FOSTER — It was the type of game that allowed Dave Caito and his coaching staff to stretch beyond the normal extremities and learn a little bit more about the 2011 Tolman Tigers.
The Tigers did not put their best forward on Saturday, not by a long shot. For a team that has become accustomed to surging past league opponents with quick strikes on offense and a defense that is relentless in its pursuit of the opposing ball carrier, Saturday’s Division II-B contest against Ponaganset was a game that presented a new host of challenges – the kind that would shed some light on whether Tolman was, indeed, staying true to the (Super Bowl) course.
To borrow from the boxing community, the Tigers were bruised but not broken. Bloodied but not bowed. Tolman took Ponaganset’s best shot, and after a first half in which zero points were registered, the Tigers roared back with 21 unanswered points in an eventual 21-14 triumph that didn’t see Caito breathe a sigh a relief until quarterback Luis Rodrogues took a couple of kneel downs inside a minute remaining.
Prior to the end-of-game genuflections, the Tigers had a serious fight on their hands. The Chieftains, who last week were awarded an extra league win after it was revealed Mount Hope had used an ineligible player in a blowout win last month, owned the upper hand in the opening half, riding the momentum of a blocked punt attempt that was recovered in the end zone for a touchdown coupled with a stifling defense that held the normally potent Tiger offense to just four first downs.
After withstanding a touchdown barrage by Tolman that spanned nearly 19 minutes in the second half, Ponaganset regrouped to move to within seven points with 3:11 left. The onus was now on the Chieftain defense to force the Tigers into a three-and-out, but that turned out to be wishful thinking.
Tolman proceeded to salt away the final 3:03 behind the ability of its running game to pick up two keep-those-chains-moving first downs, which in turn left Ponaganset head coach Brian Gendreau little choice but to burn his remaining two timeouts. The Tigers’ Mory Keita applied the finishing touch after picking up 11 yards on third-and-eight from the team’s own 36-yard line, a scamper that saw the junior take his time in letting the play develop before exploding through a seam created on the left side of the offensive line.
With that the Tigers were able to run out the final two minutes. Suddenly the worrisome expression that had filled Caito’s face for much of the afternoon was replaced with a wry smile. The Tolman head coach knew his team had just gutted and grinded out a game in which they spent a large portion of it playing from behind, doing so on the road no less.
“It took us a whole half to wake up and that can’t happen against good teams,” Caito said afterwards. “Thank God they came back in the second half.”
On this day, talent was replaced with determination. With a loss, the Tigers would have been thrust into a four-way tie for first place with Ponaganset, St. Raphael and West Warwick. To stay with the semantics theme, Ponaganset would have technically jumped over Tolman in the II-B standings given the outcome of the head-to-head matchup.
Instead the Tigers remain the division’s lone unbeaten thanks to digging deep on a day that had to serve as a real eye opener.
“It was gut-check time. Do you want to be 5-0, or do you want to share the lead?” Caito said as he walked off the field. “They stepped up.”
An entirely different Tolman team took the field in the second half, one far removed from the first-half unit that watched helplessly as Ponaganset’s Scott Peterson ran one sideline route after another. Defensively Peterson looked like the second coming of Lawrence Taylor, the junior bursting through Tolman’s offensive line untouched for two second-quarter sacks and another play that resulted in a nine-yard loss.
A 36-yard gallop by Keita came on Tolman’s first snap of the third quarter, a play that could be traced back to some words of wisdom the running back was bestowed with at halftime.
“(Mt. Hope head coach) Ron Silva came down and challenged Mory. He said ‘Play like you did against us,” said Caito, referencing the 41-14 outcome the Tigers defeated the Huskies by earlier this month. “It woke up the beast.”
Keita kept punishing Ponaganset on Tolman’s next series, breaking off runs of 13 and 16 yards before bowling in from five yards out, a score that put the visitors up for good, 14-7, with 3:31 left in the opening quarter. No longer did the Tigers look like same unit that spent the first half in a deep sleep. They were cunning and crafty on both sides of the ball, a winning formula that has been omnipresent in each of their previous four league wins coming in.
Win No. 5, however, was much different than the previous ones. Ponaganset racked up its second blocked kick on a Tolman attempt early in the fourth quarter. This time the miscue did not cost the Tigers. A strip sack of Ponaganset quarterback Chris Larrabee resulted in a fumble recovery by Joe Campanelli, and the turnover turned into points when Tolman quarterback Luis Rodrigues hit wideout Justin Otis in stride for a 39-yard aerial connection. The score put Tolman up 21-7 with 7:38 left.
Saturday’s come-from-behind performance may have exposed some things the Tigers need to clean up moving forward, but it stretches beyond that. Faced with a major test on a day in which this normally well-oiled machine didn’t function at its optimum, Tolman walked out of the “The Reservation” with its 12th consecutive league win – the hardest one in this impressive stretch.
“They showed a lot of heart,” agreed Caito.
In a nice display, both the Tigers and Chieftains participated in the American Cancer Society’s “A Crucial Catch” campaign, which is designed to raise funds/promote awareness regarding breast cancer. The teams got into the spirit by wearing pink socks with the Tolman players sporting a pink ribbon decal on the back of their helmets.
Also, Caito took up a collection, the end result a $50 contribution that the coach presented the Ponaganset ticket collectors upon Tolman’s arrival.