PAWTUCKET – Tolman High head coach Neil Nachbar easily could have refused an interview on Monday night, especially given the fact his club had just suffered an unfathomable 3-2 Division II crossover loss to the South's marginal Warwick Vets contingent.
He nevertheless acquiesced, despite the fact his Tigers, at the time, fell to 10-2 overall and 9-2 in II-North and remained on the ceiling of the league standings.
“What disappointed me most (about the Hurricanes' defeat) was, even though we have so many upperclassmen, especially juniors, there have been a number of occasions where we've lost our focus and poise,” he stated. “I think we've showed some immaturity, as there are times we seemingly get ahead of ourselves.
“We just don't finish teams off,” he added. “When we have a team on the ropes, we sometimes have difficulty putting them away. We've also got off to a slow start in almost every match this season, and we've been reactive as opposed to proactive. We've let other teams dictate the tempo instead of establishing it right away.
“I know the talent is there, as we have good players in every position, but we still have to understand the effort it takes to play well in each and every match. Once we do, there's no reason this team couldn't make a run all the way to the finals.
“Like I said, the talent's there, but they have to realize they can't do it on talent alone.”
If it sounds harsh, it isn't. Nachbar began the boys' volleyball program way back in 1997, that on the behest of former Athletic Director Pat Ruggeiro, and after having served as the girls' junior-varsity assistant under Sue Moore for the previous two years.
He knows full well how Tolman, a success story in its own right, came to be, and – to be blunt – he expects a lot from it.
See NACHBAR, page C6
“When they thought about starting a boys' program at both Tolman and Shea, they believed I'd be a good choice to be the head coach,” he explained. “I had a great relationship with Pat, and I had some success with the girls' JV program. She knew that I aspired to someday be a head coach, as I loved volleyball.
“I actually had applied for the girls' varsity position on three separate occasions, but they went in a different direction (almost certainly because the powers-that-be wanted a woman to lead her troops not only on the gym floor but also in the locker room).”
After being hired as the males' chief, Nachbar revealed his plan to achieve greatness.
“That's something I thought long and hard about; each coach has his or her own philosophy, and you need to articulate that clearly to the players,” he noted. “My philosophy was based on the elements you need to be successful, not just in sports but in life: Hard work, discipline, honesty, good sportsmanship.
“I also wanted the athletes to know that they would be held accountable for their actions, and that they had to make the commitment to the team,” he continued. “I wanted them to show up on time every day, to work hard and to represent the school with a positive attitude. They need to show sportsmanship.
“I will say this: That first year, we were very fortunate. I had a great group of kids, and I didn't have to drop the hammer on them. They listened, and I was lucky enough to have a very mature group of students who worked hard every day and supported each other.”
That initial year, the Tigers finished 4-15, but Nachbar indicated the mark didn't reflect that group's work ethic or devotion to improvement.
“We couldn't measure our success against other teams with more experience, players who had been at it for a while,” he said. “We did beat our crosstown rival, Shea, which was in the same boat as we were, being a first-year team. That was one of our initial goals, beating Shea, but the most important goal was to improve in every match as the season unfolded.
“There was one match in particular I remember; we were playing at Westerly, which at the time was a Division II powerhouse. We ended up getting blown out in less than an hour; the bus ride down there was actually longer than the match itself, but what sticks out in my memory was how angry the guys were that not only had we lost, but we had gotten crushed.
“They were genuinely upset,” he added. “That told me that it was a group of guys who were very passionate about winning, despite the fact that, on paper, it was a lopsided matchup. They expected more of themselves.”
In 1998, Tolman's netters manufactured a 9-10 regular-season mark in II-North, and actually earned a playoff berth.
“For us in our second year, that was a tremendous accomplishment in and of itself,” he said. “We were the most improved team in the league, even though we were the last team to make the postseason. We had to face the top team in D-II, which was Westerly, and we took them to five games. Still, we came up short.
“Again, on paper, the most experienced players on our team had played only two years, while Westerly had a group of guys who were predominantly third- or fourth-year varsity starters. To push the top team in the league to five games, it was quite a feat.”
Nachbar is now in his 15th campaign at Tolman's helm; he missed only one since that inaugural season, that in 2007 when he moved to New Hampshire with his wife, and former East Providence High standout Brendan Chace took the position.
(The Tigers also didn't play at all in 2004, as Rhode Island Interscholastic League officials chose to move the schedules from fall to spring. The last fall season came in 2003, then started up again in 2005).
In that time, the veteran mentor has led the Tigers to the playoffs 12 times, not to mention the D-II championship finals five. They captured three titles – in 2000, 2003 and 2011.
“One of the things I'm most proud of is that our first two championships came after losing in the final the year before,” he indicated. “Both times we came back to beat the team we had lost to; in 2000, it was La Salle, and in 2003, we defeated Mount St. Charles. That made those two titles very special, being able to come back and win.
“In 2001, we were 13-3, but we lost to West Warwick in the quarterfinals,” he added. “Still, from 1999 through 2003, that was the best five-year stretch our program has ever had.”
As for dropping that Monday night clash against Warwick Vets, Nachbar revealed he believed his guys were thinking ahead toward Wednesday's showdown with West Warwick, and lost their focus, despite winning two out of the initial three games.
“We weren't mentally prepared, and I'll take partial responsibility for that,” he said. “I didn't make it clear to the players that we shouldn't have been looking forward to West Warwick, though they had been doing that, I think, for the last couple of weeks.
“The thing about West Warwick, some of the players know each other really well from competing in an off-season league against each other, so this has developed into quite a friendly rivalry. We also beat them in the Division II quarterfinals last year, actually in a sweep.
“The kids on both sides want those bragging rights,” he added. “There's no bad blood; they just want to play well against each other.”
Nachbar explained his team certainly will earn a playoff nod the for the seventh straight time, but is still unsure if the players have the psychological makeup to pursue another crown.
“I've been wondering about that all season,” he confessed. “We have plenty of physical talent, but I don't know if we're mentally tough enough to go out and win three playoff matches against the state's elite teams. I watch them sometimes and wonder.
“We only have one tall player, that's (junior middle blocker) Denzel DePina, but – despite the lack of height – we still hold our own pretty well at the net. We're just not as consistent as I'd like us to be. No one has really surprised me, but if it was anybody, it would be Denzel. This is his first year playing volleyball, and I threw him right into the starting lineup because of his height.
“He didn't have the benefit of learning as a JV-level player, and he had to make a quick adjustment to the strategy of boys' varsity volleyball.”
Nachbar is as steady and calm as they come in coaching circles. He doesn't get too high after a win or too low following a defeat. Still, he seemed more than satisfied after Tolman eked out a 3-2 marathon triumph over the Wizards at the James W. Donaldson Gymnasium on Wednesday evening.
It did so after trailing West Warwick, 14-12, in the decisive fifth game, yet scored four straight points to seal the verdict.
With it, the Tigers improved to 11-2 overall and 10-2 in league action, and is currently in first place in II-North. The Wizards fell to 9-3.
“We usually play better at home than on the road,” Nachbar said. “We've had a lot of players this year in and out of the lineup for a multitude of reasons, but we had almost all of them back (Wednesday). I think that's a reason for the inconsistency.
“I know the guys were happy to win, but they also know Monday's loss was a big one for us,” he added. “It was very important for us to redeem ourselves here, and we did. One of the most satisfying things for me is we're undefeated in matches that have gone the distance. We're 4-0 in those matches, and that's a good sign.
“Now we're hoping we can get another big win over East Greenwich,” he added of tonight's 6:30 p.m. contest on the Avengers' home floor. “Like West Warwick, they'll be in the playoffs, so that would be another crucial victory.”