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PAWTUCKET -- Last spring, Tolman High finished the season as it hoped it would â€” as Rhode Island Division II champions.
It nevertheless wasnâ€™t easy, as it had to manufacture come-from-behind victories over Pilgrim in a quarterfinal, Cranston West in a semifinal and finally Barrington, 3-1, in the championship match.
Head coach Neil Nachbar promised the road to defending that crown will be much more difficult, and â€“ for the Tigers â€“ it all begins with a quarterfinal bout against West Warwick, a 3-0 opening-round winner over Mount Pleasant on Wednesday night. That pairing will face off at Tolmanâ€™s James W. Donaldson Gymnasium at 6 p.m., Friday.
West Warwick landed the No. 3 South ranking with an 11-5 record.
(Actually, North Smithfield, the Northâ€™s third seed, upended Toll Gate, 3-0, on Tuesday night and will battle Cranston West, with the Southâ€™s No. 2 ranking, in another quarterfinal slated for 6 p.m., Friday).
â€śItâ€™s going to be a challenge for us,â€ť offered Nachbar, whose club went 14-2 in the North (16-3 overall). â€śThatâ€™s a team we scrimmaged during the season, and we lost, 3-1, down there. They have a very tall and talented hitter who plays on the right side (junior co-captain Jesse Lawrence), and he presents some matchup problems for us.
â€śHeâ€™s about 6-3, and there arenâ€™t too many strong lefties in the league. That, in itself, is an unusual look. Lawrence is very athletic, and he has the height we havenâ€™t seen too much of this year. Weâ€™re just going to have to be very aware of where he is at all times, and weâ€™re going to have to make it as difficult as possible for them to get him the ball.
â€śIf we can force them into some errant passes, that would make it very challenging for them to put him in a good position to hit,â€ť he added. â€śOn the positive side, weâ€™re playing our best volleyball of the season, so weâ€™re peaking at the right time. I really think weâ€™re playing well as a team, and weâ€™re doing as well as we couldâ€™ve expected this year. Weâ€™re clicking well on offense, and really executing our plays.â€ť
Nachbar insisted his team must post solid numbers in the blocking department. Junior Tyler Harry led the squad in blocks with 37.
â€śThe blocks have to be there; thatâ€™s been our greatest weakness so far,â€ť he noted. â€śWe donâ€™t have to get a ton, but we do need a few just to force them to think about the block.â€ť
He also indicated the tourney is about as strong as any heâ€™s seen in D-II. Pilgrim, who rolled through II-South action with a perfect 16-0 record and earned the No. 1 seed, will host the victor of the Northâ€™s No. 4-seed, Central, and the Southâ€™s No. 5 seed, Scituate; and Barrington, who finished 16-0 in the North to draw that top ranking, will host the winner of Exeter/West Greenwich (South-No. 4) and Classical (North-No. 5).
â€śBarrington and Pilgrim both were undefeated this year (in league), and we lost to both, so this road will not be easily traveled,â€ť he said. â€śWe also defeated both of them last year in the quarters and the finals, so theyâ€™ve got a score to settle.
â€śTo defend the title, we must have some balance on offense,â€ť he continued. â€śWe had two players pretty much carry us offensively this season. Jeff Ramos, a senior, had 260 kills to lead the team, and (junior) Marquis Swinson finished with 178. Jeffâ€™s 260 is the third highest total of any Tolman player over the 15 years weâ€™ve been a varsity program, so weâ€™re going to need other players to contribute. We canâ€™t have to rely so heavily on just two guys.
â€śBarrington and Pilgrim are very strong, and they donâ€™t have too many weaknesses. I thought they clearly were the top two teams in our division. Barrington swept us in both matches, and Pilgrim beat us, 3-1, but I still think itâ€™s be a great tournament. There are several good teams with a legitimate shot to take the championship.â€ť
He deemed North Smithfield as one, as he called senior Trevor Johnson a premier hitter.
â€śHe can be a little erratic at times, but â€“ when he gets a hold of the ball â€“ he really can put it away,â€ť he mentioned. â€śNorth Smithfield is having one of the best seasons in a long time, so it can do some damage.â€ť
Another key for the Tigers will be senior Juan Montes, who registered a school record 332 digs (eclipsing the mark held by former standout Ricky Frechette in 2000.
â€śI know hitting certainly raises the eyebrows of those people watching, but our best player this year has been our passer, Juan,â€ť Nachbar said. â€śThe amount he had was nearly 100 more than the previous record (239), and that was held for 12 years. Juanâ€™s passing will be critical. Heâ€™s had at least 20 (digs) in virtually every match weâ€™ve played this season, and he makes tough plays look easy.
â€śLike all tournaments, the one who stands through it all will be the one who makes the fewest errors. Weâ€™ll see what happens. Itâ€™s definitely going to be interesting.â€ť