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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 wasnât 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 Tolmanâs 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 Northâs third seed, upended Toll Gate, 3-0, on Tuesday night and will battle Cranston West, with the Southâs No. 2 ranking, in another quarterfinal slated for 6 p.m., Friday).
âItâs going to be a challenge for us,â offered Nachbar, whose club went 14-2 in the North (16-3 overall). âThatâs 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.
âHeâs about 6-3, and there arenât too many strong lefties in the league. That, in itself, is an unusual look. Lawrence is very athletic, and he has the height we havenât seen too much of this year. Weâre just going to have to be very aware of where he is at all times, and weâre going to have to make it as difficult as possible for them to get him the ball.
âIf 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 he added. âOn the positive side, weâre playing our best volleyball of the season, so weâre peaking at the right time. I really think weâre playing well as a team, and weâre doing as well as we couldâve expected this year. Weâre clicking well on offense, and really executing our plays.â
Nachbar insisted his team must post solid numbers in the blocking department. Junior Tyler Harry led the squad in blocks with 37.
âThe blocks have to be there; thatâs been our greatest weakness so far,â he noted. âWe donât have to get a ton, but we do need a few just to force them to think about the block.â
He also indicated the tourney is about as strong as any heâs 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 Northâs No. 4-seed, Central, and the Southâs 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).
âBarrington and Pilgrim both were undefeated this year (in league), and we lost to both, so this road will not be easily traveled,â he said. âWe also defeated both of them last year in the quarters and the finals, so theyâve got a score to settle.
âTo defend the title, we must have some balance on offense,â he continued. âWe 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. Jeffâs 260 is the third highest total of any Tolman player over the 15 years weâve been a varsity program, so weâre going to need other players to contribute. We canât have to rely so heavily on just two guys.
âBarrington and Pilgrim are very strong, and they donât 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 itâs be a great tournament. There are several good teams with a legitimate shot to take the championship.â
He deemed North Smithfield as one, as he called senior Trevor Johnson a premier hitter.
âHe 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 he mentioned. âNorth Smithfield is having one of the best seasons in a long time, so it can do some damage.â
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.
âI know hitting certainly raises the eyebrows of those people watching, but our best player this year has been our passer, Juan,â Nachbar said. âThe amount he had was nearly 100 more than the previous record (239), and that was held for 12 years. Juanâs passing will be critical. Heâs had at least 20 (digs) in virtually every match weâve played this season, and he makes tough plays look easy.
âLike all tournaments, the one who stands through it all will be the one who makes the fewest errors. Weâll see what happens. Itâs definitely going to be interesting.â