Sports editor emeritus
PROVIDENCE — Tolman High’s emerging volleyball dynasty showed off its teamwork on Wednesday night during a convincing 3-0 victory over East Greenwich in the Division II championship finals.
“We got contributions from everyone,” head coach Neil Nachbar said after the Tigers answered every challenge from the Avengers while prevailing by scores of 25-22, 25-19 and 25-19. “Our team is not carried by one or two players. We spread the ball out on offense and on defense everyone chips in.”
Tolman has now won two straight state titles for the first time in its volleyball program’s 18-year history and three over the past four years. Nachbar, who helped found the program, has now coached five state championship teams at the school.
Tolman came into this matchup knowing it needed to neutralize EG’s tall front line. The Tigers have one player over six feet in height – the 6-foot-4 senior Denzel DePina. East Greenwich had three players who could look DePina in the eyes.
Tolman’s strength rests with a versatile roster of regulars who could exploit holes in the opposing defense. Setter Kelvin Reyes consistently found weak spots in the backside of EG’s defense for his patented placements. Senior outside hitter Eric Silveira finished off rallies on numerous occasions with his big hits. Right side hitter Tyler Harry kept EP honest with his presence around the net. Libero Jason Aguilera, middle hitter Ken Vieira and senior outside hitter Keanu Perry also came up with big plays in the first two games as Tolman established control of the match.
“Kelvin Reyes did a great job of recognizing what EG was doing,” Nachbar noted. “That comes with experience. Our seniors have been playing together for four years and that experience really helped us out tonight.”
Tolman got four kills from Silveira while winning the first game. East Greenwich came out full of energy and kept pace with the Tigers for the first half of the game. Tolman led 11-10 when Reyes set up Silveira for a kill that started a 7-2 run for the defending state champions.
The Avengers stopped the bleeding with three points in a row. That’s when Keanu Perry found an opening in EG’s defense for a momentum-stopping point. And then Silveira killed another bullet into the middle of EG’s defense, an unreturnable blow that made it 19-15. Perry added another point with a difficult serve that the Avengers couldn’t handle.
EG rallied one more time, closing to 23-22 before serving long and out of bounds, giving Tolman a gift point at a crucial time in the match. Silveira then delivered the winning point, hitting a hard serve that EG returned straight up in the air, the ball hitting the ceiling rafters above the court and falling to the floor as the Avengers looked on in dismay.
Having won the opener, Tolman turned it up a notch in the middle game, jumping out to an early 8-2 lead as DePina made three blocks at the net and Silveira served an ace. EG pulled itself together and made a run, closing to 13-9 before Silveira drilled a winning shot on the backside of the Avengers’ defense.
DePina, a defensive force all night, followed with another block at the net for a 15-9 lead.
The Tigers still led 22-17 when EG once again served into the net. The Tigers went up 24-19 and then watched as East Greenwich hit long to end the second game, 25-19.
When Tolman defeated EG 3-1 during the regular season, the Avengers’ only victory came in the third game. Nachbar and his players knew there could be no letdown this time, not with momentum such a fickle force in any volleyball match. And even though EG jumped out to a quick 3-1 lead, the Tigers were having none of it. DePina delivered two of his game-high six kills and then Silveira served an ace for a 4-3 lead. Tyler Harry added a kill to make it 5-3.
The third game went back and forth. EG rallied to tie at 8 before Tolman again took charge, pulling ahead 13-10 behind big plays from DePina, Silveira, Harry and Reyes. The game would be tied again at 17 before Reyes found a weak spot in EG’s defense and tapped a shot to the opening for an 18-17 advantage.
One of the shorter Tolman players, Ken Vieira, then made a kill at the net for a 19-17 lead, smiling and accepting congratulations from his teammates as the door to another state title began to open. EG pulled back to 20-19 before serving long again. And then Vieira came up with his second kill for a 22-19 lead.
Kelvin Reyes took over and served out the match. Silveira finished off a rally to make it 24-19 and then East Greenwich couldn’t get Reyes’ final serve back over the net. That was game, set and match for the Tigers, who fell into one another’s arms on the court.
“We’re really just one big family,” DePina said with a smile. “We’ve been playing together so long and we all wanted to go out with another state title and an undefeated season. What an awesome feeling this is.”
Silveira, a cousin of DePina’s, stood on the court, speaking quietly and thoughtfully about this team and its accomplishments.
“It’s just amazing,” he said, “to win two state titles in a row and three of four. We had a great game plan for East Greenwich. We wanted to keep the ball away from their two best players (John Condon and Sam McLimans) and that worked pretty well for us. Then we had so many players come through for us tonight. Denzel was really big for us. Kelvin did a great job all over the court. Everyone played great.”
The Tigers’ balance showed in every game. Silveira led with four kills in the first game, Reyes led with three in the middle contest and DePina had six of his 11 total kills in the third game. Reyes finished with 16 assists, many of them setups for kills by his front line hitters.
It was DePina who stepped to the forefront in the final game.
“Denzel was using finesse in the first two games, instead of hitting the ball with power,” Nachbar said. “In the third game, he came alive and began hitting the ball hard into their defense. That helped us finish them off.”
Tolman finished 21-0 for its first undefeated season ever. The Tigers won their first state title ever in 2000 with a team led by Peter Firth and they won again in 2003 as Kevin Firth led the way. But the program has reached new heights over the past four seasons, with a collection of seniors who will be hard to replace.
“This was a special group of players,” Nachbar admitted.