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Improved play from underclassmen has propelled Tolman into open state tourney

March 11, 2014

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 Tigers’ important task at hand come Wednesday evening at Rhode Island College’s Murray Center when they face Coventry in the “Round of 16” portion of the open state tournament.

Regardless of tonight’s outcome, the future appears bright for Tolman. Not to look too far ahead when there’s still business this season to attend to, it’s 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 – 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, it’s 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.

“I think this will help us mature and understand what it takes to be that next-level team that we’re striving to be, that winning team,” Kayata expressed. “In order to have a winning season, you need to develop that winning mentality.

“There is something special in our locker room,” the Tolman coach readily acknowledged.

Added Gavin, “One of our goals this year was for them to get that (winning mentality) in the back of their heads going into their senior year. You’re not going to walk into a big game and expect to handle pressure. That’s why hese multiple playoff games in the same year has been huge for us.”

Tolman’s 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 didn’t even start for Gavin until the postseason – 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 Fernandes’ all-around talents were on display in Tolman’s 61-54 win over Exeter/West Greenwich in the Division II quarterfinals. Directing the Tigers’ attack while the team’s 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 team’s current power forward, Fernandes is playing out of position. Next year, he could very well serve as the Tigers’ “point forward,” a role that would enable him to make full use of perhaps his greatest strength – seeing the floor.

“Jesse clearly understands what we need to do. He knows everyone else’s role plus his own,” Kayata said.
“He knows what to do and makes sure we’re in the right spots,” echoed Otis.

The in-season development of Pagan is another plus. Back in October, the Tigers’ 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 – Pagan has dropped 10 pounds since the start of the season – it’s 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 Friday’s 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.

“I don’t think we’ve seen our best basketball out of him yet,” Kayata acknowledged.

Said Otis, “Earlier in the year, (Pagan) wasn’t in shape and he struggled. Now it’s the end of the year and he’s performing really well.”

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 Tolman’s top man-to-man defender. Whitaker and Gagnon provide depth at the guard and forward spots, respectively, with Kayata saying that next year’s club will receive an infusion of talent from this year’s JV squad that went 14-6 under Gavin.

No matter how this season ends, there’s 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 bull’s eye on their collective backs.

“Next year, we hope to come back stronger,” said Fernandes. “It’s still going to be the same team, but we’re going to have to work twice as hard.”

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.

“This year teams didn’t know a lot about us, but nobody is going to take us lightly next year,” feels Gavin. “Since that first year, they’ve gotten nothing but better and better.”

Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03

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