PAWTUCKET – The banner to the left of the scoreboard at the Donaldson Gymnasium signifies the last time that Tolman High has earned a state title in Division II volleyball. It was 2003, a mere three years after it captured its first in the program history.
Longtime head coach Neil Nachbar isn’t predicting his Tigers will be able to add another year to that banner, but it’s certainly possible.
With the playoffs beginning next week, the Tigers concluded the league portion of their season on Tuesday night with their 14th victory of the spring, a 3-0 blanking over a winless and an often-pesky Lincoln squad on Senior Night with scores of 25-10, 25-11 and a slim 25-22 verdict.
Tolman concludes its II-North slate at 14-2 and second-place behind league champion Barrington (15-1). The Eagles are the only team to defeat the Tigers during the league season.
The Tigers, who earned a bye and will host a quarterfinal match on June 2, are among six strong teams that have finished with double-digit victories.
“There are still a lot of good teams out there,” Nachbar said. “I think that this year the state title is up for grabs, meaning that there is no undefeated teams. There are a lot of good teams; a lot of teams that I think are in the mix. It’s just going to come down to who plays well when the pressure is on and when it matters most.”
In their win over the Lions before an often-vocal crowd, it was a talented senior quartet that led the Tigers on their special night. Elijah Wiggins, a 6-foot-3 middle hitter, continued his consistency in front of the net with a team-high 10 kills. Roberto Contreras finished with nine kills, Kevin Coughlin had 32 assists and three aces and Juan Villa contributed four aces.
What has distinguished this season from seasons of the past several years, according to Nachbar, is it isn’t always the same names that pile up the stats.
“It’s a unique season in I don’t think we have any superstars,” he said. “Normally we have a couple of guys that are head-and-shoulders above the rest and are clearly our go-to guys. But we have had a number of guys that have led us in kills throughout our matches. We have had a number of guys that have had great defensive nights. Really everybody has a role to play.”
Tolman breezed through the first two games against Lincoln. With a pair of kills from Wiggins and senior Aliounne Cissoko, the Tigers scored seven unanswered points to start off action in the first game. That advantage increased to 21-4 before some sloppy play enabled the Lions to out-score their host, 6-1, to get within a dozen points (22-10).
The Tigers again had the early advantage in the second game, jumping to a 14-4 lead and maintaining their comfortable cushion the remainder of the way.
Lincoln, which fell to 0-15 with the setback, didn’t make things easy for the Tigers in the third game. Although the Tigers never trailed since taking a 2-1 lead early in the game, they were never able to shake the Lions. Behind by a score of 22-16, Lincoln rattled off the next six points to get within a point (22-21). With the score at 24-22, Wiggins finally finished off the Lions with his final kill of the night.
“I think that we lost our focus,” Nachbar said. “We started getting complacent and thinking the match was over before it actually was. Lincoln went through the season without a win, but they play hard and they play with pride. They weren’t going to lie down just because it was our Senior Night and we have a good record. They have pride and I give them a lot of credit for hanging in there, not just tonight but all season.”
Junior Mark Butler finished with 15 assists and 15 kills for the Lions. Sophomore teammate Andrew Juckett had eight kills, 10 assists and 10 blocks.
Lincoln finishes out its league season on Thursday when it plays host to Barrington at the Lions Den.
“We are young and inexperienced,” LHS coach Chris Jones said. “We don’t have the experience, but as the season’s gone on we did play better. It was like tonight. The first game not so good, the second game a little bit better and the third game they went out and played to the best of their ability. I tell them all the time, it (stinks) to lose. It’s very frustrating, naturally. But when you leave the court like that, you can keep your head up high. There was nothing to be ashamed about in that third game, there.”
Tolman will now have more than a week to prepare for its quarterfinal matchup. The Tigers will be looking to erase some postseason misery. Since it copped its last state title, Tolman has not won a playoff game with all its opening matches taking place away from the cozy confines of Donaldson Gymnasium.
“We have not been successful on the road in the playoffs. That makes it more important that we finally get to host one,” Nachbar said. “Hopefully we’ll have a huge crowd here for the playoffs. I think most importantly the uniqueness of our gym gives us an advantage. Our gym is so much smaller than any other gym, except maybe Shea. I think that give us an advantage in and of itself.”
The Tolman coach predicts his team will play either Pilgrim (10-4 in II-South) or Central (7-8 in II-North) in their opener. The Tigers travel to Pilgrim for a non-leaguer this Thursday, while Central finishes up its season welcoming Shea, also tomorrow.
Nachbar knows it won’t be easy in the playoffs.
“We have to be able to execute with the elite teams in the league,” he said. “We’ve had mixed results. We played well against all the teams that have finished below us, but we lost both of our matches against Barrington. We still have something to prove there if we meet them down the road and it’s also possible we could play one of the teams in the south. We haven’t played any of those teams yet.”