PAWTUCKET — After practice on Monday, and before his contest against Shea High late Tuesday afternoon, Tolman High head coach Jack Couto explained to his players why they should be more than pumped up about facing their archrival, especially after the Tigers' move to Division I this past off-season.
“I told them I've been here five years now, and we've never beaten them,” Couto stated. “I know we've had them in Injury Fund games, non-leaguers, even scrimmages, and they've always dominated. They were much better than we were, and that was it. Facts are facts.
“But I did say this one would count more than ever because now we're both in Division I,” he added. “I asked them, way back when, to circle this date on their calendars – this would be a big one.”
Most coaches will tell you that kids, especially nowadays, would scoff at such “rivalry” talk, or dismiss it, not caring what happened all those years before. But not the Tigers, and not on this day.
Trailing 1-0 for most of the match, Tolman took advantage of two tallies, both midway through the half and starting with corner kicks, and shocked the Raiders, 2-1, at the McKinnon-Alves Complex.
In the end, it was sophomore defender Ahmad El-Asmar who ripped a line drive from his right corner at the far left post, and classmate Ronaldinho Tavares somehow found the back of the netting with 15 minutes left in regulation to register the upset.
The win raised the Tigers' Division I and overall marks to 2-2-1, while Shea suffered its first defeat of the season and fell to 2-1-2.
“Akkkhmad (that's what his teammates affectionately call him) crossed it, and I saw it coming toward me,” grinned Tavares afterward. “It deflected off, I think, our co-captain, Danny Monteiro, and the ball came to the ground. It kind of bounced toward me, and I just kicked it in.
“I couldn't believe it; I just screamed 'GOOOALLLL!' and went wild,” he added. “This feels great. It's the first time, Coach told us, in at least five years we've beaten them, and it's so satisfying. It's even better because this is D-I, and we showed we belong.”
The victory wouldn't have been possible without the stellar defensive play of senior sweeper Carlos Sanabria, who constantly delivered sliding tackles or head balls out of the Tolman's zone. In fact, he even took most of the throw-ins (due to its uncanny length) and corner kicks (because of its sheer power).
Then again, he did have help, and it came in the forms of senior Ruben Cano, junior midfielder Sebastian Estrada and El-Asmar. Then again, junior goalie Adam Ghazal finished with 10 saves, perhaps half flat on his belly.
“I thought we dominated most of the game,” Couto indicated. “I knew, in the second half, we'd have the wind and that would be a huge advantage to us. I also knew we had Carlos, who's a great athlete, in the back and has a great boot. I knew he'd be able to reach the goal box with his kicks.
“This is great to finally beat Shea; I think the kids are more excited about it than I am,” he continued. “They'll enjoy it for now, but we'll go back to practice (today) and start getting ready to take on Portsmouth (at 7 p.m., Friday at PHS).”
Couto noted he had a particular game plan in mind before the tilt's start.
“I know Shea is tough physically and very talented,” he said. “Their top two scorers, I think, are (senior Issifou Kankarafou) and (junior Lenik Spencer). They're probably All-State material, so we knew if we could contain them, maybe we could do something special.”
It certainly didn't happen in the first 10 minutes or so. Just 9:37 into the tilt, Spencer drilled a left-footer from perhaps 18 yards out, and it caromed off the right post. When it bounced back out, Kankarafou pounced on it and calmly poked the unassisted tally into the open net.
About 14 minutes later, the Tigers recorded their second shot on net; Sanabria whacked a right-side corner kick toward the goalie box, and sophomore striker Corey Chantre's header went just wide of the right post.
Approximately 12 minutes after that, Shea junior Edson Ferrer rifled a 30-yard direct kick toward the top of the net, but Ghazal leaped and knocked the attempt away.
And, with nine minutes left before the break, Monteiro – stationed outside the right portion of the goalie box – unleashed a liner that hit the right post, and a diving senior keeper Sebastian DeFaria seemingly got a finger on it to deflect it.
The Raiders accounted for the first two shots on goal early in the final session, but both were easy Ghazal stops, though Ferrer had another opportunity at the 10-minute mark. He crushed a hard curveball at the goalie, but Ghzal came out and smothered it.
In the 14th minute of the half, El-Asmar tried to head home a near point-blank pass, but failed. He also failed on the next corner kick chance, this from the left side.
When awarded another try from the right, he roped a cross to junior Mario Andrade, who promptly headed the ball inside the left post to knot the game at 1-1. That came in the 55th minute.
The two Tigers tried to do it again on a left-side corner kick in the 64th minute, but DeFaria (six saves) jumped to poke the ball away from harm. Several seconds later, El-Asmar tried it again from the right, and that's when Tavares planted it past the netminder.
The Raiders kept digging to knock the ball past the mid-line, but intense defensive/midfield pressure – for the most part – kept it in enemy territory. Cano certainly did his part, sending head balls and air kicks away from Shea's streaking forwards.
With 20 seconds remaining, however, Shea freshman forward Sergio Lopes took the ball down the right side and sent a soft liner to senior Richmond Baffour in front. He dove to head in the game-tying tally, but Ghazal sprawled for his final save.
“This loss is just kids being kids,” offered Raiders' mentor Pierre Ridore. “On that) winning shot, there was a scrum in front of the net, and a couple of our defenders thought it hit a Tolman player's hand. They stopped playing and waited for the (officials') call, but Tolman kept playing, and that's why they scored.
“You have to give Tolman all the credit,” he added. “They played hard, they played with energy and passion. They hustled, and they definitely were the better team on this day … It doesn't matter; whenever we play Tolman, they come to play and to be physical. They absolutely deserved to win.”