PROVIDENCE – Immediately after the final point had been recorded, the on-court Tolman High players mobbed each other nearest their fan base, jumping up and down in a massive group hug.
Their classmates naturally joined in the celebratory scrum, and each Tiger – including those cheering wildly from the bench – then broke off individually for more personal congratulations with parents, girlfriends and the like.
That's what happens when you earn your second state championship in three years, and the emotion of it was obvious with the ear-to-ear smile beamed by senior co-captain Marquise Swinson.
“This one's definitely better; now I'm a senior, a co-captain and a leader of this team,” he laughed after second-seeded Tolman had posted a thrilling 3-1 triumph over top-ranked Central in the R.I. Division II Tournament title match at the Providence Career & Technical Academy field house on Thursday night.
“I've been a lot closer to my teammates than I was when I was a sophomore,” he added, referring to the Tigers' identical 3-1 victory over Barrington in the 2011 championship contest. “I feel like I had more of an impact this time around. Honestly, this is great!”
Swinson couldn't have been more right, as he manufactured a team-high 18 kills in the easier-than-anticipated 24-26, 25-18, 25-13, 25-19 verdict. With it, Tolman sealed its fourth state championship since 2000 and a splendid 20-2 overall record.
Still, he had plenty of help from his teammates, most of them juniors. Outside hitter Eric Silveira mustered nine digs and eight kills, libero and co-captain Jason Aguilera a club-leading 32 digs, setter Kelvin Reyes 38 assists and Denzel DePina three blocks and three spikes.
Prior to the match, the Knights had to be considered the favorites; first because of the high-flying abilities of junior outside hitter Jonathan Rodriguez, who has one of the most powerful arms in the state, regardless of division; and second because Central had lost only once all season before Thursday.
That defeat ironically came to the Tigers, who needed an astonishing flurry in the fifth and final game (they had trailed 13-8).
With that second loss, Central finished its campaign at 19-2, despite Rodriguez' match-high 29 kills, not to mention eight digs, five aces, two blocks and two assists. Senior hitter Naroth (“Lefty”) Chao chipped in nine digs, five kills, three assists and two blocks, while classmate Alex Sivilai managed 10 digs, eight kills, a block and an assist.
Its senior setter, Sangress Xiong, also came up with 30 assists and four digs.
“This is our fourth title in four years, and I have to say I'm really proud of the kids,” noted head coach Neil Nachbar afterward, his players still celebrating with fans 10 minutes after accepting the championship plaque and individual gold medals. “They kept plugging and working hard. We've had an amazing run.
“We only have two seniors, so the core of the team is coming back,” he continued. “We beat a very experienced and talented team in West Warwick in the semifinal, and we had to play well against Central, which has had a tremendous season.”
The Tigers started slowly, almost cautiously, in the initial game, and had several chances to knot the score or go ahead but failed on most attempts. They actually cut the Knights' lead to one on seven separate occasions, but didn't pull even until Swinson drilled home a kill to make it 24-all.
Central immediately regained the advantage on a Tolman unforced error, then captured it when junior right-side hitter Tyler Harry whacked a spike try into the netting.
Before Game No. 2, Nachbar asked his kids to make some adjustments; truth be told, they couldn't have been more successful.
“In that first game, we had a ton of hitting unforced errors; we were hitting so many into the net or wide, I told them we needed to start passing and hitting better,” Nachbar indicated. “I also said, 'Hey, we can still do this, but we have to focus more.' I felt confident we could turn it around.”
Swinson opened the set with a wicked kill, and Reyes served up two straight points to give Tolman a 3-0 lead. Rodriguez' spike made it 3-1, though Aguilera recorded three of four points as it built a 7-1 cushion.
The Knights eventually sliced the deficit to 10-7, but the server Silveira racked up six straight points to help Tolman grab a 17-7 advantage. One of the keys to that surge came from the Tigers' ability to successfully control Rodriguez' punishing hits with digs.
The more Rodriguez was unable to put down a shot, the more his teammates seemed baffled, almost like, “Now wait a minute. They're not supposed to be able to stop our best player.
“That first game, we weren't playing the right angles on (Rodriguez) defensively,” Nachbar explained. “He was hitting at really sharp angle and our defense was playing to deep, so we made that adjustment at the start of the second game. We wanted our libero (Aguilera) to play those angles, move up and just sit on those hits.
“We started winning points off those digs, and that really puzzled them,” he added. “They rely so heavily on him and Lefty Chao, when we started getting stops on them, and it became frustrating for them.
“Lefty is a great all-around player, but he doesn't hit the ball with the same power and speed that Rodriguez does. When Rodriguez does that, it lifts them up emotionally. We needed to those digs to gain momentum.”
Despite that 17-7 lead, Central knifed it to 22-18, due in part to a pair of Rodriguez aces and three kills, though Reyes' block got the Tigers back on track, and sophomore defensive specialist Alben Chingo utilized a Silveira kill and a Knights' unforced miscue to snag the second, 25-18.
As for the third, Rodriguez' spike off a block – and this is incredible – tied the match for the very first time at 1-1, but it would be the last.
Aguilera manufactured five straight points on his service as Tolman took a 9-2 lead, then took advantage of several unforced errors on Swinson's serve; he posted seven consecutive points as the Pawtucketers grabbed a whopping 17-3 cushion.
In the end, a roundhouse Swinson kill gave Tolman the 25-13 win.
The final game saw the two combatants trading points, and Central kept it close at 6-6, good for the fifth tie of the segment. Slowly, however, the Tigers pulled away.
Silveira pounded a spike, the Knights made an unforced error and Reyes and Swinson rattled off back-to-back kills to move to 10-6. A few minutes later, another Silveira kill lifted Tolman to a 19-12 advantage.
Again, the Knights fought back, eventually knifing the deficit to 22-18 on – what else? – a furious Rodriguez kill, but senior middle blocker Hipolito Carvalho managed a block, and the tandem of DePina and Harry did the same to make it 24-18.
Rodriguez' spike off a carom gave Central the service, but senior Susallin Chean knocked it into the net, igniting the Tigers' frenzy.
“To a point, I thought our guys lost their focus,” mentioned Central head coach Donn Chu. “We played well defensively and were very scrappy, but they were very selective as to where they'd serve the ball. They wanted it away from Jonathan, and it kind of worked. Once their guys started digging his hits, it bothered our guys.
“We started playing their game instead of ours, and we just couldn't recover.”
Stated Nachbar: “A big part of our strategy was to make it as hard as possible for Jonathan and Lefty to get a set; we wanted to keep the ball away from them. If they were on the right, I'd tell our server to go short left, and – if they were on the left, I'd tell him to go short right.
“We scored so many points that way,” he continued. “Their setter (Xiong) had to decide whether to make the easy set to one of their lesser hitters, or make the harder set to Jonathan or Lefty. We liked our chances either way, and it worked out for the best.”