mature and understand what it takes to be that next-level team that weâre striving to be, that winning team,â Kayata expressed. âIn order to have a winning season, you need to develop that winning mentality.
âThere is something special in our locker room,â the Tolman coach readily acknowledged.
Added Gavin, âOne of our goals this year was for them to get that (winning mentality) in the back of their heads going into their senior year. Youâre not going to walk into a big game and expect to handle pressure. Thatâs why hese multiple playoff games in the same year has been huge for us.â
Tolmanâs ascension to the top of the Division II standings this season can be traced to the increased production from two particular individuals. In Fernandes, you have someone who as a freshman didnât even start for Gavin until the postseason â he scored 18 points in his first game and followed up with 19 in a season-ending loss to eventual ninth-grade champion Rogers.
Fast forward to last Wednesday when the 5-11 Fernandesâ all-around talents were on display in Tolmanâs 61-54 win over Exeter/West Greenwich in the Division II quarterfinals. Directing the Tigersâ attack while the teamâs starting point guard (Johnson) sat on the bench in foul trouble, Fernandes flirted with a triple double (nine points, seven assists, seven rebounds).
As the teamâs current power forward, Fernandes is playing out of position. Next year, he could very well serve as the Tigersâ âpoint forward,â a role that would enable him to make full use of perhaps his greatest strength â seeing the floor.
âJesse clearly understands what we need to do. He knows everyone elseâs role plus his own,â Kayata said.
âHe knows what to do and makes sure weâre in the right spots,â echoed Otis.
The in-season development of Pagan is another plus. Back in October, the Tigersâ guard injured his ankle so severely that crutches were required. Once Pagan received medical clearance, the next hurdle became to get into adequate playing shape.
Though it took some time for him to round into form â Pagan has dropped 10 pounds since the start of the season â itâs become a moot point based on his recent contributions.
One play that offered proof that Pagan is moving around better these days came during the first half of last Fridayâs playoff game against Barrington. After taking an outlet pass from Otis, he smoothly darted up the floor while the Eagles were scrambling to get back on defense.
The coast-to-coast sequence may have surprised Barrington, but not Kayata. Pagan ended up scoring 21 points against the Eagles, 14 materializing in the opening half.
âI donât think weâve seen our best basketball out of him yet,â Kayata acknowledged.
Said Otis, âEarlier in the year, (Pagan) wasnât in shape and he struggled. Now itâs the end of the year and heâs performing really well.â
Breaking down the returning Tigers player-by-player, it seems Kayata has all the important bases covered. In Fernandes, Pagan and Otis, Tolman has three capable point producers who can beat teams in different areas.
Blessed with unbelievable speed, Johnson is the primary ballhandler and Tolmanâs top man-to-man defender. Whitaker and Gagnon provide depth at the guard and forward spots, respectively, with Kayata saying that next yearâs club will receive an infusion of talent from this yearâs JV squad that went 14-6 under Gavin.
No matter how this season ends, thereâs reason to feel optimistic about what lies ahead for Tolman. There is a catch as the Tigers will no longer have the luxury of sneaking up on teams, which may have been the case at varying points this season. With a strong nucleus intact, the next frontier to conquer will consist of dealing with a bullâs eye on their collective backs.
âNext year, we hope to come back stronger,â said Fernandes. âItâs still going to be the same team, but weâre going to have to work twice as hard.â
Such a declaration is undoubtedly music to the ears of a certain Tolman assistant coach who has seen nothing but growth over the past three years.
âThis year teams didnât know a lot about us, but nobody is going to take us lightly next year,â feels Gavin. âSince that first year, theyâve gotten nothing but better and better.â
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03
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